The US-Dakota War, 150 Years Later…

Four years ago the state of Minnesota celebrated its 150th anniversary, with the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) and other agencies producing a wide variety of commemorative exhibitions, events, and publications. For the most part, the mood was celebratory.

This year, the state marks a more somber sesquicentennial, that of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, fought primarily in the Minnesota River valley. As a front-page feature in yesterday’s Star Tribune pointed out, its commemoration promises to be enormously complex, and is already sparking controversy:

Some Dakota believe artifacts should be returned to them, and that Historic Fort Snelling should be razed or portrayed as a concentration camp used to punish hundreds of their ancestors after the war. Meanwhile, some descendants of the more than 400 settlers and soldiers killed in the conflict complained when early brochures about commemorative cellphone tours of the area hinted that only Dakota elders’ voices would be featured.

The concerns reflect debates evident across the country over how to provide a more complete rendition of the past at historic sites, even if that means confronting deeply disturbing events long written out of the historical narrative.

Dakota Prisoners at Fort Snelling
The wife and children of Dakota leader Little Crow, among those interned at Fort Snelling - Minnesota Historical Society

The new director of the MHS, Stephen Elliott, is no stranger to such debates in the field of public history, having been part of the move to enhance coverage of slavery and African-American history during his nearly three decades at Colonial Williamsburg. Said Elliott, “You can’t turn your head from what is not pretty in history and, whatever we do, it’s not going to somehow heal things or settle it.” To guide their planning, the MHS has employed what it calls the “Truth Recovery Project,” modeled on a “cross-community” process developed in Northern Ireland by an organization called Healing Through Remembering.

Yet the Star Tribune reports that contention remains, much of it surrounding a noose used to hang a Dakota man named Chaska, one of 38 Dakota executed the day after Christmas, 1862. (President Abraham Lincoln pardoned 264 more.) Most experts now believe that Chaska had actually tried to protect white settlers, and his pardon is before the state legislature. While some Dakota leaders demand the return of the noose and other such artifacts, MHS officials and other public historians argue that it is important to preserve them as historical evidence.

However, they don’t agree on whether it’s appropriate to display the noose. The MHS showed it to Dakota groups invited to take part in planning, but don’t plan to include it in the forthcoming public exhibit and refused to allow the Star Tribune to photograph it.

“Partly out of sensitivity to the Dakota people, we feel strongly that the noose would tend to overwhelm the whole story and it would just become the noose exhibit,” [Minnesota History Center director Dan] Spock said. “It would detract from what we really want people to understand, which is this whole chain of events that leads to this war, and if there’s culpability people can see it.”

Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Museum in New Ulm, is the great-great-granddaughter of a man who defended New Ulm from Dakota attackers. The noose, she said, should be displayed because “it reminds us of what a horrible end there was to the war and to deny it and not show those pieces is like you’re trying to erase the shame of what happened.” She recalls the shoes and human hair at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington — “tell me that wasn’t a riveting experience” — and thinks artifacts are vital to understanding history.

Read the full Star Tribune article here. And here’s the MHS page detailing the planned exhibit, other 1862 initiatives, and the “Truth Recovery” process.

– Chris Gehrz

Our Mission and Objectives (part 2)

In the first post in this series, we looked at our department’s revised mission statement, adopted last August. I closed that post by noting that we left the mission statement itself without explicit reference to Christianity, since it would be followed by two objectives that make our religious commitments eminently clear. Today we’ll look at the first of those two objectives, the one that accompanies our mission statement’s ambition to “prepare students who are… imaginatively comfortable in a historic past….”

1. Our students will gain a broad knowledge of human history, deepened by the integration of Christian faith and learning, the recurrence of marginalization and interconnectedness as historical themes, and the development of their own particular passions and interests.

Believing that all of God’s creation — including all human beings, who bear the image of God — is worthy of study, we have constructed our curriculum broadly, so that it familiarizes students with the histories of peoples from multiple regions, including the United States, Europe, and parts of the Global South. Our curriculum features survey courses that each give an overview of a region, era, and/or field while also enabling faculty to teach to their interests and expertise and students to conduct more focused study on narrow topics of their selection.

