Clubs, Hatchets, Knives and Beams Part 1

Clubs, Hatchets, Knives, and Beams:

European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display

By Zabelle Stodola, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

June 2012

I’m Zabelle Stodola, Carrie Zeman’s co-editor for  A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War, which the University of Nebraska Press formally released on 1 June 2012.

Unlike Carrie, who is a public historian, I’m a literary scholar who has published extensively on Indian captivity narratives, defined as stories of people captured by Native Americans.[i] Mary and John Renville’s narrative interests me so much because their captive experience was protective (among John’s kin), not punitive (among enemies) like many of their fellow captives. Who the Renvilles were and what happened, or didn’t happen, to them fundamentally affected how they told their story.

Apart from A Thrilling Narrative, my two most recent books are The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature (University of Nebraska Press, 2009) and Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (Penguin, 1989).

My research for both The War in Words and A Thrilling Narrative immersed me in the past and present politics of the US-Dakota War. But as a first generation immigrant to the United States with a very mixed ethnic background—English, Armenian, Irish, German Jewish—I  am an outsider to Minnesota history, with no particular stake in it.[ii] That, plus the fact that my academic qualifications lie in literature and what’s called cultural studies, means that I have a different perspective than most commentators on whether purported beam fragments from the scaffold on which 38 Dakotas were hanged simultaneously on 26 December 1862 should be exhibited.[iii]

I cannot say that my approach is necessarily more objective than those of you with close ties to the state and its history. But I can say that my subjectivity is political and professional, not personal. Thus I see the current debate in the context of artifacts connected with past white/Indian wars and with captivity narratives and other memorials (visual as well as verbal) from those conflicts. Some of these memorials include the club supposedly belonging to King Philip (Metacomet), who held Mary Rowlandson in 1675/76; and the hatchet and knife with which—according to tradition—Hannah Dustan killed and scalped (yes, scalped) her native captors in 1697; not to mention the infamous scaffold beam  as well as other Dakota War-related items.

I’d like to consider—and I’d like you to consider—a range of questions connected with what I’m calling “the ethics of display.” In this series, space precludes my ability to address all the issues below,  but they are there for you to reflect on:

  • What if anything is intrinsically precious about these artifacts?
  • Are some of them truly relics rather than inert pieces of evidence?
  • Should they be accessed and displayed?  If so where?
  • Who should own them?
  • Should they be available to researchers, descendants, and the general public or to only some of these constituents?
  • Who decides?
  • Do such decisions constitute censorship?
  • Does display hamper or help “truth and reconciliation” efforts, especially concerning bitterly contested wars and horrific atrocities? In other words, if these items are visible, do they aid closure or do they foster further discord?
  •  If neither, do these objects at least perform an important purpose by conveying information and making history real?
  • What functions do such artifacts serve at commemorative milestones?
  • Can authenticity and provenance be definitively proved?

To explore these questions I will use information on two early American women who became the subjects of famous captivity narratives, Mary Rowlandson and Hannah Dustan, and also revisit the current controversy over displaying artifacts from the US-Dakota War, itself the subject of countless captivity narratives.[iv]


This is a seven-part series running daily June 15-21, 2012. The last installment will include a link to the full article in PDF form. –Carrie Zeman


Notes to Part 1 

[i] While I have published mostly on Indian captivity narratives, there is a whole field now called Captivity Narrative Studies which analyzes stories of captors and captives from any background. In fact my book The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009) looks at various forms of confinement and captivity including the accounts of Native Americans imprisoned by European Americans after the US-Dakota War.

[ii] In the interests of full disclosure, my husband and I own a cabin in the Superior National Forest which has been in his family since the early 1960s. Also, one set of his grandparents—long since dead—lived in St. Paul.  But that’s the extent of our connection to the state.

[iii] The website provides a brief and helpful definition of cultural studies. The first sentence defines the term as an “interdisciplinary field concerned with the role of social institutions in the shaping of culture.”

[iv] The name is variously spelled Dustan, Dustin, and Duston. I have chosen to spell it “Dustan,” but later in the essay I preserve other spellings if different sources employ them. One of the best known of the US-Dakota War captivity narratives, which appeared in two editions right after the war, is by Sarah F. Wakefield.  See Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees (Minneapolis: Atlas, 1863 and Shakopee: Argus, 1864). For a modern edition see Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, ed., Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (New York: Penguin, 1989), 237-313.  My anthology  also contains Rowlandson’s and Dustan’s accounts. I will discuss artifacts relating to Wakefield’s story later in this posting.

This entry was posted in Blue Earth County Beam, Commemorating Controversy, Minnesota Historical Society, Zabelle Stodola. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Clubs, Hatchets, Knives and Beams Part 1

  1. Pingback: Clubs, Hatchets, Knives, and Beams, Part 2 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  2. Pingback: Clubs, Hatchets, Knives and Beams Part 3 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  3. Pingback: Clubs, Hatchets, Knives and Beams, Part 4 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  4. Pingback: Clubs, Hatchets, Beams and Knives, Part 6 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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