By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — An exhibit created by the Nicollet County Historical Society and students and faculty at Gustavus Adolphus College is headed for the biggest stage in the museum world.
“Commemorating Controversy: The Dakota-U.S. War of 1862” will be displayed by the Smithsonian Institution in New York and Washington, D.C.
“We’re really excited the Smithsonian is going to host it,” said Ben Leonard, executive director of the Nicollet County Historical Society.
The 12-panel exhibit explores events from the time Indians and settlers first met to recent efforts of reconciliation. The six-week war was carried out on the prairies of southern Minnesota, resulting in the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato.
The idea for the exhibit grew out of a class Leonard and Gustavus professor Elizabeth Baer co-taught at Gustavus. The final project for the class was for students to create the content for the exhibit.
“The goal was to explore the history of the war. We knew we didn’t have years to do this, and these were students who didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge of events,” Leonard said.
“We hoped it would teach people about the Dakota War, but we weren’t trying to speak for the Dakota people or for those who have ancestors who fought or died in the war.”
The Smithsonian opportunity began in January when Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., came to Gustavus to speak.
“He saw the exhibit and suggested we could send information to their exhibition committee. They went through a bunch (of applications) and they chose ours,” Leonard said.
“They looked at all our panels. I think they vet the exhibits quite thoroughly.”
Leonard said the panels have been viewed by about 20,000 people so far, so he believes the content has been carefully scrutinized.
The panels have been tweaked a bit since they were first done after people viewing them caught relatively minor typos.
For example, a Dakota language speaker who saw the display noted the word ‘oyasin’ on one of the panels was the Lakota dialect and the word was changed to “owasin,” which is the correct Eastern Dakota dialect.
The exhibit opened in March of last year and has been shown across Minnesota and at President Lincoln’s cottage in Washington, D.C.
The exhibit will be shipped to the Smithsonian at the end of this year and will be on display all of 2014 and until mid-2015.
The display is scheduled to first be displayed in New York at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Heye Center before traveling to the Smithsonian’s Washington museum.
Leonard assumes that at the end of its run at the Smithsonian, the exhibit will be returned to St. Peter but admits he hasn’t specifically asked. It’s a minor point for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a rural Minnesota museum and college to be showcased by the world’s greatest museum and historical research institution.
“I think we’ll get it back,” he said with a laugh. “Whatever they want. We’ll bend over backwards for this opportunity.”