Open Letter to Stephen Elliott, Director, MHS

February 5, 2014

Re: Minnesota Historical Society’s U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 Website. Included are reviews of “Remarks by Historical Society Director Stephen Elliott” and “A Letter from the Director”

Dear Mr. Elliott:

Many of my Dakota and white ancestors were involved on all sides of the Dakota War of 1862. I can find their tracks in many of the major events of this war. Accuracy, balance and respect in their history is important to me.

I have reviewed more than 200 products on the Dakota War of 1862. These reviews are posted to my blog at: https://dakotawar1862.wordpress.com/

A few years ago I came across this quote by Cicero:

The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.
          Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore, II.XV.62

Cicero is saying that history must be truthful, balanced and respectful. This became the theme for my blog.

Going into the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War of 1862, one of MHS’s themes was “truth recovery.” Dan Spock, MHS Museum Director, was interviewed by Curt Brown. Please see:
http://www.startribune.com/local/138264074.html?page=1&c=y

For the first time, the history center is using a “truth recovery project” model developed in Northern Ireland, which Spock said features outreach to gather a fuller sense of what happened, “rather than assuming all we have to do is sit down, do some research and cook it up ourselves.”

The “truth recovery project” assumed that the truth had not been told.

Several years ago, MHS had a Research Staff. They assured accuracy in MHS products. Probably due to budget cuts, MHS eliminated this department. Dan Spock was interviewed by Gregory J. Scott. Please see:
http://www.minnesotamonthly.com/media/Minnesota-Monthly/May-2012/The-No-Win-War/index.php?cparticle=1&siarticle=0#artanc

“It’s always been a bit of an illusion to pretend to be an authority,” he says. “The idea of having an ‘official narrative’ is kind of an anachronism.”  Spock admits that not only is the MHS not necessarily an expert on the events of 1862, but, given the organization’s roots, it can’t even pretend to be an unbiased arbiter. The president of the society in 1862 was Governor Alexander Ramsey—a man who called for the extermination and expulsion of Dakota from the state, and after the war authorized a serious of vicious “punitive expeditions” against escaping bands of Indians.

The public trusts that MHS’s products are high quality. But, according to Mr. Spock, MHS does not have the ability or the neutrality to assure accurate and balanced Dakota War history.

Truth

As part of their “truth recovery project,” MHS staff interviewed 51 descendants of people involved in the Dakota War of 1862. 39 had Dakota blood and 12 did not have Dakota blood. One problem is obvious from the start. Those with Dakota blood outnumbered those without Dakota blood by about 4 to 1. Excerpts from these interviews appear throughout this website and in the MHS Minnesota River Valley Tour.

MHS started these interviews with an agenda. MHS selected quotes to tell what MHS thought should be told.  These quotes present a very narrow view. All Dakota people do not feel the same about the Dakota War. These quotes do not represent this diversity. Many of these quotes are incorrect opinions.

In my reviews, I call a statement incorrect if:

  • It is wrong
  • It does not apply to all persons in that group
  • There is more that needs to be said

I found 342 incorrect statements in the 7 parts of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 website. The details of these reviews can be found on my blog.

Here are examples of incorrect quotes found on this website:

  • When the U.S. who made a pact with us would not live up to its agreements, we had to then defend ourselves.
  • We are a peaceful people
  • They actually never paid for it; never paid a cent for all the vast territory.
  • They were starving because they were not allowed to go off the rez to hunt.
  • Our ancestors fought for our survival. They had to go to war to fight for survival. If they wouldn’t had fought, we would have all just died. We would have starved to death.

This history was tragic enough. MHS did not need to make it worse with incorrect and exaggerated quotes. Why did MHS do this? One reason could be as Mr. Spock stated above, MHS is not an expert on this history.

Balance

In my reviews, I say a statement is unbalanced if it gives information about one group while corresponding information is not provided for other groups involved. Statements that give only one side of an issue are also unbalanced. Here are indications of lack of balance on the MHS U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 website:

  • I found more than 77 unbalanced statements. Almost all of these statements favor the Dakota. As mentioned in my review of Part 7 of 7, almost every statement was unbalanced in favor of the Dakota and I did not comment on all of them.
  • While many Dakota communities are included, the only white community included was New Ulm.
  • In looking at the 7 main videos, I count a total of 44 Dakota speakers and only 10 white speakers.
  • I searched the text in the main sections and subsections. I found about 900 occurrences of the words: Sioux, Indian, Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. I found only 157 occurrences of the words: white, settler, Euro, British, English, French, German, Irish, Norwegian, Swedish and Swede. The words Irish, Norwegian, Swedish and Swede are not mentioned at all. Its as if there were only 2 ethnic groups: Dakota and white.

