Editorial: Telling the story from both sides provides context

Published 9:16 am Thursday, December 17, 2015

South-central Minnesota is the heart of where the U.S.-Dakota War happened. Every year Dakota runners and horseback riders come to Mankato to remember the hanging of 38 Dakota here on Dec. 26, 1862.

War of any kind leaves its wrath of death and destruction on both sides, and this war was no different. Steps have been made over the years to clarify conditions that led up to the war, who was affected and how people can learn from it. Reconciliation takes a long time.

And now another battle is going on over what art, especially that dealing with Native Americans, should be exhibited in the renovated state Capitol. A panel has been formed to discuss whether certain art is still appropriate to display, including the paintings “Attack on New Ulm” and “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.” Hearings about the public artwork have been held around the state.

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Not surprisingly, there are arguments for and against keeping the paintings in the Capitol. Gwen Westerman — a Minnesota State University professor, Dakota woman and subcommittee member of the Capitol Preservation Committee — has told the panel that in the “Attack on New Ulm” the warriors’ shirtless attire isn’t correct and the nearly identical men further the stereotype “that Dakota people are a faceless menace.”

But on his blog, John LaBatte, an expert on the war who has both white and Dakota ancestors, said the depictions are accurate according to eyewitness accounts, which he includes. He wrote: “The Dakota War of 1862 was one of the most important events in Minnesota history. This event needs to be represented in the State Capitol artwork.”

Obviously, there are strong opinions on both sides about the artwork, and the challenge will be to decide what stays, what goes and how the pieces will be presented. Giving some of the pieces less prominence wouldn’t negate their importance and would make sense if it means another space could provide room for more explanation and interpretation.

The trick is not to try to change history but to accurately represent it, providing the context it needs. Sensitivity is important, but so is including relevant events that were reflected by the artists of the time period.

What would be most offensive is distilling the selections to show only one side of the conflict. Dakota art also should also be among the work displayed at the Capitol — not because it would be politically correct, but because it would provide more context and interpretation of a war that affected both sides, who were all people of Minnesota.


— Mankato Free Press, Dec. 12

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