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Descendants of Minnesota's 1862 war say the truth needs to be taught

Fern Cloud was one of six panelists who spoke Sept. 17 at Ridgewater College during a "Gathering of Descendants" event. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The stories that Fern Cloud learned from her school's history books about the war of 1862 that led to the forced exile of Dakota Indian families from Minnesota were different than the oral stories passed down by her family.

As the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Little Crow, who led the Dakota during that tumultuous time, Cloud had access to many stories but they didn't quite match those taught in her South Dakota school.

When she brought her history book home one day, Cloud's mother told her the book was wrong.

"She told me how it really happened to us as Dakota people," said Cloud, who is now a Presbyterian minister and member of the Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls. "It was a very tragic time for our people."

Cloud was one of six panelists who spoke Monday night at Ridgewater College during a "Gathering of Descendants" event designed to bring together descendants of the Dakota Nation and white settlers who played a role in the history of the U.S.-Dakota War 150 years ago.

"It's important to remember," said Dean Urdahl, a former teacher, a historian and author, a legislator, co-chair of the Minnesota Civil War Task Force and a descendant of a settler who buried some of the first white men killed in the conflict in Meeker County.

Urdahl, who also grew up hearing stories that led him to dedicate years of research on "this sad saga," said there's a "wide gap of knowledge" of what happened before and after 1862 that isn't in the history books and that people need to hear.

"We need to move as truth tellers into the future," said Urdahl, who helped organize the event Monday and served as moderator.

As Cloud sought to find out the truth of her ancestors, she began reading the treaties and letters that were written by agents in Minnesota and sent to Congress.

"It was very depressing to see how unfair our people were treated at that time," she said, empathizing with the Dakota leaders who had been to Washington, D.C., and had seen the government's military strength.

Cloud said even 150 years later there are "mixed messages" about the past and those messages are harmful to the self-esteem of Dakota people today.

She said it's important for Dakota descendants to have "validation" that the stories they heard from their families are true and that people need to hear and accept the truth in order to make a difference.

"We can't change history, but we can change our future," she said.

"There's still a need to heal," said Urdahl.

Sheldon Wolfchild, a filmmaker and producer from the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Morton, spoke about collecting oral histories from members of the Dakota Nation that he's included in his documentary, "Star Dreamer: Part 1, the Indian System and the Causes of the 1862 War in Minnesota."

Wolfchild said very few historians have written a thorough account of the causes of the war, including broken treaties and U.S. government officials pushing Dakota to the brink of starvation by keeping food locked in warehouses instead of distributing it to Dakota families.

Wolfchild said even the Minnesota Historical Society "hid the facts of the causes of the war of 1862." He said his documentary tells the story "with facts."

When it comes to talking about the war and its after-effects, everyone is "in the same boat," said Wolfchild because settlers died and Dakota died. "We're all sorry for that."

But he said, "For your mind to grow and be healed, our children need to know the truth" and people need to "look at each other from the heart."

His documentary was shown recently to schoolchildren in Redwood Falls. "I'm a man, but I started crying because our children can finally hear the truth."

Jeff Williamson, whose ancestors included Presbyterian missionaries and a doctor who worked closely with Dakota and helped many survive, spoke of the unfair trials of the Dakota and the horrors they lived through and died from at the hands of the U.S. government, especially during the exile from Minnesota.

"We weren't taught this at all in New Ulm," said Terry Sveine, a descendant of New Ulm settlers.

Sveine said he is still troubled by the less than "noble" role some of his ancestors played, including some that lived on reservation territory. "It bothers me quite a bit," he told the audience.

He said he is glad kids in New Ulm schools are now learning the full history of the war.

Urdahl, who is a former high school history teacher, said there needs to be a review of Minnesota history curriculum to make sure it includes accurate stories of the 1862 war.

"It's important the story is told right," said Urdahl.

Other speakers at the event included Cora Jones, a Santee Sioux descendant of Minnesota and tribal secretary of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska, and John LaBatte, who is a descendant from Dakota and French and Irish settlers.

LaBatte said he wouldn't be here today if President Lincoln had not commuted the death sentence of one of the Dakota in Mankato. He said history needs to be as balanced and accurate as possible because "I have so many people on so many sides."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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