The following appears, in Curt Brown’s interview, mentioned above:

“In a situation where it’s so contentious, part of what we’re trying to address through this observance is how we can be a better institution in terms of our relationship with the Dakota,” said Dan Spock, director of the history center museum. But, he added, “we know there will be people for whom we have to be a thing to be against.”

Does this explain why MHS is so unbalanced in favor of the Dakota side? Does this explain why there are so many incorrect statements in MHS Dakota War products? Is MHS building a better relationship with the Dakota at the expense of white history?

I have heard MHS believes there has been 150 years of white history and now it is time to tell the Dakota side. I believe if we reviewed the past 150 years for Dakota history, we would find that MHS has been duped. Every year, there are thousands of people, including children, being introduced to this history. They are not aware of 150 years of white history.

The major unbalanced area is the discussion of what happened after the Dakota War. We learn about the Dakota after the war: unfair trials, hangings, forced marches, conditions at Fort Snelling, removal to Crow Creek, prison in Davenport, and Dakota initiatives today. We learn very little about the whites after the war.

This website gives the impression that the U.S. did nothing right. At every interaction, the Dakota were screwed by the U.S. Can’t MHS find anything the U.S. did right?

The unfairness of the U.S. trials of the Dakota is discussed. The Dakota trial system is not discussed. Had the Dakota broken through the barricades at New Ulm, they may have taken a few hostages, but they would have killed everyone else. There would have been no trials.

Activists say the U.S. committed genocide against the Dakota Indians. Dakota were force-marched to concentration camps. Their removal from Minnesota was ethnic cleansing. If the U.S. committed genocide, hostile Dakota committed a worst genocide by murdering more than 550 innocent civilians. Hostile Dakota kidnapped civilians and force-marched them to concentration camps. This was ethnic cleansing. Why does MHS discuss only one side of these issues?

For many years, MHS has maintained an Indian Advisory Panel consisting of representatives from the federally recognized Indian communities in Minnesota. There is no representation from former Minnesota Dakota living in federally recognized Indian communities outside of Minnesota. There is not a corresponding White Advisory Panel.

Respect

In my reviews, I say a statement is disrespectful if people were criticized without showing proof. I found 8 disrespectful statements. Here are 2:

  • The U.S. and the fur traders cheated the Dakota.
  • Governor Alexander Ramsey called for the extermination and expulsion of Dakota from the state, and after the war authorized a serious of vicious “punitive expeditions” against escaping bands of Indians.

Prove that the traders and U.S. cheated the Dakota. Ramsey represented the popular public opinion. Hostile Dakota had just killed 650 white civilians and soldiers; some in the worst way imaginable. They caused millions of dollars of damage. How should the governor react? Ramsey did not authorize these expeditions. The U.S. did.

My review of “Remarks by History Society Director Stephen Elliott”
http://www.usdakotawar.org/remarks-minnesota-historical-society-director-stephen-elliott

—Unbalanced – This speech is unbalanced to the Dakota side. Mr. Elliott, would you be as unbalanced to the white side if you spoke to a white descendant group? Would you be as apologetic to them for how MHS is treating “white history” in current Dakota War products?

The word “truth” is mentioned 5 times in this speech.

  • “…It can be tempting to turn away from the pain of these events, to deal with the trauma by suppressing the truth.”
  • “…It is everyone’s duty to face the past honestly and learn from it. Without the truth, there can be no peace.”
  • “In the months ahead, MHS commits itself to a process of truth recovery.”
  • “…we know recovery will never be possible without the truth.”
  • “Through the truth recovery process, MHS will work with the Dakota and others to make available the primary documents, images, objects, and perspectives that make the story whole and have the power to make us whole.

—Incorrect – I found 342 incorrect statements and more than 77 unbalanced statements on the Dakota War website.

—Unbalanced – The word “trauma” is mentioned 5 times in this speech. While acknowledging trauma among the Dakota people, Mr. Elliott, do you acknowledge that trauma also existed among the other ethnic groups involved in the Dakota War?

…MHS was founded in 1849 at the very time that the same men were taking Dakota and Ojibwe lands for settlement. They participated in businesses that exploited native people and in governments that acted deplorably. Those men went on to wage the war of 1862 and said horrendous things.
—Unbalanced – The Dakota killed members of other tribes and took their land.
—Incorrect – They were not taking Dakota land. The U.S. paid for Dakota land.
—Disrespectful – Show proof that they “exploited native people.”
—Disrespectful – Show proof that governments acted “deplorably.”
—Unbalanced and Disrespectful – They waged war on the Dakota because the Dakota killed over 550 innocent white civilians. This is why they said “horrendous things.”

