The No-Win War
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It began with the worst slaughter in frontier history. It ended with a hanging: 38 Dakota Indians sent to the gallows, in what remains the largest mass execution to ever take place in the United States. 150 years later, can the Minnesota Historical Society unknot the state’s most tangled chapter?
Ben Gessner eases the display-case door open, and the scent of ancient prairie wafts out. It smells smoky, like stale campfire. Inside, there’s a muslin dress, gauzy and aged, punctured in some places with tiny round holes. They look like bullet holes. ¶ “There are objects here that are just…sad,” says Gessner, a collections assistant at the Minnesota History Center. A sincere young man in a bow tie, he speaks in the hushed tones of a funeral director. ¶ The dress belonged to a Prussian-born girl, Mary Schwandt, whose family settled near the town of Beaver Falls in central Minnesota in early 1862. That was the year that a brutal, six-week war between Dakota Indians and U.S. government forces swept through the Minnesota River Valley. Schwandt, 14 years old at the time, was taken captive by Dakota during the fighting. It’s one of many stories haunting the objects in this room—a carpet-squared work space, where museum staff has been agonizing over the exhibition potential of some 40 archival items. Each comes from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections. And each, in some way, pertains to 1862.
One of the documents is a hand-written execution order listing 39 Native American names. The signature, in cramped, calligraphic script, reads Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States. Nearby is a narrow walking stick. I’m told it is made from the wood of a hangman’s gallows.
“And I’m sure you’ve heard about the noose,” Gessner adds, reluctantly.
I have. It’s the rope used to hang a Dakota man named Chaska, one of 38 Indians executed in Mankato at the end of the war. Chaska was wrongly convicted. His death sentence had been commuted by President Lincoln, but he hanged anyway. And then a white man named J. K. Arnold stole the noose and proudly offered it to the Minnesota Historical Society as a "trophy." Arnold’s letter of donation is here in the room, preserved neatly in a flat file, its elegant cursive belying its ghastly content.
We won’t be viewing the noose. Not today. Perhaps not ever.
It’s one of many highly sensitive objects in the MHS’s possession. Gessner is part of a team trying to determine which of these objects will make it into an exhibition, slated to open June 30, commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the so-called U.S.-Dakota War. It is a task of nerve-wracking delicacy.
For months, the society has been inviting Native American groups to view the objects, asking for advice on what to display. At times, they’ve even turned off the fire alarms and allowed tribal members to burn sage outside the basement archives, in a cleansing smoke ceremony known as “smudging.” The responses thus far, Brian Szott, head of collections, told me, have been “highly emotional.”
Several items have been officially nixed: a doll plucked from a battle site, a rawhide shirt with long tassels of human hair adorning the sleeves. (MHS officials later decided that the walking stick, too, would not be exhibited.)
And then there’s the noose. In the months leading up to the MHS’s grand commemoration efforts—which go beyond a single exhibit to include initiatives ranging from oral-history projects and art openings to revised educational materials and cell-phone tours along the Minnesota River—it has come to encapsulate the thorny position the organization finds itself in. With all of its trauma-charged, debate-inducing objects, not to mention its founding by some of the very men who prosecuted the war, the society has more than enough rope, so to speak, to potentially hang itself.
“Some of the opinions are: ‘You shouldn’t show anything. You shouldn’t even have any of these objects,’” says Gessner. “But generally, a museum shouldn’t be in the business of censoring things because they’re sad.”
Here’s what we know happened:
In the 1850s, the U.S. government attempted to strike a deal with Dakota living in the Minnesota River valley, hoping to clear the way for further westward expansion. Two major treaties followed. The agreements went something like this: the Indians would cede their land—some 24 million acres, over half the Minnesota Territory—and move onto two reservations (which would later be halved in size) on either side of the Minnesota River. In exchange, the government promised to pay them $3 million over a 50-year period, in annuities of goods and money.
But in August of 1862, as widespread hunger ravaged the Dakota reservation, a key payment was late. The Indians were desperate, starving. But local traders refused to sell provisions on credit. Tensions grew thick, and a meeting was called to resolve the impasse. It didn’t go well. Andrew Myrick, representing the traders, famously declared, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”
The first attack occurred on August 17, near present-day Litchfield. Four Dakota rushed a white household, killing three men, a woman, and a 15-year-old girl. When the Dakota chief Little Crow heard the news, later that night, he feared vengeance from the whites. Despite personal ambivalence and deep misgivings in the Dakota community, he declared war. Coordinated attacks began the next day. But of the 7,000-member Dakota community, only a fraction chose to participate.
The fighting was brutal. Women and children were slaughtered. Whole families were wiped out. The exact death toll is unknown and hotly contested, but conservative estimates put it at 600 settlers. Dakota casualties are estimated at 50 to 60 (although hundreds of survivors, expelled from the state, would later die from disease and starvation related to their exile).
Forces led by Colonel Henry H. Sibley—Minnesota’s first state governor and a founding member of the Minnesota Historical Society—ultimately quelled the fighting. A military commission was formed. Nearly 400 Dakota were tried summarily for “murder and other outrages” against Americans.
