Dakota protesters meet sesquicentennial wagon train

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Several dozen Native American protesters and allies tried to upstage a Minnesota Sesquicentennial event at Fort Snelling Saturday. Protesters said the state’s 150th birthday celebration failed to tell the whole story and demanded the state acknowledge broken treaties, land theft and ethnic cleansing.

Protesters jammed a narrow roadway, blocking passage of the Minnesota Statehood Sesquicentennial Wagon Train as it rolled into the fort. The wagon train and fort are powerful symbols for many Native people, symbols of oppression and injustice.

A speaker with a microphone registered grievances.

“All these guys on wagon trains are descendants of killers of indigenous peoples, breakers of treaties,” he said. “And you people call yourself civilized. You people call yourself Christian … but you are killers, and liars and land stealers.”

The standoff ended peacefully, with at least seven people cited for misdemeanor disorderly conduct, including two juveniles, said Sgt. Mike Benson of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.


Some of the protesters lay in the road, with signs that said: “If we get in your way, will you kill us again?” (Photo by Scott Russell)

“They can pay the fine or go to court,” said Benson, who said he did not have an exact count. “A couple said they want to go to court so they could make their statement in front of the judge.”

The wagon train started Monday in Cannon Falls. It was to spend the night at Fort Snelling before finishing its trek Sunday, going down Summit Avenue to the State Capitol.

According to promotional materials, the wagon train’s purpose includes celebrating Minnesota’s 150th anniversary as a state, encouraging historical preservation and appreciation of the state’s heritage, practicing land and trail stewardship and having a good time.

Heather Koop, the Minnesota Historical Society’s director of southern Minnesota historic sites, said the fort is a site of great contention. It is the site of an internment camp after the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. Two Dakota men were hung there.

“I think it speaks to the importance of this place as an historic site,” said Koop, who watched the protest. “This is the kind of dialogue that we need to enter into with Dakota people to talk about these very difficult historic issues.”

Koop also seemed to try to put a little distance between the Historical Society and the wagon train. “The wagon train is a Sesquicentennial Commission program,” she said. “They are just resting here.”

The scene

The narrow road leading the fort was clogged. The wagon train and squad cars, lights flashing, lined up side by side.

At least 11 law enforcement units responded: three sheriff’s vehicles, six airport police vehicles, one veterans’ affairs police vehicle and an unmarked car. Sgt. Brown said 12 officers total responded, not counting the horseback patrol that had accompanying the Wagon Train and were present during the protest.

One young protester carried a pot of burning sage, wafting the smoke over other protesters. Some protesters beat drums and sang. Still others carried signs: “Sesquicentennial 150 Years of Lies” and “I am not Invisible.” Some protesters lay on the ground in front of a squad car with a pair of signs, reading: “If we get in your way” … “Will you kill us again?”

Some passersby stopped to watch. One older man, apparently displeased with the protest, got into a short but sharp verbal exchange with a Native woman. It went something like this:

“Go back to your casino and take our money!” the man said.

“I am glad you are giving your money to us,” the woman retorted. “You owe it! Thank you.”

Someone intervened and it did not escalate.

Clyde Bellecourt, founder and national director of the American Indian Movement, said organizers had held a press conference but no one showed. “The press doesn’t show up unless you do something like this,” he said.

Where’s the history?

Fort Snelling is the Historical Society’s most visited tourist attraction. It has living history set around the 1820s. Historical re-enactors portray the fort’s physician, blacksmith, cook, soldiers and others, including Col. Josiah Snelling, the fort’s first commander (1820-1827).

Fort Snelling has no information about what happened in the 1860s, the uprising and its aftermath, unless you count a single book, The Dakota War of 1862, sold in the bookstore for $16.95.

Protesters say Native history is ignored and suppressed. For instance, Bellecourt said the government allowed hundreds of interned Indians to freeze to death in the shadow of Fort Snelling, refusing to distribute food, medicine or fire wood.

Leafing through The Dakota War of 1862, the book calls the post-war trials “a travesty of justice” with a number of Native prisoners “condemned on flimsy evidence.”

The book does not mention how many died during that winter of internment. It says: “Reaching Fort Snelling on November 13, the captives were placed in a gloomy, fenced camp of tepees on the north bank of the Minnesota River. There they spent a wretched winter awaiting the government’s decision regarding their future.”

Where among the Historical Society’s venues would one go to find the complicated and tragic history of the events of the 1860s? Koop said one place is the visitor’s center in the Lower Sioux Agency in Morton, near Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota. That’s where the violence started.

But that is a long way from the urban center—and opportunities to educate large numbers of visitors.

Koop said the Historical Society is looking at revamping the historical interpretation at Fort Snelling. In addition to the current story of the 1820s, it would talk about the full breadth of history—the American Civil War, the U.S.-Dakota War and World War II.

“That is the work we are doing right now, talking with the Dakota elders and others in the Indian community, about that history and what is the best way to tell those stories.”

Bellecourt is skeptical, saying there have been many years of dialogue. “They haven’t done anything yet,” he said.

Comment from the Colonel

Bill Keyes, the Historical Society’s director of the sites and museums, said historic interpretation at the Fort is done around individual spaces, such as the barracks or physician’s quarters. That happens through conversation with people doing the historical re-enactment.

That means people could learn about the history of the U.S.-Dakota war, but only if they think to ask about it.

On the day of the protest, the man portraying Col. Snelling said people rarely ask him about the U.S.-Dakota War. “More often you volunteer it,” he said.

So when people ask, is the Colonel critical of the U.S. government’s actions?

“We try to talk about the historical record,” Snelling said. “It is not a matter of having to criticize. It is very evident. You can see where the U.S. government fell short in its treatment of the Native people.”

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.

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