Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Thoughts from southern Minnesota on Indigenous Peoples’ Day October 10, 2022

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society. Broken promises led to the 1862 war. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo)

TODAY, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ DAY, I think of the US-Dakota War of 1862. When as a high school student I studied that war, I felt an immediate connection to the event which occurred in my home county and neighboring counties in southwestern Minnesota. My interest sparked because this happened in my backyard. Today I have a much better understanding of the 1862 conflict among the native Dakota peoples, the settlers and the government. My learned “white” perspective has shifted, my viewpoint has broadened. That has come through listening, reading, educating myself.

A public art installation at Northfield’s 2022 Earth Day celebration. Northfield has a Land Acknowledgement Agreement. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2022)

I see the same shift in attitudes throughout our nation, state and communities today. Land acknowledgment agreements are being written. There’s an awareness that indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants of the land, including in my home county of Redwood and my home of the past 40 years, Rice County.

I recently learned that the Wahpekute, part of the Dakota Nation, placed their dead on scaffolding on land just up the hill from my Faribault home. Land that is now a city park. After a year, the bones of the deceased were moved a few blocks away to a permanent burial grounds. That cemetery is not marked as such. Up until a presentation by Susan Garwood, director of the Rice County Historical Society, I was unaware that Peace Park was a sacred place, not simply a triangle of land with a WW II memorial along busy streets. Efforts are underway in Faribault to landmark such places of importance, to honor the Dakota.

A must-read novel based on fact.

It starts at a grassroots level, this unraveling of the truth, this recognition, this acknowledgment. I’ve toured museum exhibits, read books, attended presentations and more to assure that I am informed. I highly-recommend reading the award-winning book, The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson. (Click here to read my review.)

I value that awareness of Indigenous Peoples’ food, culture, history and more is growing. In Minneapolis, diners can enjoy North American traditional indigenous food at award-winning Owamni by The Sioux Chef, for example.

Back in my home county, the Lower Sioux Indian Community is working hard to assure its culture remains strong through ongoing traditional events and teaching of the Dakota language.

A bison herd has been reintroduced to the prairie at Minneopa State Park near Mankato. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

I still have much to learn about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota. That I admit. Perhaps much of it is really unlearning. Today I pause to honor those who called this place, this southern Minnesota, home first, back when prairie grasses stretched high, bison roamed and the land was respected.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


14 Responses to “Thoughts from southern Minnesota on Indigenous Peoples’ Day”

  1. Valerie Says:

    I enjoyed reading The Seed Keeper’s, per your recommendation. Thank you.

    And I agree, I need to unlearn much, and relearn more accurate information about the Indigenous Peoples of Minnesota.

  2. Sheila Ehrich Says:

    Thank you for your article acknowledging Indigenous Peoples Day. Many years ago, I used to teach American History and, sad to say, I passed on many of the inaccuracies you mention. However, the last few years of my teaching career, I had the opportunity to teach Minnesota History using the curriculum developed by the Department of Education and the Minnesota Historical Society. I am pleased to report that it is much improved in many, many aspects.
    I, too, have had an opportunity to read and do some research. I belong to a History Book Group that meets at the Robert Trail Library in Rosemount the second Tuesday of every month. The history we read is very wide-ranging, but has focused on Minnesota and its indigenous peoples a number of times. You are welcome to join us if you should ever be up here some Tuesday evening. We start at 6:30.
    And thank you for the book recommendation. It looks interesting.

    • Sheila, it’s encouraging to hear about the curriculum being used now. And it’s encouraging to hear about your History Book Group’s focus on indigenous peoples. We can all learn and keep learning. It’s a process.

  3. beth Says:

    so much to learn and so many wounds to heal. thank you for this.

  4. The sad thing is that so much natural knowledge was lost when “white” culture forced the indigenous tribes from using the landscape, speaking their native languages, and worshiping in their own ways.
    Even now in some parts of the US it is still not allowed or acknowledged if your family has indigenous roots if the family member was assimilated into “white society”. Unfortunate, in this day and age!

