U.S.-Dakota War is no cause for celebration

Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” Or he might not have. The origins of truisms get lost in time. Regardless, there is truth in that.

We’ve come round to the 160th anniversary of the U. S.-Dakota War of 1862. It has had that name in recent decades. For years it was called the “Indian Uprising,” or less delicately, the “Indian Massacre.”

You could say the European settlers were the “victors” of that tragic set of events that bloodied the soil that is beneath our farms and towns. The European migrants from whom most of us are descended won in the sense that 160 years later we’re here and the Native Americans aren’t. Our ancestors got the land that ultimately was at the center of the dispute.

(I’m not sure it’s right to say anyone really “wins” a war. Even the winners have bodies to bury and young men left to live lives without limbs. Not to mention minds saddled with PTSD.)

Meanwhile the “losers” 160 years ago were forced to various camps and finally on to reservations, places not of their choosing. Reservations were invariably placed on the least desirable land. Their ancestors have since by every measure been among the poorest, least healthy, with the most limited opportunities of any Americans.

Part of losing was also having 38 men hung in Mankato the day after Christmas, 1862. We know a few of those were innocent, but public passion demanded revenge more than justice.

For a long time, the anniversary of these events was cause for great celebration. New Ulm was the site of two battles. For years, that city hosted a parade, concerts, a grand banquet, ball games and a carnival on the anniversary. Costumed actors reenacting the fighting delighted crowds.

A century ago, the New Ulm Review reported: “The big Home Coming celebration and Indian Massacre anniversary program will commemorate the trying days of 1862 when so many of the earliest settlers were massacred by the Indians.”

The Brown County Journal stated: “Dances will be held at Turner Hall, the Armory and at Riverside Park. Famous orchestras have been secured and will whoop ‘er up.”

“We shall never forget” was an anthem in New Ulm. Of course, that meant not forgetting the settlers. The Natives in the story were also never to be forgotten but certainly not remembered with honor or sympathy.

In my lifetime, there has been a shift in the interpretation of what transpired those hot days of August 1862. I suspect that even amid the festivities 100 years ago, there were some who quietly wondered what desperation compelled the native warriors to strike out as they did. Now, whooping ‘er up has been replaced by more reflective observances.

There were specific hardships the Indian people felt that summer. There was hunger, which is always strong incentive to action. Payments from the United States were late or stolen by corrupt officials. Andrew Myrick, trader at the Lower Sioux Agency, famously said, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” Try to imagine being told that when your children are starving.

Whatever the situation was in the Minnesota River Valley needs also be seen in the larger picture of treatment of the Natives over two centuries. Inch by inch, the people who were here were displaced by those who came. It may not be exactly correct to say that our ancestors “took” the land from people who were here. The Natives didn’t own it the way we do with a title and a deed. But they were here raising children, living off the bounty of the land, in communities.

And then they weren’t.

I wrote a few years ago about the phenomenon where humans see other humans as being lesser. I was writing then trying to understand slavery. How does one rationalize that a set of people can be owned and kept like livestock? I couldn’t answer my question.

Reading early newspapers from this area, one is struck by the same phenomenon. These were “savages and primitives” who had to be removed so we could create a civilized nation. I’m sure there were here and there white people who saw the humanity in these darker skinned people. But more saw the redskins as something to be removed, like an undesirable species.

Pope Francis was recently in Canada. With humility and decency, he apologized for the church’s involvement in schools that tried to indoctrinate Indian children to Western culture. Of course, here in our country, Native people were always given the option of becoming just like the white European settlers. As Christian farmers, they’d be accepted. It was a narrow path to redemption.

There is much angst about revisionist history. It is as if once written, we dare not challenge the first drafts of history. That’s crazy. Thank God we can grow in our understanding of the past. Of course, the first drafts were invariably written by white men in positions of power.

The notion that history is etched in impermeable stone has never been correct. We always struggle to understand things given the small and limited view each of us has. Look at the widely different versions of what happened Jan. 6, 2021. And we all watched that live.

Here on this 160th anniversary, we no longer “celebrate” those days that were filled with fear and terror. Is “commemorate” the right word? Maybe just “remembering’ is all we can do.

The U. S.-Dakota War was a tremendously sad event. Of course, many of those killed were innocent of any responsibility. That is often the case in war. We just passed the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one knows the exact number killed in that different August, likely more than 200,000. It was another war our side “won,” which is best remembered somberly and maybe prayerfully.

Innocents were killed, and a people were vanquished 160 years ago. No, we won’t celebrate.

— Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye where he lives with his wife, Pam.


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