States of Incarceration: MNHS Exhibit Sparks Debate

States of Incarceration: MNHS Exhibit Sparks Debate

Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple speaks to an audience of Dakota held at Fort Snelling in 1863. Image courtesy of MNHS Collections.

In recent weeks, a debate has been sparked by a traveling exhibit called States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories, which is currently being displayed in the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota History Center. As a whole, the exhibit considers states of incarceration in seventeen states throughout the country and is a collaboration of, as stated on their website, “over 800 students and others deeply affected by incarceration” (https://statesofincarceration.org/about-project). Regarding Minnesota, authors of the exhibit have chosen to focus on the high rates of incarceration among Natives and have titled this portion of the exhibit, “Carceral Colonialism: Imprisonment in Indian Country.” Authors of this portion of the exhibit have sought to investigate “the disproportionate rate of American Indian incarceration in the state” (https://statesofincarceration.org/states/minnesota-carceral-colonialism-imprisonment-indian-country). In doing so, researchers wish to consider the full context of the Native experience by exploring Minnesota’s history of exploitation toward Native populations. This includes the U.S. – Dakota War and its aftermath. In particular, the camp of innocent Dakota people who were held at Fort Snelling during the winter of 1862-63 and who were eventually exiled from the state.

The controversy arose when a local historian, Curtis Dahlin, published an article in the Star Tribune titled, Counterpoint: U.S.–Dakota Historical Exhibit Gets Some Things Wrong (Nov. 30, 2018). In his article, Dahlin points out what he believes are historical inaccuracies while also claiming intentional bias are the part of the exhibit’s authors. Also, Dahlin takes issue with the term “concentration camp” calling it “a flagrant misrepresentation.”

Dahlin’s article sparked numerous responses. The first of which was published in the Star Tribune on December 5, 2018, titled, Counterpoint: Remember the Trauma of the Dakota in Recalling the 1862 War by John R. Legg. Legg argues that “for decades, the overarching theme of white victimhood and American innocence dominated the contested history,” and he claims that Dahlin’s analysis “neglects the suffering of exile from western Minnesota to Fort Snelling . . .” Legg concludes by stating that “continued misunderstandings about Dakota War history mean historical accuracy is lost and pain still forced on the indigenous population.”

Further criticism on Dahlin’s essay came in an article published by the Star Tribune on December 10, 2018, titled, Counterpoint: Paint the Dakota’s Plight in the Winter of 1862 as it Was—Horrific by Charles R. Vig, Shelley Buck, and Brian Pendleton. Author’s of this article state that “Dahlin downplays the long record of the federal government’s coercion of the Dakota people,” and call Dahlin’s article “an effort to minimize the tragedy that befell our ancestors.”

In a final response, the Minnesota Historical Society published an article on December 11, 2018, titled Elevating Historically Silenced Narratives Long Overdue by Kate Beane. Beane, who is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux, takes issue with Dahlin’s language when he called the Dakota people “dependents” of the United States and she argued against Dahlin’s comment that the camp at Fort Snelling was a “compassionate response by the white authorities.” Rather, Beane argues that “Native American voices serve as a lens through which the story of mass incarceration is told” and she concludes by stating, “we have not relinquished the right to speak for ourselves to interpret our own story—our history matters.”

Finally, on December 19, 2018, an article in support of Dahlin’s original critique was published by the Star Tribune titled, Counterpoint: After the 1862 War, Authorities Tried to Shield the Dakota From Revenge. The article was written by eight independent historians who state that they “have spent years studying the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862.” The authors of this article consider the context of the camp at Fort Snelling which followed the death of approximately 600 white settlers at the hands of Dakota combatants. The authors argue that had the innocent Dakota been left alone on the prairie they might have died from starvation or the attacks of incensed whites seeking revenge. They conclude by stating that “the story of the Dakota and other tribes is compelling enough without incorrect assertions.”

What this exhibit and its public debate clearly shows is the unresolved tension surrounding the tragic and controversial history of our state. What began as an academic endeavor to evaluate the disproportionate rates of incarceration among Natives, has boiled over into a passioned, emotional argument regarding the portrayal of historical events. I do not wish to argue the historical accuracy of certain figures, nor to consider the linguistic nuances of certain terms. I acknowledge that those are important factors in order to understand our history, but I do not believe it is productive under these circumstances.

As a Minnesotan, and someone deeply curious about the complex history of my home, I am disheartened by a debate which, seems to me, lacking in understanding and fruitfulness. I don’t believe Dahlin meant any harm when he published his observations. Dahlin is one the most prolific authors regarding the U.S.–Dakota War and has published thoughtful, well-researched books about both sides of the war. Also, I don’t believe his critics meant to degrade the perspective of whites who also suffered greatly as a result of the U.S.–Dakota War. I think what’s missing, is the understanding that all of us, whether Indian or white, historian or amateur, are seeking the same goal. Ultimately, we all seek to reconcile our past that we might create a more just, equal, and enduring society.

Minnesota was not established without strife, suffering, or exploitation. Neither is understanding achieved without challenging our past while engaging in discussion with one another. This often leads to controversy. But we must remember that our understanding is influenced by our own experience. Because of this, so is history. In order to achieve understanding, we must acknowledge the perspectives of others and respect their experience while adding it to our own. Emotion is not without its usefulness, but as we strive to comprehend and (hopefully) right the wrongs of our past, we must not be carried away by our own self-righteous determination for vindication of our own biased viewpoints.

Read history. Study history. Talk to your friends, neighbors, and teachers. But do not broaden the discussion to fit your needs. Indeed, write your own thoughtful history that it might be added to the discussion—that it might become a part of the historiography. The exhibit, States of Incarceration, is now a part of that historiography. See it. Filter it. Use the information you find to broaden your understanding. If it is biased, why might the authors write this way? Does it overcompensate for a previously dominant narrative? Should it? Or, should it be more balanced? As you read and interpret history, ask yourself these questions. What did the author include? What did the author exclude? When and under what context was it written?   

One hundred fifty-six years after the hanging of thirty-eight Dakota people in Mankato (+2 at Fort Snelling in 1865), there is still a need for healing. There is also, and perhaps always will be, a need for historical scholarship to further vet and understand the complexities of our convoluted past. Reconciliation will not be easy, but it is possible.

On January 8, 2019, the Minnesota Historical Society will host an event titled, States of Incarceration Conversations: Emerging Leaders. This will be a good place to add to your perspective and contribute to the discussion.     

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