Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Living History

Nearly two years ago Dr. Elizabeth Baer, a professor of Holocaust Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, approached me about a course on the Dakota Conflict she was planning for 2012 along with Ben Leonard, the director of the Nicollet Historical Society at Traverse des Sioux. We met at Centennial Lakes and sat on a bench overlooking a tranquil pond. A summer sun glinted on the waters, incongruous to the violent events we discussed. We, the inheritors of history, ate our lunch and talked about the privations leading up to the war. How could a course on this event do justice, include voices on all sides?

It must have been one of many such conversations that Elizabeth Baer had while planning the course. January of 2012 seemed like a long ways away to me then, an abstraction. I was pleased to be included, honored to represent the role of the imagination in interpreting history. When the lunch ended, we went our separate ways and checked back in now and then over the course of next twenty-four months as the speaking engagement crept closer.

This remains a troubled, controversial history. In a recent column welcoming the state's first female American Indian legislator, columnist Lori Sturdevant draws a direct connection to the "150th anniversary of the Dakota War." She reminds us of William's Faulkner's injunction that "the past isn't over; it isn't even the past," a lesson she learned all too well when she was bombarded with angry emails from all sides after a column she published about the conflict. "Good luck" she wishes to the Minnesota Historical Society or any other groups organizing events around the sesquicentennial. (See: for the full column.)

Like Lori Sturdevant, I'll admit a little nervousness heading into my presentation. I'm happy to report that in this case she was wrong. The people did come, but there wasn't any spirit of contention, nor clamors of protest. That summer day I first spoke with Elizabeth, I could not have pictured anything like what happened when I showed up last Tuesday to speak at Alumni Hall on the Gustavus campus. Over two hundred people had gathered to listen and dialogue about the Dakota Conflict, along with another forty or so more who watched the lecture via simulcast at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

It’s a strange feeling to stand in front of such a crowd, especially for me, an author who is grateful if just one person happens to show up for a reading. The mood I picked up from the crowd was one of hunger, if that is even the right word. They were hungry for knowledge and understanding. I did what I know how to do: I told stories. I reminded them of how the word “story” lives inside the word “history,” of the importance of keeping stories alive, and of all the ways stories honor the dead. When Glen Wasicuna, a Dakota language instructor, began telling a few stories passed down to him during the question and answer session, stories he is now passing along to the next generation of youth, I felt how the audience leaned toward him.

August of this year will mark the sesquicentennial of the Dakota Conflict and this history remains what I've described as "a living wound in the time continuum." Look at the picture above, how many people came from the community of St. Peter and surrounding areas, gathered to honor the past. It’s something I’ve also seen in places like Cambridge, Minnesota and Winona where my book was a community wide read. If this history is a wound, it’s only through such dialogues that a possibility for healing might emerge.

You can find out more about the Commemorating Controversy series on the Dakota Conflict here: There are videos of past presentations and two more events remain in the series: Corinne Monjeau-Marz speaks on Tuesday, January 24, and the final evening features Gwen Westerman-Wasicuna on Thursday, January 26.

Two years of planning on the part of historian Ben Leonard and Elizabeth Baer went into the making of this series. It’s wonderful to see so much thoughtful preparation bring about such a fruitful and necessary dialogue. I urge you to check out the lecture series, either in person or online. History lives inside each one of us, as close “as our own heartbeat” as Asa learns in The Night Birds. Taking time to remember shapes our lives, our families, and our communities in ways that have a positive, lasting impact.

1 comment:

Welcome said...

Wow. Huge crowd. That's great, Tom.