Within this admittedly broad objective, our curriculum and courses will reflect the following shared emphases:

MARGINALIZATION AND EMPATHY

We affirm that our faith and learning are necessarily interrelated, so courses will frequently lead students to consider what is distinctive about the discipline of history as Christians practice it. While students should expect to see their professors model varying philosophical and methodological responses to this question, we share the guiding assumption that historians who follow Jesus Christ ought to imitate him in paying special attention to those on the margins of society: the poor, the oppressed, and the alien, to name but a few groups. Rather than simply repeating comfortable narratives of power and privilege, we will seek to tell the stories of those who are powerless and dispossessed. In particular, our courses will consider categories like gender, class, and race that have often been used to perpetuate injustice.

Such emphases demand that we work even harder to develop a basic skill for historians: empathy. We affirm that history is not merely the collection of an objective set of facts, but requires us to be aware of our own subjectivity and to develop the imaginative understanding necessary to see the world as others see it. As a special focus, we will be hospitable to those of different religions and ideologies.

THE “CLOUD OF WITNESSES”

While we are interested in the stories of people from all faiths (and those professing no religious belief), we will be particularly attentive to the role played by Christians within history.

This does not mean that we will engage in hagiography, celebrating uncritically the temporal story of the church and its members; all Christians sin and fall short of the glory of God, and so even their ecclesial institutions are inherently flawed and prone to subverting the very gospel they proclaim. But we are guided by the biblical image of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), which reminds us that we are but the latest participants in a millennia-old narrative of God and his people, a story that will not always be comfortable for us to tell but nonetheless inspires us to persevere as we “run… the race that is set before us.”

INTERCONNECTEDNESS

No single history can be studied in isolation. So while each course may focus on a particular group, territory, civilization, or event, students should expect to encounter themes of interconnectedness: categories central to international and transnational history (e.g., war and diplomacy, empire, migration, trade and commerce, cultural exchange, technological development, human interactions with their physical environment); comparisons between societies and cultures; and attentiveness to continuity and discontinuity across time.

In addition, we will emphasize the connections of individual courses to larger educational projects. Each course helps to build foundations for further study in later history coursework, in the Bethel general education curriculum, and in students’ lives after college.

PASSIONATE CURIOSITY

We recognize that those who study history do so out of a God-given, passionate curiosity about the past that is as distinctive to the individual as it is unusual in contemporary American culture. So while providing basic foundations for broad historical knowledge, we leave ample room — in the curriculum and in individual courses — for students to explore their personal interests. This is exemplified by our capstone course, a seminar facilitating original research by senior students into virtually any historical topic.

In the next and final post in the series, we’ll share our second overarching objective, in which we focus less on knowledge and more on the cultivation of wisdom…

– Chris Gehrz

<<Read the first entry in this series          Read the final entry in this series>>

Jefferson, Slavery, and the Smithsonian

Peale, Thomas Jefferson
Rembrandt Peale's 1805 portrait of Thomas Jefferson

If you happen to be visiting Washington, DC between now and October, be sure to stop by the National Museum of American History and see its new exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” Created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (whose own building is scheduled to start construction this spring and be completed in three years) together with the Jefferson Foundation (which has its own, parallel exhibit on slavery at Jefferson’s estate, Monticello), the exhibit was recently the subject of an extensive review by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, who frames the topic’s significance well:

The astounding thing about American slavery is not that it existed — the enslavement of one people by another may be one of history’s universals — but that it persisted. It lasted into an era when its absence could be imagined and its presence could become an outrage.

That was one of the chilling peculiarities of slavery in the United States: As revolutionary ideas of human rights and liberty were being formulated, slavery was so widely accepted that contradictions between the evolving ideals and the brutish reality of enslavement were overlooked or tolerated.

We look back now, shocked at the cognitive and moral perversity. And that is one reason why a prevalent reaction has been to assert that the champions of those revolutionary ideals were hypocrites, including 12 of the first 18 American presidents, who were slave owners.

Which is why Rothstein was struck by the “far more subtle and illuminating assessment” of Jefferson presented by the new exhibition:

Jefferson didn’t just embrace the new nation’s ideals; he gave voice to our conception of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality? These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.

It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.

If you can’t make it to DC, you can always check out the slavery exhibit’s companion website, which has a variety of essays and documents on the subject, including four of Jefferson’s proposals to end what he called “This Deplorable Entanglement.”

– Chris Gehrz

PS: If you are headed to the capital… Through May the Jefferson and slavery exhibit in Washington will overlap with another fascinating exhibit on the United States’ third and most intellectually curious president: “Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” And the permanent collection on “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” is scheduled to remain open while the museum’s west wing undergoes a major renovation.

