A canoe trip into history

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Debra Blair and a group of 15 excited Native American students recently took a canoe trip down the Mississippi River, yet what they saw stirred up clouds of grief and anger and also ignited their joy and hope for the future.

The students and teachers launch their journey into the Mississippi River at Hidden Falls to canoe around Fort Snelling. Left: The crew canoed around Pike Island, entering the Minnesota River before cutting into a channel to land at Steamboat Landing, where they hiked to Fort Snelling to learn more about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The journey left the Elk River area students confident their ancestors’ memories would not be forgotten.

The trip came just ahead of National American Indian Heritage Month and honored the sesquicentennial of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Even at the end, when the students stood at the burial site of the Dakota who had died at Fort Snelling, VandenBerge Middle School student Keith Daley took comfort in the sounds around him. “Hearing the birds singing in the area brought me a calm, peaceful feeling,” he said.

The purpose of the trip for Blair, an American Indian education specialist for the Elk River Area School District, was to draw her students into the history of the Dakota tribe and the events after the Dakota War of 1862. It’s a goal Blair and her colleagues share with the Minnesota Historical Society. This year has culminated in a whole variety of events throughout the state to help create awareness and open dialogue about the war.

Blair chose an outdoor adventure company called Wilderness Inquiry to guide the canoe trip and hike around historic Fort Snelling, where many Dakota perished after their defeat in 1862.

As the morning of the trip dawned, the students gathered around the canoes at Hidden Falls Regional Park to launch their adventure into the Mississippi River.

“It was cold,” Andi Hawkins, a student at VandenBerge Middle School, recalled, “and it made me sad to think about what it would have been like for the Dakota people to walk to Fort Snelling from Lower Sioux in the winter without warm clothes or boots.”

Even though the students differ in their heritage (many are Ojibwe, historically battling with the Dakota), there is little rivalry between them. “We get along really well,” Elk River High School student Natalie Wendt smiled, “and that’s because we are all one big family.”

The students dipped their paddles into the Mississippi beneath wet and cloudy skies and canoed past Fort Snelling, along the edge of Pike Island. This island was transformed into an internment camp for more than 1,600 women, children and elderly Dakota after their defeat in the war. Nearly 300 would die of disease during their time there.

The Dakota internment camp of Fort Snelling on Pike Island during the winter of 1862, where some 1,600 women, children, and elderly men were kept. Image taken in 1862 by Benjamin Franklin Upton. Original image from the Minnesota Historical Society. Source: Wikipedia

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 flared up after repeated treaty violations, food shortages, settler encroachments and late or unpaid annuities to the Dakota caused widespread hunger and hardship for their tribes.

Violence erupted after a Dakota hunting party killed five settlers in August 1862 and a food shipment to the tribe was kept from them. A council of the Dakota overrode the cautions of the elders and decided to take advantage of the Civil War to attack settlers along the Minnesota River Valley in an attempt to drive them out of the land. Their assault took settlers by surprise and massacres ensued.

Before surrendering in December, the Dakota killed 450 to 800 Minnesota settlers (exact numbers are unknown) while losing 150 warriors in battle. Some of the most famous battles took place in New Ulm. In the aftermath, nearly 1,000 Dakota were interred in Minnesota prisons. Three hundred and three Dakota men were convicted of crimes against civilians and sentenced to death.

President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed their cases to distinguish between those who had committed acts of war from those who had killed civilians.

A burial site at Fort Snelling with sage bundles for some of the 300 Dakota who died there during their internment through the winter of 1862.

In the end, Lincoln approved the execution of 38 Dakota men, sparing the rest (though one-third of them would die of disease before being released). It remains the nation’s largest mass execution. To this day, the execution still causes anger among the Dakota because there was sufficient evidence during the time to prove the innocence of a number of those executed.

Acts of Congress in 1863 revoked most treaties with the Dakota, exiling many of the Dakota tribes from Minnesota. This included some tribes that had not participated in the war. Outstanding bounties were posted for scalps of Dakota people found in Minnesota. Though unenforced, these laws still reside on the books.

Hundreds of Dakota died in the years that followed from hardship and disease as they were forced out of the state. The trauma of what was one of the most tragic events in Minnesota history for both sides still resonates with the Dakota and the descendants of early Minnesota settlers. For most Minnesotans, however, the reasons for the war, the places associated with it and the long-lasting consequences remain unknown.

