Commentary: Elevating historically silenced narratives long overdue

For immediate release

Release dated: 
December 11, 2018

Commentary: Elevating historically silenced narratives long overdue

A recent commentary in the Star Tribune by Curtis Dahlin argues that the new national traveling exhibit “States of Incarceration” contains misleading information, but MNHS stands by our community partners. This exhibit is based on sound scholarship created by university students, local community organizations, and facts. Native American voices serve as a lens through which the story of mass incarceration is told.

Communities historically silenced are long overdue the opportunity to have their interpretations of facts shared and elevated. Mr. Dahlin's piece is evidence of the discomfort felt by some whose dominant narrative has historically taken center stage.

My grandmother’s grandfather, John Moore, was interned at the Fort Snelling concentration camp with our family, and my grandfather Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), a well-respected leader and visionary, died there. We have kept our family stories alive, and a larger community remembers this history with the annual memorial walks, runs, and horseback rides to honor our relatives leading up to December 26, the date 38 of our relatives were hanged at Mankato in 1862.

Even though the bulk of the archival record was not drafted by us, in many ways it confirms our tribal stories of trauma.

A concentration camp is defined as a place where political prisoners (or refugees) are confined, not because of crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. The Fort Snelling concentration camps were places where noncombatant Dakota, primarily women, children, and elderly, were taken after war—when death bounties were placed on their heads. Hundreds died on the journey there, and hundreds more died that winter.

Archival records mention poor living conditions, rampant diseases, and instances of violence. Records tell of an infant being snatched from its mother and killed while approximately 1,600 women, children, and elderly were forcibly marched to Fort Snelling.

A November 1862 account in the Saint Paul Pioneer reports a Dakota woman at the camp was shot due to frustrations with President Lincoln for taking too long to sign an execution order. It reads, “Accident. An Indian Squaw was accidentally shot at Fort Snelling yesterday by one of a number of soldiers, who were practicing at target shooting. We doubt not but there will be a great many such accidents if Abraham don’t consent to let them swing.” This was the environment that Dakota women, children, and elderly endured while awaiting decisions on their fate.

Dahlin questions the term “Extermination Order” in the exhibit. Though used in an artist’s interpretive statement, it is an accurate description of Dakota removal. On September 9, 1862, Governor Alexander Ramsey addressed the Minnesota legislature: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota. They must be regarded and treated as outlaws, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.” In February and March of 1863, legislative acts were passed and tribal members were to be imprisoned while they awaited removal. Today, though legislators have been successful at a state repeal, it remains federal law.

To describe the confinement of a group of people as a “compassionate response by the white authorities” is to deny Dakota remembrances and teachings.

When Dahlin’s piece was posted, educators at my five-year-old’s Dakota language immersion school were immediately concerned. Words matter, and stating that our ancestors were better off as prisoners, while also denying the terminology we use, promotes an outdated narrative that we are doomed to vanish and should be silenced. As educators and parents of children who are often marginalized, we must talk honestly and compassionately about narratives of exclusion and intolerance with our kids.

Today, our hardworking Dakota communities are busy ensuring community prosperity by honoring our history and supporting the efforts of our youth. We are revitalizing our language and remembering our traditions. My daughter comes home from school singing in her language, and her voice is beautiful and strong. We are a resilient and educated community, and we have not relinquished the right to speak for ourselves to interpret our own story—our history matters.

Kate Beane, PhD
(Flandreau Santee Sioux)
Native American Initiatives
Minnesota Historical Society