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December 26 marks the 160th anniversary of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In 1862, at the height of the Civil War, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, on the day after Christmas. The events leading up to the war, the complexities of the frontier, and the resistance of the Dakota and their Native allies is a story that mirrors so many others throughout the history of American imperialism. It’s imperative that we, as educators, continue to learn and teach about these tragic events.
What Was the U.S.-Dakota War?
Minnesota is Dakota homeland. The state name is a Dakota word meaning “water that reflects the sky.” According to the Bdewanketon Dakota, the origin of all human life is at bdote, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in what is today St. Paul. In the half-century after the United States acquired the territory from France In 1803, Dakota land was ceded in dozens of unfair treaties, a majority of the buffalo had been killed or driven west, and Fort Snelling was built as a physical reminder of American imperialism and westward expansion. By 1862, tensions had risen as White settlers flocked to Minnesotan farmland, the Dakota were starving, and the annuity payments that had been promised to them never came. Then, in August 1862, a group of Dakota hunters killed a White family, and a six-week war erupted in the Minnesota River Valley. In all, about 50 Dakota warriors and about 450 White settlers and soldiers died during the war.
But the war was only the beginning. After the battles ended, Dakota warriors were tried without lawyers in a system of kangaroo courts. Meanwhile, Dakota women, children, and elders were marched hundreds of miles away to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where an estimated 300 people perished over the harsh winter months. Eventually, all U.S. treaties with the Dakota would be annulled, Dakota people would be banished to a reservation across the border in Dakota territory, and bounties would be offered for Dakota scalps by the state government in St. Paul. A series of unfair trials originally referred over 300 Dakota men to hang, but President Lincoln, fresh off the bloodiest Civil War battle at Antietam, reduced the number to 38. These men were hung in Mankato on December 26, 1862, a day that marks the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
We Need to Teach About Difficult History
I am always amazed by how many people in Minnesota – let alone the rest of the United States – don’t know the story of this war and its resulting tragedies. We are surrounded by places that evoke memories of the war, but these places often go unnoticed by White Minnesotans because they lack proper signage, memorials, and storytelling.
I first learned about the war in a class at the University of Minnesota. It is now finally a state standard for 6th grades, but it remains absent otherwise. A deep sadness comes over me when I learn about tragedies that I was ignorant of in the past, but this shame and anger drive me to teach a more diverse, robust, and complex history than the one I was taught. Grappling with my own ignorance can often paralyze me – especially as a teacher who loves to pretend I know everything. As a White Minnesotan, learning more about the genocide in this state brings additional feelings of shame and paralysis. When faced with the difficult truths of our history, we need to work towards understanding them. We cannot continue to turn away and ignore the tragedies of our past.
“There are important stories of the genocide that defines our American history in every region of the country” Teaching About Tragedy: The Execution of the Dakota 38 Click To Tweet
Resources to Learn and Teach About the Dakota 38
As an educator, I have uncovered more of the hidden history of Minnesota’s genocide by attending Indigenous-led workshops and Bdote Tours and visiting memorials that have (finally) been erected around the state in memory of the war and its aftermath. Now I teach an American Indian Studies elective for seniors at my Minneapolis high school, and we study the war for three weeks each semester. It’s only through developing this curriculum and inviting Indigenous guest speakers into my classroom that I have fully gained an understanding of this historical moment and how it represents the greater genocide committed against Indigenous Americans by the U.S. government.
As educators, it’s imperative that we educate ourselves and learn more about the histories of the places we teach. In studying this U.S.-Dakota War in particular, the Minnesota Historical Society’s website www.usdakotawar.org is a good place to start, with extensive videos, interviews, and maps that tell a comprehensive story. They also have an interactive “Broken Promises” activity that is an excellent tool for teaching young learners about unfair treaties, but even my 12th-grade students also get intensely involved in it. There is also a podcast called “Little War on the Prairie” with extensive reporting on the war, along with a free documentary, Dakota 38, that follows Dakota riders as they trace their ancestors’ steps to the hanging site in an act of memorial and reconciliation. Landmarks from the U.S.-Dakota War, and the countless acts of genocide similar to it, dot the landscape all over the United States, but you have to know where to look. Too many Americans are clueless about this past, and it’s important that we make sure that this isn’t the case for future generations.
We Are All Teaching On Indigenous Land
No matter where you live, you are on Indigenous land, and you are teaching on Indigenous land. These stories, too often forgotten, are so important to tell. Words like “manifest destiny,” “settler colonialism,” and “genocide” are thrown around in English and History classes across the country, but students need specific examples to truly understand the stories and impacts of these national trends. The U.S.-Dakota War and other conflicts between Indigenous nations and the United States offer an in-depth study of cause and effect, perspective and problem-solving, and the complexities of collective memory and reconciliation.
In class, it’s common to read books and watch films about the Holocaust and genocides abroad, but we must also turn our focus inward and examine the past of the places we live and teach. Whether it’s the Pequot massacre in New England, the Wounded Knee Massacre in the Midwest, or the Trail of Tears in the Southeast, there are important stories of the genocide that defines our American history in every region of the country. As the Right continues its efforts to try to keep educators from teaching this history honestly, it’s imperative that we continue to learn and teach about these tragic events.
In teaching about tragedy, however, we must also hone in on resistance. As the 38 Dakota men were marched to the gallows 160 years ago, they did not go quietly. One of the prisoners said, “Do not mourn for us. Remember this day to tell our children, so they can tell their children that we have died a noble death.” Just like the Dakota chiefs that made the impossibly hard decision to fight the atrocities they saw before them, Indigenous Americans today continue to resist neocolonialism, treaty violations, and environmental destruction while fighting for a better livelihood for their nation. These stories of resistance – both past and present – can offer our students of all backgrounds a roadmap for resistance and an image of hope.
Kristen Sinicariello is currently in her seventh year of teaching at a high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a Social Studies teacher, she is passionate about taking a diverse approach to history while helping students unpack bias in a rapidly changing world. Before stepping into the classroom, Kristen spent time as an outdoor educator and wilderness guide, and continues to find most of her opportunities for learning and personal growth in the outdoors. Currently she also keeps busy as a girls soccer coach, a union communications leader, and a Social Justice Club supervisor.
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