“We’re trying to bring more awareness about that history to our students and the community through education, outreach and activities such as this canoe trip,” said Patty McGerr, a tutor in the American Indian Education Program for the Elk River Area School District who photographed the trip.

The Minnesota Historical Society has made it a priority to address this long-ignored piece of Minnesota history with multiple programs that include a special website, exhibits and even a mobile phone tour of the history while also taking a more direct approach.

Dan Spock, the director of the History Center Museum at the Minnesota Historical Society, said the long-term Truth Recovery Project was such a program.

The proud crew of one of the three canoes: from left to right, Rebekah Morrison, Justin Pearson, Tieanna Bren, Natalie Wendt and Anessa Daley for starters with a Wilderness Inquiry guide commanding the rear as they canoe along Pike Island.

“The inspiration for the Truth Recovery Project was a program out of Northern Ireland called Healing Through Remembering,” he said, “and we developed our version from the same idea that in order to contend with the past, everyone must face facts about events when there is strong disagreement about what happened and whose fault it was.”

The project worked to uncover original documents, letters, diaries, artifacts and other historical sources. They also met with descendants of Minnesota River Valley settlers and Dakota descendants from throughout the Midwest and Canada. The materials were compiled online and in presentations that encourage viewers to come to their own conclusions and discuss the information.

Spock said there have also been various oral history projects to collect family stories about the war. “This is particularly important to Dakota people,” he explained, “because their side of the story wasn’t well represented during the time, or afterwards by the history books.”

There are also a number of yearly commemorative events, including a horseback ride from South Dakota to Mankato in December. Many of these events are designed to educate and bring awareness to this history of Minnesota, just as Blair’s canoe trip was.

Aside from the history, Blair said the students were particularly impressed with the difficulty of canoeing the river, a traditional mode of travel for the Dakota and Ojibwe.

“It took real team workmanship to paddle the canoes in unison,” Elk River High School student Vanessa Daley said. Randy and Bruce Bray of Zimmerman Middle School and High School were impressed with the canoe trip. They said it sparked their interest to canoe more often and they would definitely like to take the trip again.

“Canoeing is hard,” Wendt laughed. “The trip was only two hours, but it felt like two days. I’m also scared of boats, which obviously didn’t help.” She tried to keep up with the paddling of the others as the expedition rounded Pike Island. Here, Blair called everyone’s attention to “Bodote,” the sacred place to the Dakota where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet.

“Just as we approached the connection, three beautiful eagles flew directly over our heads,” Blair recalled. “I can’t say how much that meant to us.” She explained that the eagle is the most revered of all birds among American Indian tribes, adding that “seeing those eagles at Bodote was simply too amazing for words and very uplifting for us all in the sober setting where the Dakota were imprisoned.”

The students also saw beaver holes along the riverbank and mud slides where beavers had slid into the river.

“We saw lots of wildlife on the trip,” Keith Daley recalled, “including deer and blue heron. I savored the thought that the animals were so free to roam and be around the water.”

The troupe canoed along the southern edge of Pike Island and came ashore at Steamboat Landing. From there, they hiked to Historic Fort Snelling.

In preparation for the trip, Blair had reviewed the history with her students earlier this year, visiting schools across the Elk River Area School District where students of Native American heritage are enrolled in her program. “We teach the history, culture and language of Minnesota tribes, including Ojibwe and Dakota, through a variety of methods,” Blair said, “including quiz bowl tournaments, presentations and projects.”

When they reached the Thomas C. Savage Interpretive Center at Fort Snelling, the students gathered around a memorial to the Dakota who died there and offered reverent silence and prayers.

“The memorial site made me really sad,” Wendt said, “and the whole area smelled like sage.”

Elk River High School student Ryan Baxter says he was disgusted with all the garbage around the Dakota memorial at the Fort Snelling Museum. “It is a landmark area and should be kept clean and protected,” he said, “and the memorial site should stand out more for visitors to recognize the importance.” Baxter also felt the history of the fort should be taught in schools.

“Our hearts grieved at the senselessness and tremendous heartache our native ancestors went through,” Blair said, “and while I am saddened that I did not hear this part of history when I was growing up in Minnesota, I am glad we can share it now.”

Blair says she will definitely want to make this field trip an annual event for her students. Even students who missed the trip due to weather have already voiced their desire to attend the next one. “It has become a part of our continuing mission to never forget this important part of Minnesota history,” Blair said, “nor our American Indian relatives and ancestors who perished in it.”

For more information on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Minnesota history, and the programs available through the Minnesota Historical Society, visit www.mnhs.org.

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