Often, some of the best experiences I have had at museums across the country haven’t been the most uplifting, but they’ve left an impression nonetheless. My first visit to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., comes to mind. And yet, while such experiences may not make us feel good, they do make us take a hard look at our history and our communities, which is one important reason we travel or visit museums. While some museums or exhibits may bring to light events that we would rather forget, they do deepen our understanding of the human condition. One such exhibit that fits this description is “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” which opens at the Minnesota History Center, and recounts the Minnesota War that tore apart the lives and families of the Dakota Nation. It’s not a pretty chapter in our state’s history, but it’s important that we remember it. And I applaud the History Center for their work.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of a war that lasted six weeks during the summer of 1862 and resulted in hundreds dead, the Dakota people exiled from their homeland, and the largest mass execution in the nation’s history when 38 Dakota men were hung on December 26, 1862. Months before the war broke out, broken promises and government corruption brought tensions to a boiling point. In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, a government official named George E. H. Day writes, “The whole system is defective and must be revised or, your red children, as they call themselves, will continue to be wronged and outraged and the just vengeance of heaven continue to be poured out and visited upon this nation for its abuses and cruelty to the Indian.”
Driven to the brink of starvation by the refusal of traders and agents to release just-due provisions, some factions of Dakota did attack white settlements, starting a war that resulted in the deaths of between 400 and 600 white civilians and soldiers and an unknown number of Dakota—a significant amount of whom were against the war and did not fight. More than 300 Dakota men were initially condemned to death before President Lincoln commuted all but 39 of the sentences.
The story (as I’m sure the exhibit itself) is controversial in that many people continue to debate the war’s causes, whose seeds were planted decades earlier, as well as its consequences, which are still being felt today. Curators hope to show many viewpoints of the war by including a variety of historic perspectives and voices in the exhibit. While there are many conflicting interpretations, visitors will be encouraged to make up their own minds about what they see and learn, and they will be encouraged to leave comments.
“History is always in the process of being rewritten or recast in some way,” said the noted author and 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Toni Morrison last week during an interview about her new book, Home. “And certainly a lot of what is true about this country has been erased. [We] just never talk about certain kinds of things.”
I like to consider myself a history buff, and President Lincoln and his times are a period of particular interest for me. But our famed historical figures aren’t saints. As Toni Morrison reminds us, we should not forget our past. I look forward to the seeing the exhibit. It doesn’t make me proud of Minnesota, but having such a wonderful cultural institution that isn’t afraid to take an unflinching gaze at this period in our past, does. For more, check out the story in Minnesota Monthly’s May issue.
“The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”
Minnesota History Center
The exhibit is included in the regular History Center admission: $11 for adults, $9 for seniors and college students, $6 for children ages 6 to 17. Free for all ages Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Museum Hours: Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.
You might also like:
Minnesota Museums Month: Animals, Flowers & Farms
Minnesota Museums Month: Northeast Minnesota
Minnesota Museums Month: Walker Art Center
Minnesota Museums Month: Historic Homes