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


24 Responses to “The educating & healing continue 150 years after The U.S.-Dakota War”

  1. cecilia Says:

    Interesting that you write this now, my son and i were talking just the other day about how, as we get older, we discover that what we learnt in school often had political overtones, a rewriting of history to suit the victor and often downright ignorance.. Not to mention the advances in science that have often superseded what we learnt.. excellent post..morning audrey! c

  2. Cosmos Says:

    I don’t know if we studied it in school, my Minnesota history was taught by a teacher that couldn’t control the classroom. There was much chaos and very little learning. I certainly was aware of the conflict, I remember a painting or model or something visual of the hangings. And I remember seeing the monument in Mankato (now gone) where the hangings took place.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I watched a program about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 on public television the other night and saw a sketch of the hanging, so perhaps that is what you remember. I don’t know what monument you are referencing in Mankato, but Reconciliation Park is the current monument site honoring the Dakota.

      Sorry to hear you had a teacher who could not control students and thus little learning took place. Problems like this in the educational system really do need to be remedied. I always wonder where principals are in a situation like this. Not being a teacher, I wonder: Do principals ever spend time in classrooms observing? Do they talk to students and hear their concerns about education? And, finally, what is done to improve the classroom environment in a case like you note?

  3. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Go stand in the Mankato library and you are standing on the site of the hangings. That has seemed fitting to me, but they make no mention there that I have seen. The park is crammed in between a busy four lane street and a railroad track to get it on the site. Since it was all started over a stupid stupid grass comment, maybe it is fitting there is little room for grass there.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I have been inside the Blue Earth County Library and I was not aware this was the actual site of the execution. I would have assumed it was across that busy roadway in Reconciliation Park. And, yes, it is difficult to cross that busy street to the small park.

      However, a Winter Warrior marker and sculpture stand outside the library. I can’t recall specifically whether that references the hanging and/or war.

      And, yes, I agree that “stupid” aptly fits the comment by Andrew Myrick to “Let them (the Dakota) eat grass.”

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        To hang 38 people at once takes a bit of space. As I understand it, the hangings were more in the library space than in the park. But either way the library covers some of the ground.
        I meant the library should have a prominent collection of materials. I do not know exactly what that chief is about. There is also a WWII sculpture there.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        You are right. Reconciliation Park most assuredly is not large enough. A prominent collection of materials at the library would be an excellent idea.

        Also, I just looked back at some photos I took several years ago of the library sculptures. The Winter Warrior sculpture was created by Tomas Meagher Miller and dedicated on December 26, 1987, termed on a plaque as the “Year of Reconciliation.” The plaque is titled “Dakota (Sioux) Memorial 1862.”

        The other sculpture you reference is for the Korean War and features an American soldier.

  4. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    People who study such things say each of us does not need to go very far back in our ancestry to find both conqueror and conquered. For example, the Lakota (or Dakota, or Sioux, as the band up by Redwood Falls still prefers) people belonged up in the woods, driven out by the Chippewa. The Lakota drove older plains tribes from this area. Of course, we all know the nasty history of Europe and Asia. My only point being, that human beings are always busy being nasty to each other.

    • Clyde of Mankato Says:

      Every time I bike ride by that buffalo (love that sculpture, talked to the man doing it a couple of times; just wish it were in a prettier location) I think of what I posted above, how humans on the whole are much more human than the buffalo. I have a post on my blog called “This Land Is Their Land” about a book I read about the Holocaust, about how very complicated and much more terrible the story is than our history books told us.

      • Clyde of Mankato Says:

        How humans are NOT much more human than the buffalo.

        (Bad FM day. I am going to shut down my keyboard.)

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Will need to take a look at your post later. Thank you for directing us there.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Again, so true. Your insights area always so much appreciated, Clyde.

  5. treadlemusic Says:

    Do not recall any specific Minnesota history being taught on the above subject. Just the usual political stuff/capitol, etc. Wonderful post, though. I so appreciate all the info that is put forth in your writings. Hugs, D

  6. Stacey Says:

    I learned nothing about this in school! Only learned about it through my youngest kids, now in school!

  7. The Minnesota History Museum had an exhibit on this, this fall. Colin and I spent quite a bit of time reading all the stuff and such. It was well done. Since I didn’t grow up in MN, I didn’t know much about it. Great post.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m aware of that exhibit and had wanted to see it. But then my mom went and said there was so much reading and she didn’t really learn anything she didn’t already know. I expect I might experience the same reaction. As much as I enjoy reading, I struggle with too many words in museum exhibits. I want to see items, to interact, which I suppose is difficult to do with an exhibit like this.

      • Yes, it was a lot of reading and not many THINGS to see. One thing I found very interesting there was that they said that previously the had displayed (as in, years ago in a different place) an actual rope from the hanging that had been stollen – but they were asked to remove it from display to which I totally concurred. Far too gruesome…

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        I had heard mention of the rope and do agree that would not have been wise to display.

  8. Gunny Says:

    My formative years were in the USA. I went to school in Texas, Maine, Florida, California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Minnesota and a few other places. Seven schools in one school year on one 12-month period! As far as state history, I got bits of Texas, and a heavy course of Oklahoma’s and this included some of Arkansas. In Minnesota, as a young boy, I heard tales by a gent older than my grandparents. Like Audrey, I grew up on Roy Rogers, and other actors portraying the Wild Wild West. While my grandmother and mother both feared the Indians. Somehow I knew we children were being fed some kind of gussied up version of history in some sort of fable, half true, half false. Snowshoe Thompson, Jeremiah Johnson, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, once I found them to be real people, I knew that they had true stories beyond what was being put together for TV or the movies. I knew of the Sioux uprising but knew little of it. What I learned early in life was that for every story, there are at least two sides or two views. It is the victor of a conflict that gets to write the “history” of the event. I have studied Shay’s Rebellion, the US Ex Ex and other events seldom ever even mentioned in history classes. In our history we have many similar incidents such as the Sioux Uprising (an event which directly affected my own Minnesota Ancestors) as well as events such as the San Antonio’s Council House Massacre which all provide food for thought about what we can learn so that we do not make the same mistakes again. I would offer that if a rope is going to bother one, then the real history of a brutal event is going to bother some. Today, Blacks are taking offense to a ship to be named Andrew Jackson, monuments in honor of Jefferson Davis, Native Americans taking offense to Snowshoe Thompson and kit Carson. I would submit that without Jefferson Davis, Texas Blacks and the rest of Texans would be speaking Spanish, without Kit Carson, the bloodbath experienced by Native Americans would have been worse. These were men of their times in situations that, for the most part, out of their control. The reason the “White” man had such a run in with the “Red” Man is their respective views of land ownership codified either by law and or custom. The Red man owned land in common with others, while the White man would buy a parcel with set limits as his own separate of that of others. As emigrants came, the US Government (unfairly) traded with the Indians for land which they (Indians) could never replace. The new emigrant, having bought, bartered or granted land from the government would then suffer in wonder why they would be attacked by the Indians. The Indians, on the other hand, made great sport in stealing that which belonged to their rivals in survival of the strong in whatever environment or area they lived in. Rather than condemn one side or the other, we should work to understand the position of both sides, try to understand the conflict in their eyes with a view to try and prevent similar future events. One MUST study both sides to make a fair and just opinion. Neither side was wrong in their own view. The United States of America is one of the few countries where people have the luxury and resources to do exactly that!

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