Friday, April 24, 2015

Clash of Cultures

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through December 29, 2015

I confess before I went to this exhibit, I'd never heard of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862; I thought the only war going on that year was the Civil War.  On the contrary, another conflict took place, far from the Mason-Dixon line.

Students from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota produced this exhibit as part of a class on the war.  It consists of banners with reproductions of maps and photographs and other information about Dakota culture, their early interactions with white Americans and the deterioration of the relationship that led to an attack by Dakota akicitas (warriors).  Although initially overpowered by the Dakota forces, the U.S. Army's superior military might turned the tide against them.  Eventually, the Dakota people were driven from Minnesota entirely.

The story is a sad one; a tale of two incompatible worldviews, that ended with the mightier force victorious.  The Dakota Way of Being emphasizes sharing among family groups, complex ties between and among families and a general sense of connectedness with not only other human beings but with nature and the land.  Contrast this with industrial capitalism as a way of organizing society, and you can see that conflict is inevitable.

When large numbers of white settlers came into Minnesota, promises to the Dakota began to be broken, treaties were signed and then ignored, and the native people were cheated by those more sophisticated in their business dealings.  I found myself reminded of payday lenders, preying on the most vulnerable members of society, making huge profits from the financial straits of those less fortunate.

When the Dakota had borne all they could bear, they attacked the white settlers near New Ulm (I once had a roommate from there, so I'd heard of the town before).  Hundreds died and thousands were displaced.  38 Dakota akicitas were hung, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, after what were basically show trials.  The remaining members of the tribe, most of them women, children and the elderly, were forcibly removed from Minnesota and sent to reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.  By May 1863, no Dakota were left in the state.

I wish there would have been a section of the display that related the thoughts of the students in the class who prepared this display.  How much did they know about this incident before taking the class?  How did their perceptions of U.S. history and of the relationships between the native tribes and the U.S. government change as a result of their studies?

It also would have been interesting to know what the descendants of the relocated Dakota are doing now.  Are they still on these reservations?  Have they integrated into white society?  Have stories about this war been passed down through the generations?

Verdict: A very informative display, especially when you consider that this was done by students, not by curators.  Not a "fun" exhibit by any means, but certainly one that is thought-provoking.

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