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Minnestoa History Center Director Dan Spock reads about the first five people killed in U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 on a panel that is part of a year-long exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Dark Minnesota history episode part of state exhibit

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Dark Minnesota history episode part of state exhibit
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

ST. PAUL -- Museums often tell war stories, but an exhibit the Minnesota History Center just opened is more emotional than others.

"This is our war," History Center Director Dan Spock said while touring the exhibit on the St. Paul museum's third floor.

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The exhibit about the six-week U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 illustrates a particularly dark episode of Minnesota history, one that many Minnesotans still feel about strongly.

"I have to think there is a prevalent sense of unease over this subject," Spock said.

However, a man who has written four books about the Dakota Indian-federal government fight said the truth is important to tell.

"This is a period of history that the wounds are still open," Dean Urdahl of Grove City said. "I do believe that through knowledge comes understanding, and through understanding can come healing."

The state legislator added: "There are still resentful memories and hard feelings on both sides of the conflict from 1862, in some people, in some places."

In a history of the war, the society says it "had a profound impact in shaping Minnesota as we know it today."

The exhibit, to be open for a year, is to mark the 150th anniversary of the war. The Historical Society and other groups plan several war commemorations through the rest of the year around Minnesota.

One panel of the exhibit explains how the war began: "On Sunday, August 17, 1862, four hungry young Dakota men ... killed five white men and women in Acton Township, Meeker County."

Urdahl's great-great-grandfather helped bury those first victims of a war that started because federal agents and traders refused to release food to Dakota people facing starvation.

Many Dakota people, also called Sioux, did not get involved in the war and others joined the federal efforts.

Up to 600 white civilians and soldiers died in the war, with unknown numbers of Dakota dying.

Most of the war was in the southern half of Minnesota, where federal officials forced Dakota people to live in a small area along the Minnesota River. But Spock said other battles continued in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana through 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.

After the Minnesota part of the war ended, more than 300 Dakota men were ordered hanged. But Spock said President Abraham Lincoln could not authorize that large a number of executions, so he lowered the number to 38.

Spock said they were to be hanged on Christmas Day, but there was not enough rope, so the execution was delayed until Dec. 26.

That incident remains strong on some Minnesotans' minds.

Urdahl recalled a state Capitol speech he delivered as co-chairman of a commission noting Lincoln's 200th birthday: "Up above me were Dakota people. Every time I said 'Lincoln,' they shouted 'murderer' or 'executioner.'"

In preparing the exhibit, the Historical Society worked with Dakota and those whose ancestors were early European settlers involved in the war.

Urdahl said some Dakota felt there should be no activities related to the war, while others want "a more open approach. There is no unanimity."

There also are disputes among whites. Some insisted that the state do nothing that looks like an apology, while others seek reconciliation.

Urdahl said he and Gov. Mark Dayton plan to discuss the war's anniversary later this month.

The exhibit explains how federal policy of taking land from American Indians was "a sense of entitlement" felt by many Americans, Spock said. Many European immigrants received land they were told was open and available, not knowing of Dakota claims on the land.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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