Anger to empathy at the US – Dakota war exhibit

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Until recently I shared with Jan Klein, and for that matter thousands of other Minnesotans, a deep well of ignorance about the US – Dakota war of 1862.

Here’s Jan in a photo taken by MPR’s Jeff Thompson as she walked through the Minnesota Historical Society exhibit recently.

You can hear my Minnesota Sounds and Voices report on my visit with Jan later today, as part of Friday’s All Things Considered.

I seem to recall Minnesota history was a part of the curriculum in my 5th or 6th grade year in school.

There must have been a mention of the war then, but I have no recollection.

Jan says same for her.

The well is no longer empty for either of us.

Part of the reason is the US – Dakota war of 1862 exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Jan served on the ten-member advisory panel of settler descendants. A panel of 75 Dakota also advised the Historical Society.

Her great great grandfather, Charles Clasen, and his son, were killed by Dakota fighters in the Birch Coulee battle. She says the family lore is that her great great grandmother Carolina hid from attackers in a nearby cornfield for three days until rescued. Other family members were among the more than 200 white settlers taken hostage by the Dakota.

Jan says at first she was angry the early plans for the exhibit were, in her view, slanted toward a sympathetic view of the Dakota.

Then as time passed she says her empathy grew. Jan says watching the exhibit take shape expanded her awareness of the starvation and other problems faced by the Dakota, things she said she did not know about.

A cruel irony is that a good number of the hundreds of white settlers killed were immigrants from what is now Germany attempting to escape political chaos and violence in their homeland.

Jan explains and historians agree, that quite a few didn’t speak English, some befriended the Dakota, a neighborliness some of the Dakota returned.

Jan says the the 150th anniversary exhibit has had a big impact on her thinking. When she and others placed a plaque recently at Morton City Hall in Renville County near Birch Coulee to commemorate the murdered settlers, she said the ceremony included a prayer for the Dakota.

As a result of her work as an adviser Jan says she received a call from a Dakota woman, who she declines to identify; they talked amicably, and Jan says the call ended with the Dakota woman inviting her to a powwow.

The knowledge and empathy gained by Jan Klein will likely be experienced by many who view the St. Paul exhibit and another traveling the state called Why Treaties Matter.

The exhibit’s web page says the exhibit explains how the dozens of treaties signed by American Indians living in Minnesota affected their lives.

Both show how the long tendrils of government deceit have caused tragic consequences for innocent bystanders.

The Historical Society’s US – Dakota War of 1862 exhibit runs through next summer.

The Why Treaties Matter traveling exhibit locations and dates include:

Thursday, August 23, 2012 through Saturday, September 22, 2012 at Ramsey County Historical Society, St. Paul.

Monday, October 1, 2012 through Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at Winona County Historical Society, Winona.

Monday, October 15, 2012 through Monday, November 12, 2012, Eden Prairie Schools, Eden Prairie.

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