Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Giving Voice to Painful Truth - After 148 Years

Concentration camps in Minnesota?

It sounds so incongruous, in the place simultaneously satirized and romanticized in Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. Lake Wobegone and genocide are not readily reconcilable.

The same is true of Iowa. Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams and a prison camp do not easily coexist in the same mental picture frame.

But it's time to expand those old images - especially for white folks like me.

The brutal treatment of the Dakota people after the violent conflict of 1862 has never been adequately told. After a series of skirmishes between native Americans and white settlers in the Minnesota River valley, the U.S. military crushed the Dakota people and imprisoned them at Fort Snelling.

That was only the beginning. Over 300 Dakota leaders were sentenced to death. After personally reviewing the case files, President Lincoln commuted 265 of those sentences. That group was then sent to a military prison, at Fort McLellan in Davenport, Iowa.

The Minnesota Historical Society is planning to publish a book containing letters written in the Dakota language by Dakota prisoners. The letters were originally written to a Presbyterian missionary who shared them with Dakota families. They are being translated for the first time, by a 3-person team at North Dakota State University.

MPR's report today gave a glimpse of the terrible conditions the letters describe. It was common practice, for example, for prison guards to rape the Dakota women who did the cooking and cleaning at Fort McLellan. The Dakota men knew of the rapes, but were powerless to stop them.

The letters do not, however, tell a simple morality tale of villains and vicims. Some of the Dakota people collaborated with the military, just as some Jews did in the Nazi camps.

"The past is never dead," Faulkner said. "It isn't even past."

Faulkner was a self-consciously Southern writer, rooted in a region torn apart by the Civil War. But his saying about the presence of the past also applies in the Upper Midwest, to painful truths about a tragic time that are only now gaining a voice.


  1. A couple of years later, no doubt this power keg circumstance lead to the incident known as "Massacre at Wounded Knee" Dec 29 1890. The infamous book "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee" has been criticized as "romanticized" but IMHO there is no doubt it was an important historical event that has influenced native developments to this day in both America and Canada. HBO produced and an excellent film of the book in 2006 - and shot it (almost) exclusively near Calgary AB with a number of native Canadian actors. I highly recommend it.

  2. I look forward to reading the transcriptions of those statements from the prisoners. This weekend a friend told me about a woman he knew who was five years old when the executions took place in Mankato. As she walked by the prisoners, one tossed her a child's beaded moccasin. Her mother burned it. I wonder how many non-Dakota had any idea how hard their lives were as a result of the treaties and corruption in the agencies.