…MHS has an amazing and rich record of the events surrounding 1862. It documents corruption and atrocities…
—Where are these documents that show corruption and atrocities? I did not see them on this website.

We need a fuller understanding today. Understanding how the treaties dispossessed the Dakota of their homelands and the failure of U.S. authorities to honor the promises contained in the treaties, is central to understanding how such a terrible war could have happened.
—Unbalanced – We need to understand:

  • Exactly what caused 100-150 young Dakota men to make the decision to draw their people into a war they could not win?
  • The majority of the Dakota leaders were not involved in this decision.
  • The majority of the Dakota men did not join the war against the whites. Many were threatened with death if they did not join against the whites.
  • Friendly Indians allied with the U.S. Army rescued the hostages and brought an early end to this war.

We have to look unflinchingly at the violence of the war: the killings, the marches, the internment camp, the hangings, the expulsion, the punitive expeditions, the forced assimilation policies, because all are a part of our collective DNA. These traumas are a part of us, as Minnesotans, as Dakota, as Americans.
—Unbalanced – We need to look at how the war affected all ethnic groups.

My review of “A Letter from the Director”
http://www.usdakotawar.org/about

In 1851, as whites flooded into Minnesota Territory, the Dakota reluctantly negotiated treaties surrendering most of their land in exchange for promises of goods, cash and a reservation along the Minnesota River.
—Incorrect – The Dakota received much more than this.
—Incorrect – There were 2 reservations.

In 1858, a group of Dakota leaders were summoned to Washington, D.C., and detained until they signed yet another treaty relinquishing all land north and east of the Minnesota River, but acknowledging title to a 10-by-150-mile strip of land, half of the 1851 reservation.
—Unbalanced – In the 1851 treaties, they were not given ownership of their reservations, but they were paid for this land. In the 1858 treaties, they were paid a second time for their reservations on the north side of the Minnesota River. And, they were given ownership of their reservations on the south side of the river, which had been paid for in the 1851 treaties.

Government policies imposed by corrupt agents favored assimilation, depriving the Dakota of their traditional way of life. In January 1862, President Lincoln’s own investigator warned him of “voluminous and outrageous frauds upon the Indians” and the probable dire consequences — but Lincoln’s attention was focused on another front.
—Disrespectful – Show proof that there were corrupt agents.
—Incorrect – The U.S. offered to help Dakota who wanted to farm as the whites. Dakota chose to participate. By becoming farmers, they did not give up their “traditional way of life.”
—Incorrect – George Day was not Lincoln’s “own investigator.” Day’s claims were never proven. What happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”

Stripped of their hunting lands, facing a poor harvest, the Dakota were dependent on government support. The government’s failure to deliver annuities as promised brought near-starvation and growing anger.
—Incorrect – Dakota left the reservations to hunt every year up to 1862.
—Incorrect – They had a poor harvest in 1861. In 1862, there was a bumper crop.
—Unbalanced – The winter of 1861-62 was harsh. Dakota hunters were not very successful.
—Incorrect – Not all Dakota were starving. Food was issued to the Upper Dakota and to the Lower Dakota farmers.

About 600 whites, including women and children, were killed; no one knows how many Dakota died.
—Incorrect – More than 650 white civilians and soldiers were killed. About 145 Dakota were killed. Hundreds of whites and Dakota died after the war as a result of the war.

Perfunctory military tribunals sentenced 303 Dakota men to hang for their roles in the fighting.
—Unbalanced – Where is the description of the Dakota trial system? Had the Dakota broken through the barricades at New Ulm, they may have taken a few hostages, but they would have killed everyone else. There would have been no trials.

Leading Minnesotans, including Gov. Alexander Ramsey, called for extermination and exile of the Dakota. About 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders were marched 150 miles and imprisoned under harsh winter conditions at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Ironically, this site, central to Dakota creation and traditional life for generations, became the place where their exile began.
—Disrespectful – Hostile Dakota killed more than 650 whites, some in the worst way. They did millions of dollars in damages. How should the governor respond?
—Incorrect – Ramsey did not make the decision to remove them – the U.S. did.
—Incorrect – This group also included young Dakota men.
—Incorrect – They were marched about 110 miles.
—Unbalanced – The winter conditions were harsh whether they had been left on the prairie or taken to Fort Snelling.
—Incorrect – That this was the Dakota place of creation is a relatively recent belief by a few. For more than 150 years the Mille lacs Lake area has been the Dakota place of creation.

