A review of the Minnesota History Center exhibit, “The US-Dakota War of 1862”

This exhibit on display since June of 2012 describes the people involved and events that transpired leading up to, during, and after the US-Dakota War of 1862, which took place in the area of southeastern and central Minnesota.  The exhibit shows how the treaty process took place, the gradual depreciation of the land owned by the Dakota due to colonial farming practices and overcrowding, and makes a strong case for the starving Dakota nation to have no choice but to attack after years of delayed payments due to them by the US Govt. The exhibit displays some of the weapons used, the clothing worn and detailed maps of the battlefields.

The pace and progression of the unfolding story is near perfect. First, the visitor is introduced to the main characters, much like the opening credits to a movie. Next, the visitor is shown maps, paintings and photographs of the people and places, along with biographies of the people involved in the events leading up to the outbreak of the war. Then the visitor is moved on to the war itself, with large maps of the battle at Birch Coulee, and large paintings and photographs of Little Crow. There are actual diaries behind glass cases that describe the events of the days, bringing a real sense of shared connection to the past. It’s fascinating to view the handwritten words and sentences that determined the outcome of our society with your very own eyes.

The curators of this exhibit clearly lay out the case for war and include the people directly involved in the failed treaties. There is a large map of the northern Midwest area which includes present day Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, showing the land sold by the Indians to traders and the US Government beginning in 1805 by Commander Zebulon Pike and his acquisition of 100,000 acres for Fort Snelling, and ending with the 1862 war when the Dakota were taken prisoner, relocated and dispersed to other areas in the Midwest and Canada.

The clear goal of the exhibit was to ensure the visitors wouldn’t only feel guilty for the Native Americans who lost their livelihood, brethren, and homes to the invading Europeans. Considerable effort is put into showcasing the individuals who weren’t necessarily key members to important events, but were simply settlers trying to make a new home in the wilderness. A picture displaying the German settlers who moved to New Ulm shows how all of us in Minnesota, in one way or another, are a part of this war. It is an incredible display of public history in that we are able to learn so much about the biographies of common people who were directly impacted either by the US Government policies before the war, the violence of the war itself, or the aftermath which included the largest federal mass execution of 38 Dakota soldiers and the subsequent dispersal and breakup of captive families at Fort Snelling.

There are several physical artifacts present, including guns and a dress with bullet holes worn by a woman taken captive. It was powerful and gripping to see this artifact standing in front of me as if it had just been worn yesterday.

Not only were the stories of the trials and the execution of the Dakota soldiers displayed, but also photos of the gravestones of the settlers killed. This is one area of the exhibit I thought was a little unfair in how the room was laid out and I believe it was intentional.  This was the aftermath of the battles and war, it appears the curators wished for the visitors to see the effect it had on settlers before they would see the effect it would have on the prisoners of the war. The curators wanted to tell the people’s history outside of a military or government perspective. Several photos and stories talked about Indians and the white settlers working together to either avoid capture or be treated better while in captivity. I could see that it wasn’t enough for the curators to simply show that the battles killed settlers, burned their houses, and Dakota soldiers were then executed without a trial. This part of the exhibit was meant to begin the healing process.

On the opposite wall is the aftermath from the perspective of the Dakota. There is care taken in not mixing the settlers aftermath in with the photos and trial documentation for the Dakota soldiers. There are drawings of the plans for the gallows that would hang 38 soldiers all at once. There are physical cashier checks written to bounty hunters, and newspaper clippings of the time spewing hatred towards all the Dakota. There are several descriptions of the horror that followed all the Native Americans living in the upper Midwest following the war, regardless of their personal or organizational involvement in the matter. The aftermath for the Dakota people spans decades whereas the aftermath for the settlers spans a few years.

The exhibit is simple and amazing. Moving in it’s portrayal, logical in it’s chronology of events, and direct in it’s information presented, the exhibit is able to educate and emotionally motivate walking a fine line between bias and fact. This time in Minnesota history is very complicated, and invokes feelings of betrayal and anger.

I attended the exhibit with someone (whom I did not know) wearing what appeared to be a form of Native American clothing. He did not “look” uniquely Native American however, I still could not find myself able to look at the same exhibits at the same time as him. I could tell he was trying to hold back tears of frustration. This speaks to the efficacy of the materials and how they are presented. I wasn’t feeling remorse or guilt (although I am of German descent my ancestors moved to North Dakota in the 1890’s) but I was feeling sadness for him, knowing that his life is in fact different because of what I was learning about, and so is mine. Yet again, I do not agree that this was the point of the exhibit. I came to these feelings completely on my own. It is clear, the curators knew that just making white people feel guilty would have very little positive effect.

After leaving the exhibit I was more interested in learning about this war than ever before. I went to the bookstore in the museum and bought some books and even signed up to be a member of the MHS! Apparently, the curators were doing something right.

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