Whitewashing History, Part I


“Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence” by Norman Rockwell (detail)

So: What is wrong with Justina Kriegher’s stories?

Not much, if we take them as they are: as stories. Quite a bit if we take them as we have: as history.

In high school we learned that history books are secondary sources, not primary ones. So anything Charles S. Bryant wrote in his own voice, we naturally read with skepticism. (Bryant published the best known version Kriegher’s 1862 story.)  These are the opening words in Bryant’s Preface to his 1864 book, A History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians:

“The massacre in Minnesota, by the Annuity Sioux Indians, in August, 1862, marks an epoch in the history of savage races. In their westward march across the American continent, in the van of higher civilization, the native red men have, at different times, given sad and fearful evidences of their enmity to the dominant white race; but from the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers on the rock-bound coast of New England, in the winter of 1620, until their descendants  had passed the center of the continent, and reached the lovely plains of Minnesota, no exhibition of Indian character had so afflicted and appalled the soul of humanity, as the fearful and deliberate massacre perpetrated on them in August, 1862. And, in the following work, it has been the sole object of the authors to present, for the benefit of the present and future generations, the astounding truths connected with this bloody drama in our history.” (p. iii)

That rhetoric is boiler-plate for 19th century history books; most people today don’t take it seriously.

Yet, many still treat material that appears in direct quotes within a secondary source, like Kriegher’s story, as if it is primary evidence. Bryant assured his readers they could do that very thing: “Much of the matter relating to the massacre will be found in the language of those who had themselves escaped from the horrors they so graphically describe.” (p. iii)

Bryant was shrewd. Justina Kriegher was a real person who experienced part of the 1862 war.  She also actually testified before the Sioux Claims Commission in 1863, where Bryant claimed to have written down her words as rendered in English by a translator. Although Bryant’s claim to have been present lacks confirmation, it is plausible; an Iowa reporter also claimed the settler-survivor stories he published were reproduced from notes  taken while attending Sioux Commission hearings in St. Peter, Minnesota.

All of those factors lent the stories in Bryant’s book verisimilitude –an air of truthfulness –back in 1864. The question is whether stories like these should figure in to our understanding of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 today. The answer hinges on what we think the master narrative ought to say.

To Tell or Not to Tell

What is our purpose in telling and retelling stories? Or in not telling them?

Two opposite view points  –two proposed master narratives –have captured media attention in 2012.

Many sincere scholars see danger in the modern interpretive trend to airbrush atrocities out of 1862 stories in favor of a kinder-gentler (and less accurate) re-visioning of our collective past. This, they warn, dismisses the experiences of settlers whose lives were shattered by the Dakota War and underestimates the pain and rage that fueled post-war attitudes and actions toward Dakota people.

Scholars in this camp generally view themselves as  guardians of endangered history. They cross-reference Kriegher’s stories and  compare them to similar atrocities reported in other period sources. (We learned that in high school history, too: three or more sources, they say, constitutes historical credibility.)

As they understand the Dakota War, very specific numbers of white people (and one black man) were killed at specific places on specific dates, many of them by specific Dakota bands or individuals.  Almost every victim has a name, a gender and an age. Most have known families and stories. In many neighborhoods, whites who were injured but survived, and those who escaped (and where they escaped to, and how) are also documented facts. There’s nothing vague about this data or the ways it can be crunched to produced detailed stories of what happened where.

In the opposite corner are people who reject the stories of atrocities committed on settlers in 1862. Some propose that  traditional warfare was brutal and that unarmed civilians were legitimate targets. This normalizes acts that in another place and time might be called ‘war crimes’ –a back-handed way of acknowledging that at least some  of the so-called atrocities were real. Others believe that atrocity allegations and settler deaths are, at minimum, grossly inflated, if not outright untrue. So they reject them entirely.

In stories sourced in this camp, vague numbers of people die (like, “hundreds on both sides”). War-time victims are euphemistically re-christened “settlers” and “newcomers,” erasing racial identity. Settlers/newcomers die in vague, unspecified ways in the wings, while Dakotas take center stage and die in specific (atrocious) ways: starved, bayoneted, drowned, in concentration camps, by execution. White deaths are studiously attributed to no one (certainly not to the 38 Dakota men convicted of and executed for murder; in this script, the 38 are innocent victims).

The authors of this narrative cast themselves as truth-tellers on a spiritual mission: stamping out 150-years of racism enshrined in history; speaking up for unacknowledged atrocities perpetrated on Dakota people. Kriegher’s stories, to them, are fictional inventions by historians like Bryant whose goal, they say, was to prop up a white male power structure hell-bent on genocide.

Despite their differences, both camps share something in common: their most visible, vocal advocates selectively embrace and/or reject stories to support their agenda –their own master narrative of how the rest of us, in the present, should view our past and our future.

Calling Out the Middle Ground

Then there are people like me. I don’t claim the middle ground is more virtuous territory. I simply recognize that I am one of the swing-voters in the contest for the emerging story.

As I have traveled across the Midwest this year, visiting with descendants of  white and Dakota people, I have found most fall into neither camp. That may be no accident; maybe we’re drawn toward each another by our mutual curiosity, our mutual dissatisfaction with the received story of 1862.

We stand somewhere in the wide middle ground between the two camps, taking it all in, trying to sort history from rhetoric, trying to answer to our own satisfaction big questions like: Were the Dakotas interned at Fort Snelling in a concentration camp? Were the Dakota men executed at Mankato innocent? Can we accurately apply terms like “war crimes” and “genocide” to the 1862 story?

With the bewildering array of “evidence” on the table will we ever arrive at a coherent story to pass down to our children?

With time, we will. We start by critically considering the stories we hear —all of them. We lay down the broad brushes of  racial guilt and racial pride that historically were used (and continue to be used) to whitewash our side of the story-fence. That means nobody gets a break for claiming descent from a historically oppressed people group, and nobody is allowed to rest on the moral laurels of their oppressor-ancestors.

Like the intent-onlooker in the Rockwell painting, we consider the paint-job carefully, observing how the stories we’ve inherited have been whitewashed, and by whom, and to what end.

Except we will not be taken in by Tom Sawyer like that boy was, and pick up the whitewashing where Tom left off.


For contemporary, critical analysis of Charles S. Bryant as a historical source on the Dakota War of 1862, see Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature University of Nebraska Press, 2009, Chapter 4.

Rockwell painting detail: Google Images.

This entry was posted in Commemorating Controversy, Doing Historical Research, Primary Sources, truth-telling. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Whitewashing History, Part I

  1. Dale A. Weston says:

    Dakota Diaspora in context will need to be included in Minnesta curriculum.

  2. I commend your writing of this post. Some people say that occupying middle ground on anything is a cop-out. In actuality, it often takes courage, and requires a whole lot of discernment and discipline. Thanks for challenging us.

  3. Great analogies Carrie and of course, right on with the effort to be open to learning without bias!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s