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Field Day

October 4, 2011

Yesterday I shuffled hats yet again, donning my “educatator” cap for our state Historical Society. My assignment: to travel with a school bus full of high school history club members and observe how high schoolers internalize and interpret  the story of the Dakota War of 1862. Really: they pay me for doing this.

Lest you think I’m crazy, when I accepted this assignment last spring, we had not begun house hunting or trailing ADHD meds, and the original date for this trip was well after my manuscript deadline. Then life happened.

I’m still processing how teens understand history and can’t share much there. But I can show you some pictures from my day doing history in the field –in some cases, quite literally in the field. We talked history where it happened and talked alot about what we can document vs. the story we’ve received. In the process, I visited some places I’ve never been before.

My research has taken me back and forth across the state many times. But my route does not take me past most of the places we stopped. Like this bronze plaque on a boulder in a wayside ditch directs attention to a spot several hundred miles away in a corn field, the place where Little Crow, the nominal leader of the minority of the Dakota people who took their nation to war in 1862, was shot to death by a farmer and his son in the summer of 1863.

At the time, the body was just an anonymous “Indian,” and it was the 4th of July. So the residents of a nearby town celebrated by lighting firecrackers in the body’s orfices, scalping it, and dumping the remains on heap of entrails from butchered animals. Eventually the body was identified as Little Crow’s and his distinctive skull and arm bones, along with his tanned scalp, were displayed by the state historical society (which eventually repatriated the remains to his family for burial).

You can read that history in books. But I learned yesterday that there is more than biased text engraved on this monument, erected in 1929.

In the decades since it was erected, in a strange parody of the history that happened here, the bronze plaque has been fired upon and bears permanent bullet marks. Dakota people have treated the place with more respect, erecting a prayer stake bearing Little Crow’s Dakota name and adorned with a bundle of tobacco that echoes the stake by his grave marker in South Dakota.

I admit I felt disconnected from most of our monument stops. My imagine isn’t ignited by the “300 yards north west from this spot” genre of storytelling and after a while all the monuments marking noting, “So-and-so was shot by Sioux Indians” began to blur. But the bullet wounds on Little Crow’s monument deeply impressed me.

That is exactly what good history ought to do.

*****

You know I have a thing for old churches.

If God had not planted Bethlehem in what would become the inner city of Minneapolis, the old sanctuary building might today look something like this little rural church founded by Norwegian Lutherans and restored by their descendants.

What does it have to do with the story of the 1862 war? The first five settler victims (killed a few miles away at Acton) were buried in a mass grave in this cemetery.

*****

The highlight of the trip was another place I’ve never visited, partly because it is out of the way on an unpaved county road, and partly because this was the 1862 home of the Joseph R. Brown, who Dakota people have long said, built his “mansion” with funds skimmed from their annuity fund during his tenure as Sioux Agent.

I’ll leave that investigation to Brown’s biographer. But it was amazing to stand here and imagine the Persian carpets, pianoforte, billards table, and garden fountain before the Dakota burned the house in 1862.

Of the places we stopped today, the ruins of the Brown House is the place I will be sure to return to with the girls. There is plenty here to fire the imagination.

Know what the high school history club students found most memorable?

The snakes. This guy was about five feet long and they swore he rattled.

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