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Renville County, Minn., museum director had ancestors on both side of 1862 conflict

Franky Jackson had no idea he was making history by becoming the first minority person to lead a county historical society in Minnesota when he took on the job of managing Renville County’s heritage as its museum and Historical Society director. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

MORTON -- Franky Jackson had no idea he would make history of his own when he accepted the position as director of the Renville County Historical Society and Museum in Morton.

As a Dakota and member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota, Jackson, 40, was told that he became the first minority person to lead a county historical society in Minnesota when he started his new job Jan. 1.

He's proud of his heritage, and confident that the 14 board members were looking at his abilities and passion for history.

"They definitely didn't need brown in this position but it speaks to the forward thinking and where we've progressed as a nation,'' said Jackson.

He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Minnesota, Morris. He has served as a tribal liaison and cultural resource specialist to tribes including the Omaha, Winnebago, Ponca, Santee of Nebraska, and Flandreau.

He also worked in environmental regulatory roles for a private firm and tribes in the Midwest and Great Plains.

He brings to his new position in Renville County the unique perspective of having ancestors from both sides of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

They include Peter Quinn, a trader and interpreter of Irish descent. He was among the first whites killed during the ferry crossing ambush on the Minnesota River in 1862.

Jackson also has ancestors who were at the Battles of Birch Coulee and Wood Lake. Another was sent to prison in Santee, Neb., and would have died if not pardoned by President Abraham Lincoln.

Jackson is responsible for a historical society that has focused largely on the development of Renville County from pioneer and settlement days.

On the other side of the Minnesota River, the Lower Sioux Historical Center tells the story of the Dakota people.

Jackson said there is a very important and complicated "shared history" that needs to be explored, told and discussed.

There were more interactions and cordial relationships between the Dakota and settlers than is often told in history books, he said.

Some of the rarely discussed history can be found in the records kept by the museum he oversees. He's already come across the accounts of Dakota men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

The Dakota volunteers served in combat roles in some of the Civil War's bloodiest and most decisive battles, including the Battle of Nashville and the second Bull Run.

"You don't hear about those Dakota soldiers,'' said Jackson. He wants to gather more information and start a dialogue on the Dakota who served in the Civil War.

He also pointed out that there are accounts of these men returning to Minnesota, raising families, and being honored and later eulogized for their military service by the non-Dakota who had fought alongside them.

Yet consider this: They had returned to their homeland not long after the Dakota had been expelled from the state.

"There was a very, very complicated dichotomy of things taking place in that time period,'' said Jackson.

He intends to make the most of his new role by researching this shared history, and publishing what he learns to add to the public dialogue.

In the meantime, he also has ambitious projects to oversee. Former director Carl Coldwell had succeeded in obtaining grant funds to inventory the museum's entire collection. Three people are now working on the project.

The museum is also preparing to erect a new structure to "encapsulate'' and protect the authentic pioneer log cabin on the grounds.

Jackson is also looking for opportunities to engage more young people in learning about history, their heritage and the development of a sense of place. He wants to make more of the historical records accessible online.

Jackson's father served in the military. The family moved often before returning to Sisseton, S.D. His marriage to Anne O'Keefe of the Lower Sioux Community brought Jackson to where so much of his own ancestral history can be found.

It also led him to a job that seems tailor made for his interests. "I'm excited, no bones about it,'' said Jackson. "This is the least I've made as a professional, but this is the happiest I've ever been.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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