This post originally appeared Sunday, May 13, in the 14th edition of First Nations News & Views, one element in the "Invisible Indians" project created by navajo and me. Here is where you can view All Previous Editions.
For a dozen years, Carter Meland has taught American Indian literature in the University of Minnesota's American Indian Studies program. This term 60 students in his "American Indians in Minnesota" class explored an issue previously examined in First Nations News & Views here and here: the 1862 Dakota War. They came away so appalled that they made a video.
The Dakotas (also known as Santee Sioux or Eastern Dakota) had been promised 1.4 million acres in perpetuity in exchange for giving up 23 million acres. Cut off from their hunting grounds, faced with two bad harvests, encroached on all sides by white settlers and having their treaty-guaranteed food distributions delayed, they sought confirmation of the land deal. They also asked for a loan so they could buy food to hold them over to the next season. The government-appointed Indian agent, Andrew Myrick, said, "If they are hungry, let them eat grass." Five days later, the long-standing tensions exploded and white settlers were attacked. Myrick was soon found dead, his mouth stuff with grass.
President Lincoln's advisors and the president himself thought perhaps this uprising was engineered by the Confederacy, speculation which was found to be false later. Lincoln at one point contemplated sending 10,000 Rebel prisoners of war under Union command to "Attend to the Indians." Congress set a $25 bounty for each scalp of an Indian killed in the state. More than 1600 Dakota were placed in a concentration camp where hundreds starved. When the conflict was over, an estimated 500 whites and more than a 1000 Dakota were dead, although the actual numbers will be forever unknown. Several months after the six-week the conflict ended, 38 Dakota were executed on Lincoln's orders in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
That, however, was not the end of the maltreatment the state dealt to the Dakota and Ojibwe. A good portion of this was delivered in the cultural genocide that was the mission of the residential boarding schools which many Indian children were forced into after being grabbed from their parents.
When the UofM students were done with their exploration of this history, they decided that a government apology to the Dakota and Ojibwe people was in order. To make their case, they put together a five-part, one-hour video, An Overdue Apology,offering a brief history of those people and their interactions with non-Indians and the U.S. and state governments.
As you can see, it is an amateur film, created by non-historians, and it suffers from the speed with which it had to be produced. As the Minnesota Post's Paul Udstrand writes, "it’s not as polished as a Robert Redford documentary." But it covers the ground and provides the kind of information that ought to be taught about local tribes in every middle school, high school and college across the nation.
As Udstrand says:
The demand for an apology is quite provocative, but it shouldn’t be. In many ways it’s simply a request that history be recognized and accounted for. Nevertheless many people seem to take reflexive offense at the proposal, as if it’s a personal attack of some kind. This is a request for an apology from the US government and Government of MN, not a request for a personal apology from people who obviously did not participate in historical crimes or injustices. A president or governor may be the voice of that apology, but no one is claiming that they are personally responsible. This is not a bizarre concept, Government[s] are durable entities that are accountable for the duration of their existence. [...]Part 2: The Dakota War's atrocities, Dakota and Ojibwe traditions and daily life.
Before you declare an apology to be “meaningless” you need give those requesting the apology a chance to explain what it means to them. And since any consequences of an apology are created by the apology, one cannot declare an apology that has not been rendered to be inconsequential. Obviously an apology could be a meaningless gesture, but it could also be a bridge to a better understanding of history and more respectful relationships among people. You may be able to argue that an apology is useless as long as it’s theoretical, but once an actual apology is issued, it may well create a powerful significance.
Part 3: Land allotment, blood quantum issues, the boarding schools and renaming of Indian children with Christian names.
Part 4: Economic revitalization, Indian gaming, interviews with UofM students on their knowledge of the tribes.
Part 5: Gaining justice, the rationale behind an apology, nine UofM students from Meland's class express support for Minnesota Indians by giving their own apologies for the injustices that have occurred in the state:
“The fight for indigenous rights fits into a larger struggle for social justice. Social justice is the upholding of the natural law that all persons irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc. are to be treated with equity and without prejudice. The path to justice for American Indians in Minnesota starts with recognizing the implications that these historical events have on relations between Native and non-Native communities. Things like the Dakota War and the dispossession of White Earth are part of a colonialist system that damages Native sovereignty and identity.”An apology isn't the end-all, be-all of reconciliation. But it's always a good start.