  5. Gunny Says:

    I have read two very good books on the 1862 “Uprising”. Unfortunately, It would take a book about the Civil War to unearth the reason for this traumatic page of history to be enacted and recorded. The act was by then President Lincoln who directed that “greenbacks” – just issued – were good for all debts both public and private, negating the need to use specie (gold and silver), and further compounded by Congress. While the Native Americans (to be paid in gold and silver as well as presents, of food, blankets etc, certainly had justifiable issues with the payment due to the Treaty. These issues were with the Federal Government and not the settlers they attacked. The Indian Agent for this group was indicative of the worst of men of the day. Even in the late 1950s to 1960s, my Minnesota Grandmother was fearful of Native Americans. Growing up in one of the Southern States, I learned appreciation of the Native cultures, not that I would want to live like one but they did have some value to this “Gringo” and Now, I find I do have Native Americans in my family tree. Also some Confederates, and none owned slaves.

    • Gunny, I always appreciate getting your insights and take on history. I agree that the core issue was not with the settlers but rather with the government’s failure to deliver on promises. And, yes, the agent who told the Native Americans to “go eat grass” represents a lack of care and understanding and just plain meanness.

  6. I agree with your comment that we have a lot of unlearning to do. Our history lessons were woefully biases and inaccurate.

    • Yes, so much to learn. I’m currently reading Margaret Renkl’s “Graceland, at Last,” a powerful collection of essays on current topics (like social justice), historic issues and more. It’s a powerful book, recommended by a friend.

  7. Curtis Dahlin Says:

    History is of course about people, so when we look at the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, we are looking at people. In order to increase of our understanding of the subject, I would like to offer the following facts regarding numbers of people and their involvement in the events of 1862:
    — The Dakota killed at least 650 whites, including 40 adult women and 100 children age ten or under.
    –Up to 100 Dakota warriors were killed, but no Dakota women or children were killed during the war. Shortly after the end of the war, a Dakota baby was killed by a mob at Henderson.
    — On the first day, August 18, 1862, the Dakota killed about 265 whites while in turn, the whites killed up to 5 Dakota. This huge difference is because the attacking Dakota were armed while the settlers for the most part were not.
    — Not all Dakota were in favor of going to war against the settlers. A small minority of Dakota remained friendly to the settlers, some of them helping settlers to escape to safety. But those Dakota who wanted war outnumbered them, so war it was.
    — About 150 white women and children were taken captive, but only one man. The Dakota did not take white men captive, but instead killed them.
    — About 170 mixed-bloods were taken captive by the Dakota as they did not trust them. Unlike with the white captives, the mixed-blood men were also taken captive along with their families and not killed.
    — About 400 Dakota were placed on trial by General Henry Sibley’s Military Commission, and just over 300 were convicted of capital offenses and sentenced to hang. President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the trial records and cut the number to be executed down to 38, who were hanged at Mankato on December 26, 1862. Lincoln’s action resulted in sparing the lives of about 265 Dakota. While Sibley’s trials were brief, they were probably the best that could be done at that time.
    — Some over 200 Dakota men were imprisoned at Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa. The last of them were freed in 1866.
    — In November of 1862, about 1,650 Dakota dependents, mainly women and children, were taken to a camp at Fort Snelling. Here they were protected from revenge-minded whites (there were a lot of them) and fed the same rations eaten by soldiers. So they were able to survive.
    — In the spring of 1863, about 1,300 Dakota were taken from the camp at Fort Snelling and shipped out to the Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory. Here, many died of illness or starvation. The Dakota were banished from Minnesota because the the two peoples hated one other so much that they had to be separated by a great enough distance so they could not get at one another.
    — After the war, between 1863 and 1866, 250 Dakota men acted as scouts for the military, operating mostly in eastern Dakota Territory. They worked to prevent hostile Dakota from returning to Minnesota to kill more settlers. While they did their best, hostiles still returned to Minnesota in 1863, 1864 and 1865, killing more settlers.

    The war was the most significant and tragic event in Minnesota’s history. It is a very complex story.

    • Curtis, thank you for taking the time to comment with this insightful information. You’re right, the US-Dakota War of 1862 was tragic, significant and complex. I recognize your research and authorship of books on the subject. I fully agree that remembering history is about people is important. Sometimes we forget that among all the numbers, places, perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.