Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Something of the story

This chunk of prairie--640 acres--is nothing to sneeze at. To my eyes, what's being done here is marvelously sweet because it's an attempt at reconciliation, in a way, an attempt to bring what's here into community with what once was. The State of Minnesota is trying to reupholster a half section of land to be what it was, almost 200 years ago, when no white folks were anywhere in sight.

That's a worthy ambition, but it's made even more worthy by the fact that this particular 640-acre parcel isn't just any Murray County half-section. It happens to be the place where a bloody fight took place between Dakota people and the white settlers marching slowly but relentlessly into their hunting grounds and over their culture. In fact, the place has been called "Slaughter Slough" by locals ever since 1862, when the swamp ran with blood, most of it from the settlers killed during a six-week conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of Minnesota's earliest white settlers.
We visited yesterday. There's no signage about the battle in the postage-stamp parking lot along the road, only a few small signs indicating that the place is a waterfowl protection area. That's it. It was getting late so we didn't hike around much or we would have found the stone pictured above somewhere down the path cut into the prairie grass, a stone that tells something of the battle.

But what's agonizing about Slaughter Slough is not just the story. What's just as painful is the fact that the events that occurred here almost 150 years ago still can't be talked about--not easily anyway; it's hard, if not impossible, to tell the story at all. Who suffered most?--the white settlers, who were murdered here, or the Dakota, who lost their land, their culture, and their identity? And what was more brutal?--500 white settlers dead, or thousands, even millions of slain Indians, some tribes almost entirely wiped out by diseases carted along by those same European settlers, diseases for which Native people had no immunities? Do the math, if you can.

Honestly, you've really got to hunt for Slaughter Slough. It's 3 1/2 miles of gravel off an obscure county highway. You have to want to go there. The place gets no sidewalk traffic. And you've got to hunt for the Shetek monument too, not all that far away. It was set along the lake in the 1920s, when the events of just sixty years before were far more fresh, and white people were doing all the story-telling. Now, amazingly, it can be seen as something of an embarrassment.

There's so much that's horrible about that era in southwest Minnesota, that simply telling the story, even today, a century and a half later, creates great pain. So we hedge and dodge, we bob and weave, not because what happened in Slaughter Slough wasn't real but because it was.

Just down the road at Lake Shetek State Park, a little visitors center tells the story in a couple of wall plaques. "What happens next is not clear," it claims when it comes up the chapter set at Slaughter Slough. I've been reading a ton about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, but I've never seen that kind of hedging before--that the story isn't clear. "Reports say the pursuing Indians shot the initial volleys, but they did not strike the settlers. Other reports say shots hit the people riding in the wagon."

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the telling now moves into the present tense. "The fleeing settlers stop and abandon the wagon by a large slough." And stays in present tense. "They run for cover into the six to eight foot tall grass of a large shallow wetland called a slough."

Maybe the tense shift somehow brought the writer some comfort.

"Lean Bear approaches the wagon and begins to take the harness off the horses. He is shot and killed by the settlers. Other Indians and shot and killed by the settlers too."

The settlers are the aggressors here, even though their own people lay dead on the homesteads they left in an awful panic. Amazing.

But even though what actually happened at Slaughter Slough isn't that difficult or complex, what happened between white people and Native in this country's history is, remarkably so. That it is so complex explains the artful dodge that plaque offers. The truth is, the whole truth doesn't fit on a two-foot plaque.

Somewhere right now, I suppose, some Minnesota historians are trying their best to determine just how to tell that whole 1862 story again, anew, because in 2012, it will be exactly 150 years and some one will have to bring it all up again.

Meanwhile, every last high school history teacher for a hundred miles around ought to take his or her classes to Slaughter Slough and the Shetek Monument, not because the story of what happened is so perfectly told, but because the story of how we tell our story is.

You can learn a ton about history if you stand in the long grass of Slaughter Slough, even though there's no signs around. Their absence is itself a story, itself a lesson.


Anonymous said...

As in the history of the world. There have been many atrocities. History does repeat itself for sure. It was inevitable to some extent. I doubt if this whole continent would still be run by the Natives in this day and age. NO WAY. It is unfortunate, no doubt about that. It was survival of the strongest. IT's too bad that we didn't incorporate the Indian way of life. As you may recall, there were no TAXES, women did all the work and the men went hunting and fishing EVERYDAY. NOW, who can beat that?

Anonymous said...

OH yea, and the white man "THOUGHT" he had a better idea. What a joke that turned out to be.

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