Weekend Reading

Each weekend we’ll provide a round-up of links to some recent blog posts on history.

Holbein, Erasmus
Hans Holbein the Younger, Erasmus (1523)

• Expect to see more and more films set in ancient Greece, as the present-day government of that country has been trying to alleviate its debt problem by slashing fees for film and photography permits at sites like the Acropolis.

• A major new archeological find near Istanbul “has the potential to become a ‘library of Constantinople.'”

• Why King John (of Magna Carta fame) might not have been entirely the bad guy medieval chroniclers made him out to be.

• And why Erasmus is not only the “Prince of the Christian Humanists” but one of the great advocates of Christian liberal arts. (H/T Nathan Gilmour)

• More than a century before Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali, a former slave named Tom Molineaux fought a boxing match whose social and cultural significance transcended sports. At the same time, writes journalist Brian Phillips, “so much about the fight feels familiar today, from the role of race to the role of the media, that if you had to name a date, you could make a good case that December 10, 1810, was the moment sport as we know it began.”

John Turner on Samuel Brown’s In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death: “…an unusual and remarkable book… Brown offers fresh insights into a whole host of flashpoints within the study of early Mormonism: treasure-hunting, Smith’s translations of ancient texts, the endowment ceremony, and plural marriage.”

• How one general kept the Union Army from adopting repeating rifles in 1861. If not for his obstructionism, could the Civil War have ended at or before Gettysburg?

Condominiums in modern history! No, not “condos.” But those rare territories over which more than one country exercises sovereignty.

• The story of Charles Guiteau, assassin of Pres. James A. Garfield.

• 130 years of Eastman Kodak history in photographs (what else?), after the venerable company filed for bankruptcy. (H/T Cliopatria)

• The return of flapper fashion to the runways inspired this brief history of women’s clothing in the Jazz Age. (H/T Randall Stephens)

Tuskegee Airmen Poster
War bonds poster featuring one of the Tuskegee Airmen

• Depicting the infamous “Rape of Nanjing” by Japanese soldiers in 1937, The Flowers of War (starring Christian Bale) didn’t get a Best Foreign Language Film nod from the Oscars, but it was China’s highest grossing film last year. (H/T Historical Society Blog)

• The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an important one, and begging to be made into a great movie… But critics sure don’t seem to think that Red Tails is that movie. Go back and see how HBO handled the same topic in 1995, with a superior cast that included Laurence Fishburne, Courtney B. Vance, and Andre Braugher.

• And Marc Wortman points out that the Tuskegee pilots weren’t the first African-American aviators of note. (H/T Cliopatria)

• Of the sixteen women who served in the 84th U.S. Congress (still, believe it or not, the highest number), none was more fascinating than Koya Knutson. Gilbert King tells the remarkable story of this representative from Minnesota’s then-9th district who struggled with the Democratic establishment and endured physical abuse from her alcoholic husband. (This is actually from the very end of 2011, but it’s too good not to pass along.)

Six memorable moments from the last fifty years of State of the Union addresses.

• The debate over the 4th grade U.S. history textbook for Virginia continues. Meanwhile, one important session at the American Historical Association meeting in Chicago asked whether the history textbook even had a future:

“What Can You Do With A History Major?”

Ah yes, that question. It’s one that we’re all familiar with from interactions with prospective students (and their parents), and one we’ll be trying to answer from time to time here at AC 2nd. Look for us to feature interviews with Bethel History alumni who’ve entered different professions.

But in the meantime, if you’re a high school or college student who loves history but isn’t sure what you can do (professionally) with a major in the field…

John Fea of Messiah College has long been running a series of answers to the question at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Rather than respond to the question himself, he’s solicited posts from or published interviews with former History majors (not all from Messiah) who have gone into a wide variety of fields. He hasn’t added a post since last fall, but the series is up to thirty-seven installments.

Click here to browse the entire series, or start with one of the more recent answers to “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?”:

Our Mission and Objectives (part 1)

So sometime last spring we realized that it had been over forty years since the Bethel History Department substantially revised its mission statement and program description. Yes, our mission statement was older than Bethel’s current campus, and dated back to the Nixon Administration (at least).

Now, as historians, we don’t necessarily have a problem with things that are, y’know, old. But aside from one member of the department, there’s been a bit of staff turnover since the Vietnam War, and it seemed like it might be a useful exercise to spend part of our summer workshop rewriting our mission statement and objectives.

