IF EVER A WAR suffered an identity crisis, it would be the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. I’m not stating that lightly or in any manner that would indicate disrespect to anyone.
But, in all honesty, I sometimes don’t know how to label the battle between the Dakota people and the white people. I’ve struggled for years with that issue, most recently while writing an essay “Strong Words on Strong Stone at Birch Coulee,” published in Hidden History of the Minnesota River Valley by Elizabeth Johanneck.
Back in the 1970s, when I wrote a high school term paper on this conflict, I tagged my research as “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” the accepted designation then. Prior to that, the word “massacre,” which seems entirely too biased and accusatory, denoted this event in Minnesota history. The conflict has also been termed as an “outbreak,” to me a tag more fitting of a disease.
The name evolved next to “The Dakota War of 1862” (still used by many) and then to the prevailing current-day usage, “U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.”
Apparently, though, that label isn’t set in stone. Recently, while touring the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault, Director Susan Garwood and I discussed the title while standing next to a recently-restored Civil War battle flag carried by Co. C Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
Today the word “rebellion” has even been tossed about in defining the conflict, Garwood says.
Right or wrong, I find it interesting that, 148 years after this “war” or “conflict” (or whatever word you choose to define it), the discussion continues. To me, the identity seems to switch with new insights, changing attitudes and/or political correctness.
Garwood also shared that more and more, historians are leaning toward viewing this conflict between the Dakota and the white people as part of the Civil War. After all, Minnesota soldiers, like the Sixth Regiment, fought against the Confederacy and defended the settlers against the Dakota. I suppose in many ways this makes sense since the wars between the North and the South and between the Dakota and the white men occurred simultaneously and were intertwined in defining the history of Minnesota and of this country.
Two Minnesota sites, Fort Ridgely and the location of the Battle of Wood Lake, are among nationally-designated Civil War battlefields. Both have been ranked by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission of the National Park Service as “needing additional protection.” A Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association is working to preserve the battleground that marked the end of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.
I expect that differences in opinion will always exist regarding the “correct” terminology and historical connections for the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 just as differences exist among people.
I grew up within 15 miles of the Battle of Wood Lake on land that lies between the Upper Sioux Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community, so I am well aware of the differing perspectives and, yes, even prejudices and discontentment, that lingered when I left the area 36 years ago and which continue today.
Now as the 150th anniversary of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota Conflict approaches in 2012, I wonder, even worry, that deeply-rooted bad feelings, misunderstandings, bitterness and misconceptions will roil to the surface.
I hope that respect, rather than disrespect, define this remembrance.
Already, some efforts are underway to assure that the 150th commemoration includes reconciliation. According to an article in the New Ulm Journal, German polka dancers and Lower Sioux Community chanters, drummers and dancers performed earlier this week at a joint concert in New Ulm, site of several major clashes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.
A 150th Anniversary Steering Committee of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 has formed and launched a Web site, http://BrownCountyDakotaWarCommemoration.com. Currently, a contest is underway for a logo that represents the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The winning design will be used to promote commemorative activities planned for August 2012.
Although nothing has been finalized, committee member Kim Janke tells me her group is planning battle site tours; marker dedications; symposiums; a banquet; dedication of a Brown County Museum exhibit on the War of 1862, “representing the pioneers, Native Americans and what happened during the war;” and more.
All of this gives me hope that someday, perhaps soon, all of us, no matter our differences regarding the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, can stand together, reconciled, in an unbroken circle of peace.
© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling