The No-Win War
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A patchy film of snow coats the New Ulm City Cemetery, and Darla Gebhard scolds me for not wearing boots. Moments ago, she offered to return home and grab bread bags for my shoes. I declined. But now I’m regretting it.
Gebhard, a research librarian at the Brown County Historical Society, marches through the old rear plot of the graveyard. A spry, articulate woman, she delivers a running lecture on the symbolism etched into the eroded, chalk-white stones. That carved image there? Of a hand pointing skyward? “That means ‘Gone Home,’” she says. The stones bear mostly German names—Pfaender, Schell, Hauenstein. Most also include another inscription: “Killed by Indians.”
Brown County, home to New Ulm, was hit hardest during the U.S.–Dakota War. Gebhard estimates that 122 settlers are known to have died in the area, which includes Milford Township, site of the single largest loss of life during the conflict.
“Most didn’t even speak English,” Gebhard says. “They weren’t citizens yet. They couldn’t vote. The real tragedy of this war is that these people had nothing to do with Native American policy. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were killed. Indiscriminately killed. Men, women, and children.”
There are 53 known graves in the cemetery’s Pioneer Section. But about a third of them lack headstones. Instead, they’re marked with numbered “plugs”—generic round discs stamped into the ground. We have to wipe the snow away with our feet just to find them.
The act becomes abruptly symbolic. Gebhard’s concern, she says, is that the memory of these dead settlers will go as buried and unobserved as their graves. “I believe that the Dakota need a voice in what is being done exhibit-wise. For many years, they were not heard and their stories were not told.” But the heightened sensitivity to the Native American perspective, she worries, risks slanting the conversation too far in one direction. “Who will tell the story of Milford?” she asks. “Where is the voice for the innocent?”
As president of the Junior Pioneers, a heritage society made up of direct descendants of New Ulm’s original settlers, Gebhard is spearheading a push to create temporary markers for the unnamed dead in the cemetery. She is also working on a book, along with John Isch, a professor emeritus at nearby Martin Luther College, that will compile the names and biographies of every man, woman, and child who died in Brown County—European or Native American. Of utmost importance is to track what happened to their families afterward.
When I tell her about the MHS’s plans, that they referenced Wikipedia in describing their strategy, Gebhard affects a theatrical gasp. The thought of letting the chaotic push-pull of myriad interests steer a commemoration seems risky to her. And she's disappointed to hear that journalists have been denied access to the Chaska noose.
“We do not let people censor what we show here,” she says of the New Ulm history museum. “Because we are a historical society. In my mind, museums should make their collections accessible.”
You could pass by the site of the hanging without noticing. In fact, hundreds of cars probably do every day. Traffic zooms by on a busy four-lane road, and the commemorative statue—a Native American warrior kneeling atop a sandstone pedestal—gazes stoically at a highway overpass. The sculpture is called “Winter Warrior.” It was created by Tom Meagher Miller and installed here in Mankato, just outside the Blue Earth County Library, in 1987. It supposedly marks the spot where the 38 Dakota were executed in 1862.
Except Sandee Geshick thinks they got the site wrong.
“This is not where the actual hangings took place,” she says. She gestures toward a generic brick building, a modern hotel, a block away. That, she says, is where the execution actually happened.
Still, the statue is something. “I am thankful that the city of Mankato at least recognizes what happened here,” she says. “It’s a step.”
Geshick, 60, is Dakota. She is serene and warm, with wisps of gray coloring her black hair. Her great-grandfather, Tunkanhnamani (“Walks Under a Sacred Stone”), was sentenced to die here but was ultimately pardoned. After the war, he was deported, along with many other Dakota prisoners, to an internment camp in Davenport, Iowa. At least 150 would die there, in a prison that locals referred to as a “pig pen.” He was released in April 1866, and after several more forced migrations, ultimately made it back to the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Redwood County. He was one of the first Dakota to return home from exile.
In middle school, when Geshick first learned about the war, she asked her dad about it. “And he said, Tehike do. ‘It was hard, ’ ” she remembers. “That’s all he said. In our culture, we don’t pry for answers. The knowledge will be given to us when we are ready.”
Of course, today Geshick knows all about the war. She is one of the original participants in the Dakota Commemorative March, an every-other-year event in which tribe members retread the 150-mile journey, from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling, that Dakota noncombatants were forced to make after the hanging. The walk takes five days. Geshick describes it as a meditative, prayerful event. “We do it to honor the women and children especially,” she says.
A traffic light halts the onslaught of cars, and we cross the street. Across from the library, a 10-foot-tall stone buffalo stands in a narrow strip of grass. A sign declares it “Reconciliation Park.” I ask Geshick what she, personally, would like to see come out of this 150-year anniversary. Her answer is automatic.
“Justice for the 38 that were killed,” she says. “I want an acknowledgement of the wrongs committed before, during, and after the war.” She wants an official apology from the governor, a formal integration of Dakota culture into public-school curriculum, and an official day of remembrance for those who died—Dakota and European. She would also like to see the Dakota Expulsion Act officially repealed. The federal law, which legally banished Dakota from the state, is still on the books.
“Who can tell us that we don’t belong here?” she says. “This is a brutal part of our history. It wasn’t talked about, and we had to endure a lot of hurt and racism and discrimination over this.”
She then tells me that she, too, was invited to the MHS to view artifacts. And what she saw was different from what I did. She remembers a pair of pipes that belonged to Little Crow. She remembers seeing a ceremonial shirt, which also belonged to Little Crow. “There was a doll,” she says. “And a noose.”
What did she think?
“One of the ladies asked me that exact question,” Geshick says. “And I said, ‘Well, how would you like to see an ax that your mother was bludgeoned with?’ She didn’t have a response.”
Minnesota isn’t the only place in the world plagued by historic trauma. Germany has its Auschwitz. South Africa has its Apartheid Museum. The MHS has pulled significant inspiration from the “Healing Through Remembering” project, Northern Ireland’s amorphous, decade-long effort to address the “Troubles.”
But one of history’s most successful reinterpretations occurred right here in the United States. Over the last three or four decades, Colonial Williamsburg has evolved from a polite destination for antique and decorative-arts enthusiasts to a place of thoughtful engagement with slavery’s impact on young America. A key orchestrator of the transition was that site’s vice president of education, Steve Elliott. Today, he’s sitting in the executive director’s office at the MHS.
“I always told our staff at Williamsburg that our job is not to answer everyone’s questions,” Elliott says in a soft drawl. “Our job is to send people away asking more questions. That’s how we know we’ve been successful.”
Elliott, in his barely-settled-into office, is well-mannered and bookish. He took over last spring, which means he’s had less than a year to fully immerse himself in 1862 planning. But he says he’s stepping into a process that is showing all signs of being on the right path. The main lessons from Williamsburg—from “Fess up to past failures,” to “Involve big-time the descendants of those whose story you’re telling,” and “Commit to telling the whole story, even the ugly”—are present here in St. Paul.
But 1862 isn’t Williamsburg. For one thing, Elliott admits that he “can’t recall a sticky situation, object-wise” in Virginia.
There are, of course, precedents for not displaying sensitive items. It usually has to do with a museum’s mission or management policies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, commits “to telling the story from the victims’ perspective,” according to Steven Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibition. Staff members consult regularly with rabbis and survivors. Sensationalist items—human hair, desecrated Torah scrolls—are sometimes kept from display, but remain in collections for research and preservation purposes. In some cases, visitors are afforded the chance to view an object within privacy curtains, or steer clear of it altogether. The idea, Luckert says, is to keep an exhibition from devolving into “a catalog of gruesome objects.”
But the Holocaust museum benefits from a simpler morality. It isn’t hard to identify the underdogs in that conflict. Even at the National Museum of the American Indian, which traffics often in sensitive Indian-settler matters, officials adopt an explicit partiality. Their “charge and mission,” a spokesperson told me, “is to work from the Native American point of view.” The museum considers its objects as belonging to the tribes, and defers to their wishes accordingly.
The MHS isn’t as lucky. The society, in its “chief caretaker status,” is beholden to the entire state. They’re beholden to Sandee Geshick’s great-grandfather. They’re beholden to the folks buried in the New Ulm cemetery. But they’re also beholden to the vast majority of Minnesotans who never learned about 1862 in school. These people, above all, deserve a window into this history. And while they don’t need textbook tidiness, a little firm-handed curation would be a reasonable request. Even WikiLeaks, after all, had the New York Times to help make sense of all those documents.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the MHS shows the noose. But the society does need a plan to accommodate the uninitiated. It needs to rise above open-ended equivocation. To tread lightly is noble. To simply send people elsewhere is a cop-out.
The story of 1862 may very well prove impossible to tell. But that, of course, means that it must be told.
Gregory J. Scott is a staff writer for Minnesota Monthly.