The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 31, 2012

To understand U.S.-Dakota conflict, historians resort to 'truth recovery'

By Tim Krohn
The Free Press

— Recent articles and letters to the editor in The Free Press demonstrate the raw emotions and conflict that surround the U.S.-Dakota War 150 years ago. Controversy over a poem on a proposed marker in Mankato, disputes over what artifacts to put on public display, and letters pointing out atrocities leading up to and during the war show the variety of views.

So when the Minnesota Historical Society curators set out two years ago to begin planning their exhibits and activities surrounding the anniversary this summer, they used a ‘truth recovery’ process to sift through the facts and emotions in an attempt to portray events from all angles.

It’s a process that’s taken hold among American historical societies but is still relatively new here, said Pat Gaarder, deputy director for programs at the state Historical Society.

“There is a longer-standing tradition of truth recovery in Europe and in working on issues like the Holocaust,” she said.

 “It’s used to look at the histories of conflicts in particular to tell the story from a variety of perspectives. What is truth, how do we get to the facts. Bringing people together to talk about what happened can be as important as specifying the facts.”

While healing some of the injuries people still feel is part of the goal, Gaarder said the process isn’t aimed at sanitizing brutalities on either side of the 1862 conflict.

Society staff have been meeting with descendants of the Dakota and settlers in shaping the exhibits.

Gaarder said the topic has been the most sensitive ever taken on by the Historical Society.

“It’s been a big challenge to gain the trust of people on both sides to have them feel comfortable talking to us about the living aspects of history in their lives, particularly with the Dakota to make them feel they are being asked in to the process in a genuine way.”

She said one of the discoveries in talking with the Dakota “is the sense that people are more interested in being recognized in today’s life, having respect accorded to them, than seeing an exhibit built.

“So it’s very difficult to just talk about doing an exhibit when the issues are so alive today. The past is very present in the daily lives of many of the Dakota and that is somewhat different than the descendant of the settlers.”

Society Director Stephen Elliott calls the period the foremost in state history. “No series of events in Minnesota history is as important as the chain of events that led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its terrible aftermath. “They produced historical traumas that still echo in those living today.”

Gaarder said the war and its aftermath, including the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato, quickly and dramatically changed the face of Minnesota.

“What we’re trying to help people understand is that beyond what happened in the war is how profoundly it affected the state. It opens the South and the West for settlement, and we have this tremendous influx of immigrants in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s and so many of us trace our history to those immigrants.

“The understanding of events hasn’t been as great as an event of this magnitude merits.”

Central to this year’s events will be the new exhibit at the History Center in St. Paul containing documents, images and artifacts relating to the war. “Minnesota Tragedy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 Exhibit” will open June 30.

Gaarder said the goal of the exhibit is to incorporate multiple points of view on the war, its causes and its aftermath. Visitors will be encouraged to look closely at the primary sources in the exhibit and draw their own conclusions about what happened and why.

Visitors also will have opportunities to add their own comments and reactions to create an ongoing interpretation of events.  

The society also has developed a website (usdakotawar.org) that provides a central clearinghouse for a variety of other projects and information relating to the war.

This website is now online but will be updated greatly in the coming months   to offer more stories of the war and its aftermath through oral histories, photos, journals, letters, newspapers, government documents and other resources.

Teachers also will be able to find resources for classroom use.

The projects were funded in part by grants from the state’s Legacy Amendment that dedicates a portion of sales tax to outdoor and cultural programs.