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.