Teaching the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Guest blogger: Chris O’Neill, Northfield Middle School

E91 4S p53
Internment Camp, Fort Snelling. Minnesota Historical Society.

Each year with my 6th graders, we study one of the most important events in Minnesota’s history, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. As I tell my students every year, this is probably the only year of their K-12 education that they will ever hear of this tragedy on the plains that took place more than 150 years ago. I hope that this isn’t the case, but it might be. I
tell them about the 38 Dakota hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. They shake their heads in disbelief. We learn about the concentration camp below Fort Snelling during the winter of 1862-63 and the dozens of Dakota who died of disease before the rest were sent downriver. The students stop and wonder: These are awful things. And didn’t Andrew Myrick get what he deserved?

I always wonder what is the right way to approach the teaching of this event for young
sixth graders. I have never believed this story could be made into one of the fun and upbeat activities we do in class, such as with the fur trade in Minnesota, for example. My students need the whole unvarnished and unbiased story. This is why I have always carefully guided them through the first several days of the unit. Our Northern Lights textbook provides the outline of the story but I have paired this with the (oldie, but goodie) 1993 “The Dakota Conflict” TPT video narrated by Garrison Keillor and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman. We watch the film in segments, with subtitles [students pay extra attention to these!]. We see how this tragedy unfolds, slowly and carefully. I feel I cannot bombard these students with too many resources and activities as they seek to understand a complicated event.

Later in the unit, I plan to show part of the film “Dakota 38” as a way to discuss the importance of this event for many Native Americans today. Sixth graders need to see that this history connects to something real and contemporary. It needs to be meaningful to be relevant. I highly recommend the film; it is a very moving story.

Ironically, what often frustrates me as a teacher of young students is the enormous amount of information out there to teach this story. The Minnesota Historical Society website, U.S. Dakota War of 1862, is a gold mine of resources for anyone wanting to learn about this event in history. There is even a video geared toward how to teach the topic, but as it is intended for a wide audience from 6th grade through 12th grade, it merely highlights all of the available resources. Fortunately for all teachers of American history, there are many lessons to be learned from this dark episode in our state’s history and now thanks to the increased scholarship of the topic and proliferation of digital resources, I hope this story can be continued beyond sixth grade.

Using American Indian Primary Sources

Guest blogger: Heidi Kloempken, Minnesota Historical Society

Lutiant letter
Letter from Lutiant LaVoye, Oct. 17, 1918. National Archives.

Jessica Ellison and I are always mining the internet and other organizations for new ways to deliver teacher professional development. A few years ago we came across the New York Historical Society’s Pizza and PD program. We came up with our own Sources and Scholars program by tacking on an hour of primary source investigation to a MNHS public program, the History Lounge. The sources we use are always based on the topic of the History Lounge program.

Our first program was December 2014, featuring Brenda Child and her new book, My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks. We were able to sit down with her before the program, and discuss the sources used in her book to tell the narrative of changing roles of American Indian men and women during the Great Depression. That meeting with Professor Child reminded us how often American Indian history tells the larger story of America. Native voices can be used at all times during lessons, not just to teach Native history. We ended up doing three activities with the teachers. The first was comparing and contrasting the U.S. Constitution with the Red Lake Constitution. The second activity compared two sources that can be used to teach a single subject, such as health concerns during and after World War I. One source was a political cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper showing how things were changing in the Progressive Era. Companies and manufacturers were shorting products, and the public was concerned for their health. The second source was a letter from Lutiant LaVoye to a friend at Haskell Institute.

The third activity was finding Lutiant LaVoye in the census records from 1910, looking at the census questions from that year, and then looking up teachers’ own house, neighborhood, or family in the released and digital census records from 1940.

In our conversation with Professor Child and doing the activities with teachers, the most popular source was Lutiant LaVoye’s letter. Her story was interesting, and her letter was funny and full of historical information. Professor Child shared her path of discovery: finding the letter, discovering Ms. LaVoye’s heritage at Red Lake, her schooling at Haskell, and her move to Washington, D.C., to be a nurse. The teacher participants enjoyed the structure of the letter, how it addressed war, flu, and being a teenager, and how easy it was to read. We weren’t able to spend much time on the census activity because we had such great conversation about the letter.

Based on the popularity of Lutiant and her letter, whenever the History Lounge is an American Indian topic, we try to promote the concept of using American Indian sources to teach U.S. or Minnesota History. Another History Lounge featured Professor Anton Treuer, so we focused on the boycott of Bemidji-area businesses in October and November 1966 by the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth Nations. This local event coincides with the Civil Rights Movement and the growth of the American Indian Movement. Our next Sources and Scholars will focus on Dakota voices after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Teachers will read letters written by Dakota men imprisoned in Davenport, Iowa.

Though we may not come across another source like the letter from Lutiant LaVoye that so perfectly covers so many topics and is fun to read, it is exciting to continue to search for sources that give voice to people not traditionally heard when teaching U.S. History.

Looking at the Whole Picture

Che-na-wah-Weitch-ah-wah. Yurok woman, 1916. Library of Congress.

Guest blogger: Katie Hambrock

How do we look at a painting?  Do we focus on just the colors, the “actors” in the center?  Or do we analyze, observe and extrapolate information regarding a tree in the background, water in the foreground that might give us clues as to what is really going on?

