Remarks by Minnesota Historical Society Director Stephen Elliott
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At the Dakota Iyuhenapi Owanzida “We Gather Together as One” Dakota Nationwide Conference, Friday, Sept. 30, 2011
Welcome to the Minnesota History Center.
And to those Dakota who have come a long way for this conference, welcome to Minnesota, a place we know is the Dakota ancestral homeland, the origin place and center of the Dakota universe. It is our great pleasure to help sponsor this conference for the third year.
We believe that “History Matters.” This is not an empty slogan. As everyone in this room knows, history matters because it shapes all of our lives. We have shared, albeit painful, history and to understand that legacy is to understand better ourselves and today.
MHS’s history is permanently tangled with the history of the Dakota. Because of this history, there is damage that must be acknowledged. MHS was founded in 1849 at the very time that the same men were taking Dakota and Ojibwe lands for settlement. They participated in businesses that exploited native people and in governments that acted deplorably. Those men went on to wage the war of 1862 and said horrendous things.
For many years MHS’s interpretation of history in its exhibits, at its sites, and in its publications was at times insensitive to Dakota conceptions and perspectives and did not include the Dakota in its processes. This may not all be rooted out yet. At times MHS was silent when we should have talked about the historical traumas surrounding the war. At times our collections have contained materials we should not have had and displayed. As you will see today, there are still things in our collections that should be examined with the Dakota. As with all humans, MHS simply does not know what it does not know.
We need your help. MHS needs to listen more closely and demonstrate a new spirit of openness and transparency to the Dakota as we recover the past together. We acknowledge that we can do better and are committed to that effort. MHS has a lot to learn from the Dakota and a lot to learn about itself. Together we can be powerful educational partners.
No series of events in Minnesota history is as important as the chain of events that led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its terrible aftermath. These shocking events are central to the story of Minnesota, and they produced historical traumas that still echo in those living today. It’s time to speak up about them. It can be tempting to turn away from the pain of these events, to deal with the trauma by suppressing the truth. But if history matters, we cannot get over it by turning away from it. We cannot shrink from our history.
If we are to move forward, we must look back to learn, to understand. With historical trauma, every generation must struggle to find its own meaning in the past, and to prepare our children for the future. There aren’t two sides to this story. There are as many sides as there are people who carried—and who still carry—the wounds of war, though the people who waged it long ago are long dead. It is everyone’s duty to face the past honestly and learn from it. Without the truth, there can be no peace.
The responsibility to show the story is our responsibility, but it is a shared responsibility because it cannot be told today in its fullness without Dakota voices. “To commemorate” literally means to remember together. MHS has an amazing and rich record of the events surrounding 1862. It documents corruption and atrocities. It documents courage, compassion and resilience. But it is incomplete because it scarcely contains the essential oral traditions that the Dakota keep and pass from one generation to the next.
We need a fuller understanding today. Understanding how the treaties dispossessed the Dakota of their homelands and the failure of U.S. authorities to honor the promises contained in the treaties, is central to understanding how such a terrible war could have happened. We have to look unflinchingly at the violence of the war: the killings, the marches, the internment camp, the hangings, the expulsion, the punitive expeditions, the forced assimilation policies, because all are a part of our collective DNA. These traumas are a part of us, as Minnesotans, as Dakota, as Americans.
In the months ahead, MHS commits itself to a process of truth recovery. To recover can mean to reclaim something, to reveal it, to save it or pull it out of oblivion. To recover can also mean a process of returning to health. Complete recovery may be impossible, but we know recovery will never be possible without the truth. Through the truth recovery process, MHS will work with the Dakota and others to make available the primary documents, images, objects, and perspectives that make the story whole and have the power to make us whole. Through exhibits, a website, oral histories, publications and programs like this, we can recover our collective past.
We can make this story available to everyone, in the service of remembrance and justice. We look forward to working with you.