Archived Story

Editorial: Scars of war must stay in plain sight

Published 10:18am Monday, August 27, 2012

Is there a statute of limitations on shame and guilt?

We ask this question because, 150 years after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Minnesotans are conflicted about how they should view this bloody episode in our state’s history.

There’s no denying that the series of events and policies that led to the war were shameful. The U.S. government made a habit of breaking its promises to the native American tribes as the frontier was settled, and even when the government tried to fulfill its obligations, it did so incompetently, trusting the wrong people and allowing corrupt Indian agents to enrich themselves as the natives watched their children starve.

When a proud, desperate nation is told that its people should eat grass or “their own dung,” it should come as no surprise when they take up arms.

As for the actual fighting in the Dakota War — well, it was frontier warfare. There was unspeakable suffering and many innocent victims. The best thing that can be said about this conflict is that it was relatively brief.

But after the hostilities ended, the horrors for the Dakota actually worsened, through state-sanctioned policies that were little short of ethnic cleansing. The Dakota were treated as vermin, with bounties on their scalps, hunted as fair game by roving bands of young Minnesotans who apparently had nothing better to do.

It was the ugliest time in our state’s history.

Now, 150 years later, we’d argue that shame is the wrong emotion with which to regard the war and its aftermath. Cultural guilt is difficult to assuage, but we’ve made a lot of progress. The story of what happened in 1862 is being told and preserved in countless ways at dozens of sites across the Minnesota River Valley, as well as in books, plays, oral histories and museums that tell all sides of the story. By looking deeply into this part of our past, rather than shrinking from the brutal truth of what happened, we achieve a kind of collective absolution.

There is, however, a catch. Minnesota can forgive itself for what happened in 1862, but only if it doesn’t forget. That’s a generational requirement. Just as every child in America must study the causes of the Civil War (no, it wasn’t just slavery), so too must Minnesotans make sure that our understanding of the U.S. Dakota War doesn’t peak and then wane.

History, after all, is not static — it evolves with our understanding. That’s why people who’ve read hundreds of books about the Civil War keep studying, keep gathering with others at roundtable discussions and conferences. The facts don’t change, but their significance does, and each generation will add to our understanding of what happened in 1862.

So even if you think you know all you need to know about the Dakota War, we urge you to read every word of today’s coverage and the stories that will follow during the next five weeks. We hope that what you learn inspires you to visit some of the sites, or perhaps to view the Minnesota Historical Society’s new exhibit about the conflict. Take your children or grandchildren along, and don’t sugar-coat the truth.

Someday, you’ll want them to do the same thing for their own kids.


— Rochester Post-Bulletin, Aug. 17