There were no arraignments, no official charges, no legal counsel. In many cases, whole trials occurred in less than five minutes—so quickly that many Dakota did not even realize they had been before a commission. Ultimately, 303 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln, fearing a hideous episode, quickly ordered that the number be reduced to 39—probably an arbitrary figure.
The condemned were taken in chains to South Bend, near Mankato. Indian noncombatants—around 1,600 women, children, and the elderly—were marched on foot and horseback to an internment camp at Fort Snelling, in the Twin Cities. Along the route, they were attacked by mobs of angry settlers.
At 10 a.m., on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, 38 Dakota were hanged (one of the 39 was reprieved). It remains the largest mass execution in U. S. history.
Upstairs in the Minnesota History Center, headquarters of the MHS, Dan Spock leans back in an office chair and smiles benignly. Spock, the museum’s director, is the man in charge of the forthcoming 1862 exhibit—and the $240,000 in state funds used to finance it. Sporting a checked shirt and a tie knotted at the collar, he has the professorial, history-expert look nailed, right down to the glasses. Except he isn’t a history expert. In fact, he says, there may be no such thing anymore.
“It’s always been a bit of an illusion to pretend to be an authority,” he says. “The idea of having an ‘official narrative’ is kind of an anachronism.”
Spock admits that not only is the MHS not necessarily an expert on the events of 1862, but, given the organization’s roots, it can’t even pretend to be an unbiased arbiter. The president of the society in 1862 was Governor Alexander Ramsey—a man who called for the extermination and expulsion of Dakota from the state, and after the war authorized a serious of vicious “punitive expeditions” against escaping bands of Indians. It’s one of many uncomfortable facts that have rendered awkward the MHS’s claim—front and center on its website’s “About” page—of being the “chief caretaker of Minnesota’s story.”
There’s the Dakota internment at Fort Snelling, where nearly 300 prisoners would ultimately die after the war—and the society’s 30-some-year failure to acknowledge it at the site. (MHS is planning new, 1862-related signage for the fort this year.) There’s the bungled attempt at a 125-year commemoration—1987’s so-called “Year of Reconciliation”—during which it was revealed that Dakota human remains had somehow made their way into the society’s collections. Spock even acknowledges that, with the appointment of Steve Elliott as the new executive director and CEO of the MHS, there is an opportunity to “reset the dialogue” surrounding 1862—a reference to the retirement of former director Nina Archabal, who led the society for 24 years. “This is all part of the baggage we have,” he says. “We’re not going to defend the approaches we took in the past.”
So what’s the new approach?
“We’re trying to dial back the authoritative voice,” Spock says. He talks about history in the social-media age. About crowd-sourcing and Wikipedia. In fact, he cites WikiLeaks, with its messy dump of primary sources, as a key inspiration for the upcoming exhibit. “We’re seeing a pluralization of information on a scale we’ve never seen before.” The point is to back away from the idea of a single truth. It’s history-as-Rorschach-test: we all look at the same inkblot, but we all see different things. And it’s an immensely useful workaround for a consensus that has completely broken down. For years, observers couldn’t even agree on what to call the 1862 war—depending on the political correctness of the era, the incident has been known variously as the “Sioux Uprising,” the “Minnesota Massacre,” and the “Dakota Conflict”—let alone how to interpret it.
Today’s responses run the political gamut.
A Dakota activist named Angela Cavender Wilson, who goes by the Native American name of Waziyata Win, has loudly called for Fort Snelling to be bulldozed. Roseville author Curtis Dahlin views the Dakota combatants as “killers of defenseless people” and draws comparisons to 9/11. Stanley R. Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, wants sensitive items in the MHS collections turned over to descendants or tribal authorities. And then there’s Sheldon Wolfchild, a Dakota filmmaker, who argues that Native Americans need not rely on historical societies to tell their story. It’s why he’s releasing STARDREAMERS this summer, a documentary he’s spent 15 years developing, about the Dakota’s history in Minnesota.
In a fit of inclusiveness, the MHS has sought out everyone’s perspective. Its long standing Indian Advisory Committee—formed in 1989—now has a handful of sister panels: a consulting group made up of white settler descendants, a council of independent historians. Museum workers have trekked to the far reaches of the plains to collect oral histories from both Dakota and white diasporas.
In other words, the society has become an aggregator. It’s a magnanimous, big-tent approach. And it’s resulted in a fly’s-eye view of 1862, fragmented and chaotic, a kaleidoscope of interpretations.
But you can’t include everything. Even Wikipedia is ruled by edits. Just as Gessner and his gang are winnowing objects for a finite showroom, the MHS will have to shape an avalanche of perspectives into something a curious audience can access. There will be nooses in that collection, too—things flagged as too sensationalist, too instigating.
So as much as the society tries to back off from owning 1862—they’ve discussed opening the exhibit as a work-in-progress, and press materials explicitly warn that visitors will have “to draw their own conclusions about what happened and why”—decisions will have to be made. Won’t they?
“I’m not a big closure guy,” says Spock. “Contention is built into this.”