In spring 1863, the Dakota were banished to distant reservations. Punitive expeditions were mounted to pursue Dakota who had fled to the west. Many hundreds died during the cruel execution of these policies, and many thousands since have lived with the consequences, in Minnesota and throughout the Dakota diaspora.
—Incorrect – Not all Dakota were removed from Minnesota.
—Incorrect – Those who were removed were taken to the Crow Creek reservation in present day South Dakota or to the prison camp at Davenport, Iowa.
—Unbalanced – What about the hundreds of innocent whites who died after the war as a result of the war? What about the suffering of these people and their families?

Several years ago, the Minnesota Historical Society decided to take on the challenge of telling the stories of all the parties…Staff members cast a broad net, eliciting family stories, recording histories, inviting feedback on projects and exhibition ideas, and doing much, prolonged listening to the descendants of people on all sides…
—Unbalanced – MHS staff collected 51 oral histories: 39 from people with Dakota blood and only 12 from people who did not have Dakota blood.
—Incorrect – While MHS had a Settler Advisory Panel on their Dakota War exhibit, they did not listen to their request that the Dakota War exhibit be more balanced.

—Incorrect, Unbalanced and Disrespectful – In this short letter, I count 15 incorrect statements, 6 unbalanced statements and 2 disrespectful statements. Mr. Elliott, with all due respect, I think you need a better editor.

Minnesota Historical Society’s Legacy

In the FAQ (Frequently asked questions), Question 23 asks, “What role does the Minnesota Historical Society play in sharing American Indian history beyond that related to the war?” The answer: “It is the mission of MHS to preserve and share the history of all of Minnesota’s people.” The answer is incorrect as shown by the large number of unbalanced statements found on this website and in other MHS Dakota War products.

MHS used a “truth recovery project” in 2012. Mr. Elliot, in your speech above, you used the word “truth” 5 times. You said “History Matters.” But, MHS’s actions do not match your words as shown by the large number of incorrect and unbalanced statements found on this website and in other MHS Dakota War products.

MHS has an agenda. This agenda apparently is more important than accuracy, balance and respect in Dakota War interpretation. This website is not a result of lack of knowledge or mistakes. It was planned and carried out as planned.

Benjamin Franklin said, “If you don’t tell the whole story, it is the same as lying.”

Nazi Joseph Goebbels is credited with saying: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it…”

MHS is purposely deceiving the public in their Dakota War products. The many incorrect and unbalanced statements prove this. If MHS does not stop doing this, these lies will become truth.

Today, there are some people who claim to be healing. Some people want reconciliation (whatever this means). MHS is not helping these people when there are so many incorrect and unbalanced statements on this website and in other MHS Dakota War products.

Today, there are few if any full-blooded Dakota people left in Minnesota. Many of these mixed-blood people, like me, had both Dakota and white ancestors involved in the Dakota War in 1862. We are not just Dakota People. We are also British, French, German, Irish, etc. This is another reason why this history needs to be balanced.

MHS is letting a few activists revise Dakota War history. Introducing so many errors into this history is not truth recovery. It does not help people understand what happened. Extracting quotes from interviews does not absolve MHS of their responsibility to assure accuracy, balance and respect. Focusing on one side of the Dakota War does not honor and respect all ethnic groups that were involved. MHS needs the courage to take back this history and do it right.

What is MHS’s contribution to current and future generations?

  • MHS tried to recover the truth, but couldn’t find it. As shown in my reviews, MHS Dakota War products contain many errors.
  • MHS denied white history while giving more attention to Dakota history because they were misled to believe there has been 150 years of only white history and they need to improve their relationship with the Dakota.

Mr. Elliott, if this is what you want then keep doing what you are doing.

Respectfully,

John LaBatte

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2 thoughts on “Open Letter to Stephen Elliott, Director, MHS

  1. John, Thank you for speaking out on behalf of all people that Minnesota Historical Society has been collecting history from since its inception. When people and MHS give information that is unbalanced, false, or fictional for whatever reason, and pass it on as history, they are creating history genocide. The Minnesota Historical Society and its members are thought of as being the standard bearer for truth and accurate history. Honest and knowledgeable historians like yourself see the shift to an agenda that is simply not history as it was. John you are accurate in each and every statement you made. MHS needs to swiftly revise and correct their mistakes and rid themselves of people who cast their untruthful agenda like a net upon the waters, trying to capture those who are ignorant of history, so they can bring them into a world of history genocide.
    Dave Fudally

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