As many of us have probably observed in our own classrooms (as teachers and students), history that is popularly taught is that of the upper class white male.  Occasionally we stumble onto letters, drawings, diaries that belong to a middle class white male or his equally middle class white wife.  Where does that leave the rest of the picture?  

When I started this cohort, I had very limited knowledge on Native American culture in general, let alone the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples that lived in Minnesota long before the rest of us came along.  In digging for information for students to help create the “whole picture”, rather than just the main players, I found Daughters of Copper Woman by Ann Cameron.  Cameron focuses on the stories of Native women, but on the Pacific Northwest.  While these are not stories native to Minnesota, I feel that they can be used to help fill in the blanks for students about other minority groups.  The creation story, which is featured first, sounds similar to many native groups about a tortoise that rises out of the water to form land with its back; everyone lives on that shell.

To help students connect with this story, we can very easily ask them to identify their own stories within their families about how something came to be.  We can pull apart stories of other countries, other native groups, and see what is similar and different.  But in order to really have kids understand the big picture, we must first give them the tools.  Show empathy; know that just because one perspective is shown doesn’t mean it’s the only right answer; question what they see.  By evaluating the context, the time, ultimately students will slowly see the whole picture.

We also need to teach students about the author or source.  In prints by Edward Curtis, Native portraits are highly stylized into what Curtis thought would sell best, as well as what the American public thought native peoples should look like. Bias plays a huge part into what we have grown up with as the “correct” image of native peoples, versus what the reality is.  Breaking down that barrier will help students to be more aware of those around them, and to examine their own biases- which will hopefully lead to better relationships in class and those around them.

A Historical Mirror: Reflecting on Identity

Guest blogger: Kara Redding, St. Paul Preparatory School

Since the first meeting of our cohort, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the cultures in the U.S.A. that divide us. I’ve especially been thinking about white privilege and the racial conflicts that persist in our nation to this day. When I teach history, I try to make sure that I’m telling stories from as many points of view as I can. I try to break down traditional stories and the American exceptionalism narrative, showing my students that this nation was built by people from every race, color, and creed.

Last year, I had an experience that really shook me. A student approached me after we had done a mock trial activity putting the Colorado volunteers on trial for the Sand Creek Massacre. This student is a European American – not just racially, but ethnically as her mother was born in Europe. She told me that she felt terrible about all the things white people had done to minority groups throughout U.S. history. She felt that white guilt that I’m certain most white people have encountered in their lives – whether they allowed themselves to feel it or rejected it. And I didn’t know what to say because I knew exactly how she felt.

My grandfather grew up in South Dakota in an English-American family that had migrated west. My great-grandfather was a cowboy, a hired hand who travelled to where work was available. Early in my grandfather’s childhood, my great-grandparents divorced and my great-grandmother remarried. She and her new husband purchased property in the Black Hills, a little more than thirty years after the Massacre at Wounded Knee ended what were known as the Indian Wars. This property, a small plot in what is now a ghost town called Mystic, is still under the stewardship of my extended family which formed a society to maintain the property. The house and all the out-buildings are historical landmarks, down to the outhouse. You can visit our property as a tourist during the summer and if one of my family members is there, we will chat with you about the history of the place. As a child, I grew up proud of my family’s heritage. But when I took American Indian History for my teacher licensure, that pride turned to shame as I learned about all the sacrifices that were made to create the opportunity for my family to buy that property. It belongs to us now, to this day, and I continue to benefit from it, at the continued expense of dispossessed native groups. Whenever I think about Mystic, I struggle to imagine what I might do to repair the violent history that my family benefitted from. But I don’t have the power to make decisions about the property or how it’s used – it is protected under the historical registry and by the extended Redding family that maintains it. That leaves me feeling just as helpless as I imagine my student felt.

The reason I wanted to tell this story here is because as much as we break down the stories of history to understand all points of view, many of us don’t break down who our students relate to. I remember in my teacher training I was always being reminded to put up “mirrors” for my students, so they could see people who look like them in my instruction of history, feel the impact that their ancestors have made on our history. But when I tell the story of Little Bighorn, the mirror my white students look into reflects Custer. When we put the Colorado volunteers on trial for the Sand Creek Massacre, the mirror shows them Colonel Chivington. Of course I cannot avoid telling these stories for fear that some of my students will feel shame on hearing them. But I feel compelled to find some sort of solution to make all students feel represented in a story.

Rather than encouraging my students to connect to the people who look like them, to connect with those who share their cultural backgrounds, I try to introduce American heritage as a political one, not an ethnic one. The United States of America was founded on core values like liberty, equality, and democracy. When my student came to me, expressing her feelings of shame and guilt, I told her that the true Americans in our story were not the people in power. They were not the people who shared her ethnicity or race. Her American heroes are the people who fought for the values we still revere today. We share more of our identity with Chief Joseph than with generals of the U.S. cavalry, because we believe in liberty in the way he defined it: “Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself.”

I admit that I feel very apprehensive to submit this blog post because I don’t want to offend anyone or have them think poorly of me. It’s a common story: a privileged person who feels guilty about the role of her ancestors in history. But I think that we all have students in our classrooms that identify with their European-American heritage, who will look into the mirror and see someone who was hateful or who used their power in terrible, violent, oppressive ways, and we need to break that down for them. It’s important to encourage that empathy and that guilt has a role to play, but we need to help students deconstruct it and cope with it rather than leaving them to negotiate those feelings alone.