ST. PAUL — Dan Spock hopes that as visitors go through the new U.S.-Dakota War exhibit at the Minnesota History Center Museum in St. Paul, they realize what happened 150 years ago was more than just a six-week bloody fight.
“There’s a tendency to focus on the six weeks, but it’s really just the opening act of the Plains Wars that went on for more than 20 years, not ending until Wounded Knee,” said Spock, director of the museum.
And, he wants people to come away understanding why the scars from the war are so deep.
“I hope people find some compassion for all the people impacted by the war and who are still impacted today.”
The new exhibit, which opened this weekend in St. Paul, is an exhaustive presentation of events leading up to the war and beyond the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862.
The exhibit is heavy on text, photographs, maps and drawings — offering an overview of events for those who know little about the war, but also offering more obscure and interesting details for the most studied student of the time period.
One thing the exhibit isn’t rich in is artifacts. There are artifacts from settlers and soldiers: a muslin petticoat worn by Mary Schwandt when she was captured on Aug. 18, 1862, with holes in the bottom purported to be from bullets; a double-barreled powder shotgun; the daily diary of Alexander Ramsey; a Bible translated into the Dakota language by missionaries; and perhaps the most monetarily and historically valuable item in the museum’s collection — the original copy of President Lincoln’s order of execution of the Dakota in Mankato.
But the exhibit contains no Dakota artifacts, a decision reached after extensive discussions with various tribal members.
“We had a lot of input from the Dakota,” said Ben Gessner, collections assistant.
He said some items the History Center possesses — including pipestone pipes — are deemed as sacred artifacts that shouldn’t be displayed.
Displaying other personal items, including Chief Little Crow’s moccasins and other artifacts collected during and after the war by soldiers and settlers, was viewed as offensive by many of the Dakota.
“There were a lot of thing they were uncomfortable having displayed, to have the things shown like trophies,” Gessner said.
Indeed, the commemoration of the war — which began on Aug. 16 at Acton — has brought a host of emotions, sensitive discussions and debate over what should and shouldn’t be publicly displayed.
Spock said preparation for the exhibit has provided a valuable new relationship with the Dakota — a relationship he said was virtually nonexistent before. Getting input from the Dakota was no easy task with more than two dozen tribes spread across the Upper Midwest and in Canada.
“We went into it believing that if we’re going to seek input, we needed to listen to it and to respond to it,” Spock said.
The museum also sought extensive input from the ancestors of settlers, county historical societies and from independent historians.
The result, Spock said, is an exhibit that offers multiple viewpoints, as well as historical and contemporary voices, that allow visitors to draw their own conclusions about often conflicting interpretations of events.