Quietly and humbly, Glenn Wasicuna approached the microphone in the Heritage Room at Minnesota State University Sunday afternoon after an audience had listened to a moving episode of the public radio show “This American Life.”
John Biewen — who grew up in Mankato and now teaches at Duke University — had just narrated a history of Minnesota that had been unbeknownst to him for the many years he lived here: the true circumstances surrounding the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Wanting to know why that was, he came home to seek answers this summer and share them with about 1.8 million listeners.
“I felt like I kind of knew the outline,” Biewen said in a recorded KMSU Radio interview. But he discovered that he had known very little about what he calls Minnesota’s “civil war.” “I’m just so gratified by the chance to tell this story on a reasonably large scale.”
We’ll get back to what he gathered and reported during the episode, which, for a 55-minute program, was complex and riveting, many audience members agreed. But with barely a whisper of a voice, Wasicuna — who was born in Manitoba to Dakota parents — shared what had been missing.
A teacher of native Dakota language at the Shakopee Mdewakankton Sioux Community in Prior Lake, Wasicuna said he was grateful for what he heard Sunday and for the people who gathered to listen. He said he felt he could go back to young Dakota people now and tell them the climate has changed. Things are getting better now, he said. They can feel secure in doing what Wasicuna’s parents had taught him as a child — “to speak Dakota; to be Dakota.”
“‘It’s OK to be Dakota again,’” he told a silent and still group of 30 that he would relay to the children. “‘Be proud of who you are.’”
Wasicuna even offered an apology. “I’m sorry we haven’t done enough to tell you who we are,” he said.
Wasicuna and his wife, Gwen Westerman, a professor at MSU, both said they view the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War this year and the abundance of public attention it’s garnering as a “turning point” — a comment that Westerman also shared in the episode of “This American Life.” The radio show Sunday was another beam of light on a dark and forgotten history that is being illuminated this year.
Westerman served as Biewen’s guide to various sites, sharing research, deeply personal stories and emotional responses throughout the program. For example, like Biewen, Westerman learned most about Mankato’s history as an adult.
Until she accepted her position at MSU, she didn’t know she was related to Little Crow, a chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota Sioux who played a large role in the war. She was unaware she had ancestors who died in battle, who refused to fight in the war, who were pushed out of Minnesota.
In Mankato, before Westerman learned her history, she said she felt an innate connection to the Dakota history here. She described the feeling on the program as an “incredible sadness.” An uncle helped guide her.
“(He said), ‘Well, my girl, you’re connected to that place. You are physically and spiritually connected to that place,’” she said.
Mostly Westerman and “North Country” author and historian Mary Wingerd led Biewen through various events leading up to and during the war: the mass of white settlers from 1850-60, treaties, deceit, oppression, starvation, Henry Sibley, the “Acton Incident” — events reported in detail the past few months by various newspaper series, including by The Free Press, and public talks.
They also addressed myths, such as the popular idea that all Dakota participated in the war. Wingerd said many had no part in the conflict, but were brutally punished following the war anyway.
The discussion of post-war events were the most difficult for audience members to hear. Some shook their heads and even teared as they heard of bounties being offered for Sioux scalps and Sibley falsely offering protection to Dakota who “came out under a flag of truce” and surrendered themselves.
Instead, 1,700 Dakota (mostly women and children) were marched 150 miles to what Wingerd described as a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and along the way they were attacked by settlers with rocks, clubs and knives. Those who didn’t die of disease or other causes were sent to a reservation at Crow Creek in South Dakota.
“They lost everything,” Wingerd said. “These were people that were guilty of nothing.”
In Mankato, hundreds of men received quick and unfair trials, with more than 300 receiving death sentences. However, President Lincoln put the executions on hold until the transcripts could be reviewed.
Biewen said growing up in Mankato, canoeing on the river, he had no idea that on the river’s edge at Sibley Park, these men waited in inhumane conditions at what was called “Camp Lincoln” to learn their fate.
“In my home town,” Biewen said, pausing for a moment. “Sibley Park.”
Finally, Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota to be hanged in the largest execution in U.S. history. Biewen said the men held hands, said prayers and sang together with hoods over their heads until the floor fell from under them.
The question still remained, however: How could all of this have happened and then become lost from public consciousness?
Wingerd explained that it didn’t take long for settlers to realize that the events of the war were “really, really bad PR” for the state. So, not unlike many other historical events, a new history was invented and passed down.
As a result, Wingerd said, many Minnesotans have grown up not feeling like Native Americans were truly a part of the fabric of our history.
“They were stories like Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox,” she said.
Biewen said that has begun to change. School curriculum now includes a unit on the war. He even interviewed a random sample of West High School students, one of whom gave an articulate synopsis of the war.
The 150th anniversary has helped too. As Biewen said, there’s probably been more said about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 this year than in all other years combined.
But after the program, audience members and Wasicuna asked, “What now?”
“We know the history,” Wasicuna said. “What are we going to do from here on in? I like to say, ‘Don’t let history repeat itself.’”
Biewen’s parents were in the audience Sunday, listening as their son said he had grown up in a home with educated and active parents, and where he was “raised to be aware of the nation’s injustices.” Gene Biewen of Mankato said that was good to hear.
“When he said he grew up with a social conscience, that’s the finest thing he could have said,” Gene said. “It’s been a great day for us.”