When treaties failed--as, of course, they did consistently for Native people--starvation ensued. Three young warriors, almost on a dare, murdered their pioneer neighbors in despicably cold blood, and the Dakota, hungry and weary of deceit, decided it was time to rid their world of the swarms of white people moving in. They went on a rampage that left the Minnesota River bloodied. Hundreds died on both sides, savagely.
Revenge was swift and harsh. It took less than a month to vanquish the Dakota freedom fighters, herd them into camps where many died--men, women and children, then hang thirty of them in American history's largest mass execution, and finally, simply, banish those Dakota who were still alive from the state forever.
It's an awful story, just plain awful. Some extraordinary individual acts of kindness and heroism occurred, but in its totality the story of Minnesota's Dakota War is almost impossible to tell in such a way that it doesn't manifest the dark horrors of the human heart.
Maybe it's a story that simply should be forgotten.
What we do with history we'd rather not remember? Can we, morally, simply forget? Can we wish it away?
Thousands of European Jews--many of those who were left anyway, after Hitler--purposely decided not to tell their children they were Jewish, scared to death as they were of another mad bigot coming along with mass murder in his soul. Still today, veterans of our Middle East wars return to hearth and home repressing--trying hard to forget--what it was they went through in multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly, such emotional strategies don't always work.
Can we simply leave history behind? Should we?
In yesterday's Washington Post, E. J. Dionne says it's time to forget 9/11: "After we honor the tenth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001," he says, "we need to leave the day behind." What Dionne argues is that the future of our nation depends on much more than "the war on terrorism," much, much more.
In their new book That Used to Be Us, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that decisions we have made in the last decade have been disastrous for us, among them the decision to make enemies of radical Islam and spend so much capital going after them. Chasing terrorists, they claim, blinded us to forces that were vastly more dangerous, forces like the rising middle class in India and China. Our focused attention on Osama bin Laden, and the wars we're still fighting in the Middle East, kept us from assessing the world in which we live today, they say, a world in which every startling new thing we create in this country is actually manufactured elsewhere. The threats that have arisen from severe unemployment and the outrageous national debt have little to do with the horrors of September 11--and they are, Friedman and Mandelbaum argue, much greater.
Can we simply forget history? Can we purposefully leave it behind? Can we refuse to tell the story? Can we only turn our faces forward?
Dionne quotes none other than Lincoln who memorably said we "could not hallow" the ground at Gettysburg because the soldiers who died there had already consecrated it, "far above our poor power to add or detract." Rather, Lincoln said, we need to look forward, "to a new birth of freedom."
But the Dakota War happened, as did Gettysburg, and as did 9/11. Those stories cannot be deleted from the screens that lay out our own grand narrative. History has meaning.
Still, Dionne is right. We have to move on.