Taking Responsibility

Early Spring – Lanesboro, MN

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. It happened in Mankato, MN on December 16, 1862, during the Dakota War of 1862. Thirty eight Sioux men were publicly hanged. The Minnesota State leadership (many of which are now MN iconic names) had claimed that the Sioux prisoners had raped and murdered European settlers, therefore demanded that all 303 prisoners be publicly executed. In a rash and hateful attempt to circumvent due process, the Sioux people were given military tribunals, some of which lasted less than 5 minutes, with no legal representation, nor explanation of what was happening, and sentenced to death.  President Lincoln personally reviewed each case to determine who had committed rape and murder of civilian people, and who had been engaged in the Dakota War. In the end, Lincoln commuted the death sentence of 264 Sioux people, yet this public mass execution of 38 is still the largest in American history.

The Chief of the Sioux People during the Dakota War of 1862 was a man by the name of Little Crow. At the time, it was government policy to offer money to anyone who could produce the scalp of a Native American person. Sometimes this could be as much as $200, which was a considerable amount of money to an average farmer. Purely by coincidence, Little Crow was picking raspberries on July 3rd, 1863, with his son, when a farmer shot him for scalp money. The farmer had no idea that he had shot Little Crow, but was happy to find out that he got $500 for his killing. His son was condemned to death for his participation in defending the native people and his land. Little Crow’s head and scalp were put on display as trophy, in St. Paul, MN until 1971!!

It is difficult to overstate the horrible things that have been done to the Native People of North America. The Native American population was massively reduced by millions through warfare, disease, alcohol, exploitation, massacres and displacement. Their children were taken away from them and forcibly brainwashed in boarding schools, with hateful conservative religious teachers.  Their languages were erased from memory. Their art was destroyed. They were forced onto foreign lands, where they didn’t know how to find food, make shelter, or cloth themselves. Some of their beautiful creation stories have been lost. It is nothing short of genocide.

Although the Native American perspective is still not taught in schools, some version of the story is in all of the history books. A recognition of events is there, and most modern-day people recognize that this was a horrible thing to do to another culture. Yet, to this day, there has been no formal apology. The recent exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, seems to be a very small, and very timid, step in this direction. They have made an effort to talk to the people we have victimized for the past 150 years, and faithfully tell their stories, as well as the usual European stories.

We could learn from others. We are not the first to be in this situation, and we can heal relationships. Back in 2008, the Australian leadership accepted the awesome responsibility of their hateful actions by issuing the following motion, to be voted on by their governmental house of representatives:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our national history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page, a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia

The motion was met with grand applause from all members of the House, and the Aboriginal People as well. I can’t even imagine what courage it took to say these words, and how deeply, and profoundly moving it must have been to hear them. It is easy to hate the other, and difficult to embrace diversity. Deep and profound meaning, however, is always found in the difficult challenges in life. Rarely does the easy life associate itself with the good life.

It is time that Minnesota (and the US) take responsibility for the actions of its forefathers, and apologize for the extraordinarily hateful actions it has committed against the native people living amongst us.


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