I imagined 2012 Dakota Commemorative March, at least part of it, might be my first. A short answer from my doctor this week,”No way,” ended that hope. But I will be there in spirit, supporting those who will be marching by doing what I do: public history.
My aim is not to convince you that history happened in a certain way, at a certain place or time between November 8 and 13, 1862. That was the frigid week when the members of the Dakota Peace Party and their families, accompanied by the women, children and elderly among the families of the Dakota men imprisoned at Mankato in the wake of the war, were marched by the military from the Lower Sioux Agency to a internment camp at Fort Snelling.
Rather, I will honor the stories told by people who were there: Dakota and settlers alike in 1862. I also want to share the historiographical stories from survivors that propel the 150 year old tragedy of “Minnesota’s Trail of Tears” into the present.
The “war” part of the 1862 story, roughly August 17-September 26, 1862, has all the stock characters of a Dime novel: heroes, villains, suspense, tragedy, resolution –even though the historiography of the war will be forever snarled over which elements deserve which labels.
But the wake of the war, especially the months of November and December 1862, is very different. To me, it reads like Annie Dillard’s novel The Living, where “living” struck me as waiting to die, the only questions being, when and by what means. It’s one of the few books I’ve had to put down and walk away from because I could not bear to read what I knew I’d find on the next page. Yet I absolutely had to finish the story.
I began researching the Dakota Women’s March (as it was then known) in 2002, published on that subject in 2008, and have continued to research since. In my estimation, it is the defining story of the Dakota War of 1862. Much harder to read than Dillard, and more critical, because it real life history.
There are no, “But it was only a dime novel-exaggeration!” dodges possible here. These stories come from the dark underbelly of documentary history in Mni Sota Mkoce. Painful as they will be to hear, this is who we were. And to the extent we fail to reckon with them and repudiate them, it remains who we are.
“What I have observed is that for those who believe that history happened a certain way — it does matter how their stories are told. History DOES matter. Details DO matter. And because it matters to someone, if I’m their neighbor, it should matter to me. That begs the 2000+ year old question…who is my neighbor.
Strong emotional reactions are tied to the personal belief that the story unfolded a certain way, and that it is the way they were told. Regardless of the documents you would view later, photos or the personal stories shared, any “proof to the contrary” that brings a detail into question, some stories passed down to us are ingrained as deeply as our DNA. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s ok to have competing “histories” and that we don’t have a neat little package of what exactly happened. We won’t get history right. But we need to acknowledge the person who has the competing historical details. Give honor to the person even if we disagree. Stop planning your rebuttal and listen.”
A note about the structure of this series. I have learned that I have two dedicated groups of readers. Some of you use this site like a blog and others use it like an on-line research library.
Daily readers won’t be disappointed because there will be a lot of new primary sources in this series. But to streamline the process for those who use this website for research, I may make more than one post on the same day to give discrete primary sources a discrete URL. So scroll down when you arrive. The post on the top may not be the only new one.
Photo credit: The Hopeful Peacemaker.