The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 28, 2012

My View: Names of hanging victims on memorial should help break a sad silence

By Rick Lybeck, Mankato

— With the sesquicentennial of the U.S.-Dakota War nearly passed, a major event still remains on the commemorative slate for Mankato -- the Dec. 26 ceremony in Reconciliation Park. The erection of a new monument bearing the names of the 38 men executed in 1862 will be a historic event for accomplishing two important things: making the hanging more visible to the public, and humanizing 38 people who were also victims of devastating colonization.

When a plan to etch the 38 names on a monument arose in the 1990s, Free Press columnist Ken Berg spoke out: "The names of three dozen Sioux Indians hanged in Mankato in 1862 are to be inscribed on still another marker at the riverfront site. How about those of the 500 white settlers that the 38 and their compatriots were accused of slaying?"

Betraying his awareness of the injustices that occurred with the hanging, Berg continued: "Warriors did not simply rebel against political and economic injustices. Warriors shot or massacred or mutilated hundreds of innocents. If not by the 38 horsemen, any of 209 others" (emphasis Berg's; July 15, 1994). "Exterminate all the brutes!" Berg seemed to want to say like Kurtz from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Or Gov. Alexander Ramsey. Needless to say, the names of the 38 did not get displayed in 1994.

While many factors have contributed to the lack of adequate public representation of the execution, sensational articles like Berg's, some seen this year as Your View letters to The Free Press, must be counted among them. The anxiety they mediate has helped shape a hole in the heart of Mankato.     

Anxiety has also shaped a broader silence among local educators, as The Free Press's coverage of commemorative work this year has shown. The paper's focus on the alleged neutrality of people teaching about the war has promoted the sense that ugly controversy could erupt wherever white educators express critical thoughts about 1860's Minnesota. "We're not going to get into who was right and who was wrong," Jessica Potter of the Blue Earth County Historical Society was quoted saying last December. "We're trying to stay as neutral as we can" (Dec. 22, 2011).

A Free Press Our View column advocated the same stance a month later: "There is no great benefit in trying to weigh who was more at fault during the times that led up to and during the conflict" (Jan. 10, 2012). In August, the paper quoted Ben Leonard of the Nicollet County Historical Society repeating what was by then an official public discourse: "I hope what people get out of this (anniversary) is there are lots of different perspectives. That doesn't make someone right and someone else wrong -- people just have differing perspectives about the same events" (Aug. 12, 2012).

To what other topic do Minnesota educators apply such dangerous moral relativism? Such silence? Steve Miller, a Mankato teacher who admirably takes his fifth-grade students to the hanging site despite the war's absence on the state standards for that grade level, was quoted in September saying, "When we teach history, we teach facts. All we can do is read them and then form your own opinion. There's no teaching" (Sept. 9, 2012). This echoed a quote in January from Bob Burgess, director of the Brown County Historical Society: "We can't interpret the war. It's just so complex." (Jan. 28, 2012)

Something is amiss when teachers claim to not be teaching and museum directors claim to not be interpreting. I suggest hate speech. In 2011, David J. Gray, author of this year's embarrassment, "38 murderers don't deserve memorial" (March 11, 2012), wrote the following about local education efforts: "And now grade-school children sit in front of a limestone bison to be indoctrinated as to how evil their predecessors were. How sweet." (Jan. 28, 2011).

This was clearly a comment based on past coverage of Steve Miller's work (May 19, 2010) and it shouldn't have been printed. Such public bullying affects all educators who might otherwise allow independent thought and solid research to guide their practice.     

I sympathize with local educators who have so unfortunately assumed positions of silenced "neutrality." I urge every reader who cares about social justice to support them publicly. Kindly encourage them to model critical interpretation of the U.S.-Dakota War. Remind them that the refusal to teach promotes indoctrination to apathy, white privilege, and an imbalanced status quo. Attend the ceremony on Dec. 26 and take heart in the long-overdue humanization of the 38.

 Rick Lybeck is a Ph.D student in English Education at the University of Minnesota. His dissertation research focuses on the public pedagogy of the U.S.-Dakota War, 1862-2012.