US-Dakota War expert calls for balanced history of Minnesota’s ‘9-11’

Historians essentially agree the bloody Dakota uprising of 1862 still stands as the most consequential event in Minnesota history. The media’s attention generally focuses on the December anniversary of the 38 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato for their role in the bloody uprising, the largest mass-hanging in U.S. history.

But New Ulm Journal readers were recently reminded of the horrific scope of the war, when historian Curt Dahlin compared the carnage to the 9-11 attacks in addressing a group of descendants of the original settlers called the Junior Pioneers.

Dahlin started his presentation by giving an overview of the war and the toll it took. He said in total 650 white people were killed, including 100 children. In contrast, only 100 Dakota warriors were killed and none of them were women or children. On the uprising day August 18, 265 white people and five Dakota were killed. He compared the uprising day to 9-11, saying it was Minnesota’s much worse version.

“For the uprising to take place today, if the same proportion of people were killed, you’d have between 17 and 18,000,” Dahlin said. “You ask yourself ‘Is that a big deal?’ Well, obviously. Those numbers would help us to understand what it looked like to the settlers.”

The war may have been fought some 160 years ago, but another battle to rewrite the history of the conflict continues to play out. The author of several books on the Dakota uprising, Dahlin contends “a political agenda instead of facts” increasingly drives the Minnesota Historical Society’s narrative of the battle in which hundreds of mostly unarmed civilians lost their lives at the hand of the Dakotas who initiated the conflict.

…This includes changing names of places, acknowledging Dakota homelands, transferring land through the Lower and Upper Sioux Agencies, prohibiting the use of Native American logos, and re-writing history. Dahlin said the current perceptions of whites and Native Americans in the US-Dakota War are now lopsided.

“What the objective seems to be is to praise and defend the Dakota as noble, peace-loving victims of land-grabbing white men,” he said. “[They were] ultimately pushed to strike out the white man. [They’re] demonizing the white man. Calling them colonists and making that a bad term. Even making settlers a bad term. Stealing Dakota land, violating treaties, and [forcing] the Dakota to change their lifestyle. There is no reason to disparage one group and try to raise another. We’re all humans and we all make mistakes. None of us are perfect. There’s something very fundamentally wrong with them re-writing history.”

The Junior Pioneers were founded in 1912 by children and descendants of the original settlers some 50 years after the six-week war. Every August the group still commemorates the outbreak of the conflict, visiting historical sites and sharing stories.

In light of what he has found, Dahlin told the crowd of Junior Pioneers there are actions they should take to stop what is currently happening. He wants people to keep telling the true history of the US-Dakota War, write letters to officials and newspaper editors, establish a monument, band together to unite multiple voices, be factual and reasonable, and focus on the MHS Executive Board and the general public. He ended his presentation by urging the crowd not to stay silent on this issue.

“If we remain silent we will have surrendered,” Dahlin said. Dahlin received a standing ovation from the crowd as he finished his presentation.