Friday, August 17, 2012

The Shadow of the Past

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict now known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. While there was certainly involvement by federal troops and officials, the conflict was fought almost entirely within the borders of the four-year-old state of Minnesota, and most of the combatants on either side had lived there for at least a few years. In one sense, the conflict was simply among the more bloody episodes in a systematic, decades-long campaign of forced relocation, material and cultural deprivation, and at times outright genocide perpetrated by the United States against the American continent's first settlers. But it was also unique in many ways, most memorably in the number of civilians, of both native and European heritage, who were killed, and it's scars remain among their descendants to this day. In its aftermath, the city of Mankato witnessed what is still the largest mass execution ever conducted on U.S. soil, where 38 Dakota men were hanged for their roles in the conflict, and in the years afterward the tribe was driven almost entirely from Minnesota.

My own ancestors did not arrive in the state for another generation, but they benefited from the conflict because, at least on my mother's side, they were able to farm land that had once been Dakota. And in a larger sense anyone who is a citizen of the United States has also benefited because the territory we occupy and the resources we use came at the expense of the prior inhabitants who were killed or driven out. Of course those prior inhabitants were no saints, often fought among themselves before and after the Europeans arrived, and were not so great stewards of the environment as modern myth would have us believe, but their suffering was (and in many places still is) real, and their anger is just.

While the atrocities of the conflict cannot be undone, they should be remembered and recounted in a way that makes sure everyone's story is told and that recognizes that the actions of the Dakota were a response to years of ill treatment by the federal government and the territorial and state governments of Minnesota. So wherever you are this weekend, take some time out to reflect that while our country was founded on some noble ideas, it was also created through a whole lot of theft and murder.

A proclamation from Governor Dayton on the anniversary:

A PBS documentary on the conflict (which was really my first exposure to it when it aired nearly 20years ago): The Dakota Conflict

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