Here’s how we decided to state our mission:

The Bethel University Department of History prepares students who are “bilingual,” imaginatively comfortable in a historic past and actively engaged with the present.

I like this statement for several reasons. First, it’s relatively succinct. If I put my mind to it, I could probably memorize it and repeat it to all prospective students and their parents. (If I put my mind to it…) In any case, the key points are easy to remember and communicate.

Second, it stresses that historians rely on a faculty not normally associated with academic disciplines outside of “the arts” — the imagination. After all, we can’t run experiments, or observe past time… We can only gather partial evidence and use our imaginations to connect the dots.

Third, it suggests that historians are not simply antiquarians — we have roles to play in our own time. But it resists the temptation to suggest that the only or principal value of studying the past is to learn lessons for the present. I think we’d all affirm that learning about the past is valuable in its own right. At the same time, undertaking that kind of project also helps historians to engage well with the problems of the present day. (In the third part of this series, we’ll start to talk more about this, emphasizing the idea that education is primarily about formation, not information.)

Fourth, it underscores that we are, above all else, a “teaching department.” To make that perfectly clear, we added a brief follow-up sentence: “While we serve a variety of constituencies (including, as scholars, professional societies and the larger academy), our mission is centered on teaching and student learning.”

As with most decisions in our department, adopting the mission statement provoked little heated discussion but a couple of valuable debates. The first discussion had to do with the word “bilingual.” We wondered if it implied a belief that the past and present are radically different, like two languages whose speakers can’t begin to understand each other. Ultimately, we liked that it was somewhat jarring, perhaps even eye-catching — since it’s not necessarily the first word that comes to mind in describing historians. It also suggests a kind of intercultural competency, the ability to move between worlds, even within the same conversation.

The second discussion dealt with a more serious objection: the mission statement made no explicit mention of our commitment to Bethel’s mission and identity as an evangelical Christian university in the Baptist and Pietist traditions. Perhaps we could add “Christian” in between “prepares” and “students”?

In the end, we decided it wasn’t necessary, since the mission statement was to be followed by two objectives that would make eminently clear that we regard Christian belief and practice as integral to our work as individuals and a department. More on those two objectives in the coming days…

– Chris Gehrz

Read the next post in this series>>

Welcome to AC 2nd!

To all the alumni, students, interested high schoolers, well-wishers, fellow travelers, curiosity-seekers, and professors’ mothers who’ve landed here, welcome to the blog of the Bethel University Department of History!

For those not in the first two categories, a quick word about the blog title: we’re longtime inhabitants of an intersection of two hallways on the 2nd floor of Bethel’s AC building, where we intermingle with political scientists, accountants, ornithologists, and others — a microcosm of Bethel’s commitment to the liberal arts and to the interconnectedness of knowledge. (All truth is God’s truth!)

Our neck of the woods at Bethel: AC 2ndOur goals here… There are several, though others will surely come up as we — and guests like you — make use of this space. Here are the main objectives at the outset:

To improve our communication with our various constituencies. Even at a small university like Bethel, it can be hard to stay in touch with all the people who are important to our department. So in recent years we’ve set up a Facebook page and started a quarterly departmental podcast. In that spirit, this blog will also try to keep us better connected to our students (current, former, and prospective), who are at the heart of our mission.

To create space for student and alumni voices. While our professors will contribute most of the posts here, we also want this to become a community space — open to our students, alumni, and guests. Hopefully it will become an outlet for journaling and reflection assignments in some of our courses, for example. At the very least, use it to share thoughts and suggestions with us through the Comments sections!

To share opportunities related to the study and practice of history. Expect us to post news of events (at Bethel and elsewhere in the Twin Cities), internships, scholarships, competitions, etc. that might be interesting to students and alumni.

To talk about what one does with a History major. Besides linking to job and internship fairs and opportunities, we’ll try to highlight former students who have gone on to careers in a variety of fields.

To help our students and alumni develop as lifelong learners. Look for us to suggest books, articles, blogs, movies, TV shows, plays, museum exhibitions, etc. More than that, we’ll try to talk about how one can continue to nurture a love for history as a vocation or avocation.

To reflect on our mission and identity as a history department at a Christian college. What does it mean to be a Christian historian? To teach history as people who (to quote a few of Bethel’s core values) are committed to following Christ, seeking truth, building character, reconciling, and being salt and light — in the world, but not of it?