Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The educating & healing continue 150 years after The U.S.-Dakota War December 28, 2012

STUDYING MINNESOTA HISTORY decades ago, I learned about “The Sioux Uprising of 1862” and even wrote a term paper on the topic bearing that title.

This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle which ended the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle which ended the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

I thought nothing negative of that word, Sioux, which translates to “snake.” The Ojibway, once enemies of the Dakota, gave the tribe that name. I did not know; it was the word I was taught.

That I even studied “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” the proper terminology for the six-week war fought primarily in my native southwestern Minnesota 150 years ago, seems remarkable. So many in Minnesota never knew of this conflict in our state’s history.

I don’t pretend to know every detail of the war between the Dakota and the white settlers and soldiers. But I do remember that I grew up with a fear of “Indians,” reinforced by the television westerns especially popular during my formative years and by the history lessons delivered about The Sioux Uprising of 1862, as it was then called.

Those classroom lessons were decidedly one-sided: The whites were the good guys, the Indians the bad guys. That line of thinking was wrong, oh, so wrong. I realize that now, having reached that conclusion decades ago.

The maltreatment of the Dakota by greedy traders, broken treaty promises, starvation, efforts to convert and transform the Dakota people into Christian farmers, expulsion from their homeland and more contributed to the war.

Yet, even the Dakota disagreed about the need to wage this battle. Some helped settlers escape to safety while others plundered and killed. My own maternal forefathers fled the New Ulm area to St. Peter, making this war a part of my personal family history.

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township.

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township.

While I carry no ill will toward the Dakota, I will tell you, unequivocally, that feelings still run deep in southwestern Minnesota. I am also honest enough to admit that perhaps I would feel differently if my family members had been massacred or if I was of Dakota, instead of German, heritage.

Although time can heal, it doesn’t always. Misconceptions and misguided expectations, even after 150 years, exist on multiple sides of the issue. I won’t delve into that here, but I do think the healing is still ongoing, forgiveness (on both sides) still not attained.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. On Wednesday, a new Dakota 38 Memorial was dedicated listing the names of the 38 men who died here. This file photo was taken of an existing plaque in the park.

In a ceremony in Mankato on Wednesday marking the 150th anniversary of the hanging of 38 Dakota, Mayor Eric Anderson proclaimed this the year of “forgiveness and understanding.”

The Dakota also called upon all to “forgive everyone everything.” Those words will be engraved into Kasota stone benches to be installed next summer at the site of the new Dakota 38 Memorial dedicated in Reconciliation Park on Wednesday.

Strides toward understanding and forgiveness, and education, can perhaps finally heal the still festering wounds of this long ago war.

TO VIEW PHOTOS from the event in Mankato on Wednesday, click to link here to Minnesota Public Radio.

TELL ME, ESPECIALLY if you grew up in Minnesota, did you study The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862? Also, are Minnesota students today being taught about this war?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling