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>History Journal 5: The 17 Minute Switch

June 19, 2011

>I’m not quite sure how western culture got stuck on a linear view of time. Sure, calendars based loosely on lunar cycles make some sense. But it seems like very little about life moves in a nice straight line. Life circles and loops and makes unexpected detours. So does researching history.

My research plan on Indian Hating was linear: I wanted to see if I could find orders from commander Henry Sibley that shed light on the cluster of entries in the diaries of his soldiers on the subject of, as one of them said, until Sibley forbade it, there was “a good deal of” “trysting with the squaws.”

I found the corresponding orders –and so much more. To keep the Indian Hating story on a linear track, I needed to ignore everything else I discovered. I did not. I could not.

One of my finds –holograph (handwritten) copies of letters written by Sibley to the Dakota camps during the war directly impacted my book in press. I had searched for holographs of these letters without finding them and so, as base texts for an appendix, settled for the earliest known copies, which appeared in print in 1863. A cursory reading showed some significant differences between these new holographs and the letters as printed one year later. So Indian Hating went on pause while I made a careful comparison of the letters and contacted my publisher.

Then I received a memo from the organizers of the conference for which I was preparing the paper. It said each presenter had 17 minutes, which the memo helpfully spelled out was not longer than an eight page paper double spaced. More typically, presenters have 40 minutes and I’d chosen my research subject with that in mind.

It doesn’t seem logical that Indian Hating is a controversial subject. While I like to think I’m capable of nuanced thinking, I view some things as moral absolutes: Willfully torturing other human beings is never okay. Taking pleasure in making other people live in fear is never okay. Rape is never okay. Murder is never okay.

But there is a crazy inversion in moral thinking in Minnesota history when it comes to the Dakota War of 1862. The logic (which I could quote from published sources) says: You obviously don’t understand what they [Dakota people without distinction] did to us [white people without distinction]. Dakota people are lucky they didn’t ‘get it worse than they did.’

In the wake of the war, Dakota people were judged guilty until proven innocent. It is like justifying open season on anyone who appeared to be born in the Middle East in the wake of  911. This reciprocity idea –an eye for an eye –has persisted for so long that historians have turned away from the evidence of indiscriminate retribution on Dakota in the wake of the war. So that’s the problem with having only 17 minutes to present: part of my audience will not even agree that Indian Hating was a problem.

Looking for  Plan B for the Northern Great Plains conference I opened the manuscript  of my historical introduction to A Thrilling Narrative and found a section that can stand alone, conveniently eight pages double spaced: documentaryevidence that Dakota children were dying due to the effects of chronic malnutrition on the eve of the Dakota War of 1862. Dakota oral history has always told us they were dying of hunger. But white historians have pointed to the availability of staple foods like corn and questioned whether starvation was possible.

If you are in Mankato on September 23, you’re welcome to come hear the 17 minute version of the story at MSU. But I will be developing the same idea in more detail when I speak at the historic Gideon Pond House in Bloomington on Sunday August 21, 2011 from 2:00-3:00 PM.

I’m sorry to relegate Indian Hating to the back burner. But I feel very good about being able to finally explain how and why the children of even relatively well-off Dakota people could be “dying with hunger” in 1862.

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