I noticed him out of the corner of my eye at the Minnesota History Museum’s new exhibit, “The U.S.–Dakota War of 1862.” He hung on every word in every document, every expression in every photograph. The little boy couldn’t have been older than 10 years old, but it was very clear that something was changing within him as we followed the trail of broken promises, treaties, and dreams that led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
“That isn’t fair,” he finally said to a relative, with a face that begged for an explanation. But she didn’t have one—none of us do.
What we do know, and what the exhibit does a beautiful job of illustrating, is that the brutal, six-week conflict forever changed Minnesota. It is one of the most painful, contested periods in the state’s history, which caused the Minnesota Historical Society to take great care in crafting the exhibit. By consulting the decedents of those directly involved, they draw us into a narrative filled with varied voices and perspectives. They leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
And people certainly do.
In the end, you’re asked to capture your post-exhibit emotion in a single word and add it to a wall of Post-its. What has resulted is a final, living artifact that makes the power and impact of the U.S.-Dakota War evident. Even 150 years later, those who first caught a glimpse of the new exhibit during its opening weekend admitted feeling “shame,” “sadness” and—like the little boy who caught my attention—“changed.”
The war began in the summer of 1862, when unfulfilled promises and mistreatment drove the Dakota to extreme frustration and near starvation. Some lashed out against white settlers, leading to a war that claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women, and children on both sides of the conflict. Eventually, 303 Dakota men were condemned to death, a list later reduced to the 38 who were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862. Through the exhibit, you chronologically trace the step-by-step progression of the war by following a winding path of artifacts, documents, and images, including an original, hand-written list of the names of the hanged Dakota men.
Unlike some of the other wonderful exhibits currently open this summer at the history center, such as “1934: A New Deal for Artists” and “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk,” this one is emotionally difficult to take in. Everyone, from school-aged children to their elderly grandparents, leaves deep in a somber, contemplative mood.
One particularly honest viewer left behind this message: “We haven’t changed much.” The budding optimist inside of me disagrees. If people continue to make efforts such as this one to shed light on the darkest, most distressing piece of Minnesota history, I am hopeful that we will learn and, through education, change. Only then can we fulfill another viewer’s resolution: “Never again.”
“The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”
The Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul
Adults $11; seniors and college students $9; children (6-17) $6.