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.

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