Apr 10

A  mystery popped up last week, one that serves as a metaphor for the difficulty Minnesota faces — in this 150th anniversary year — in acknowledging the Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath of racism, retribution and white triumphalism.

A large monument that noted the spot along the Minnesota River where 38 Dakota warriors were hanged on the day after Christmas in 1862 — the largest mass execution in American history — has gone missing. One man says he knows where it is — but he ain’t saying.

The 6-foot-tall granite marker, weighing more than four tons, was erected a century ago, in 1912, on or near the spot where the warrior’s bodies are believed to have been hastily buried in shallow, sandy graves — graves that proved easy to rob as frontier doctors, including the father of the famous Mayo Brothers, spent the night pulling out the dead Indians and taking them away to their surgeries so that they might be flayed and dissected and displayed like so many animals.

As Mankato State University Prof. Melodie Andrews noted in a lecture last week, the resemblance of the monument to a somber gravestone was deeply ironic:

The “grave” was empty.

Eventually, the racial boast that seemed to trumpet the triumph of the white race started seeming hollow, too. In the 1920s, Andrews says, Clarence Darrow was horrified by the sight of the marker, saying, “I would never believe that the people of a civilized community would want to commemorate such an atrocious crime.”

One hundred and fifty years after the war that scarred and shaped the new state of Minnesota, we don’t know exactly how to discuss the causes and the effects of 1862, but we know enough to be embarrassed by the way these things used to be portrayed. The Mankato Marker made us uneasy, and brought old pains to the surface.

It had to go. But where? Nobody knows.

By the 1970s, after being moved three or four times, the marker was quietly removed from public display and stored in a city works garage. But it vanished from its storage site sometime in the mid-1990s, and has never been seen again. Like the Dakota Conflict itself, it has been out of sight, but hardly out of mind. Efforts to locate the marker, or to determine its fate, have been made, uncovering various rumors but no actual sign of the marker.

A couple of days after Prof. Andrews’ lecture, however, The Free Press ran an interview with former Mankato Mayor Stan Christ, who now lives in Missouri. Christ, whose heritage includes Dakota Indian ancestry, told the newspaper’s Brian Ojanpa that he knew where the marker is, and for a very simple reason:

“I got rid of it,” he declared flatly.

But he refused to say where, whether he dumped it in the Minnesota, or disposed of it on the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation near Morton, Minn., as some people believe, or whether the stone was ground up into gravel and now lines someone’s garden path.

“There’s only three people in the world who know, and two of them may be dead,” said Christ, who is 72.

There is a modern plaque that marks the hanging site, and a large sculpture of a buffalo that was installed there in 1987, on the 125th anniversary of what should be known not only as the country’s largest mass execution, but also as the place on which one of the country’s greatest miscarriages of justice was carried out. And a plan is under consideration for a new monument that would list the names of the 38, instead of just lumping them together as nameless, dead Indians.

But the case of Mankato’s Missing Marker highlights the difficulty that Minnesota still has of coming to terms with the genocidal policies and racism that drove the Dakota to the brink of destruction, sparked a desperate short-lived war for survival and led to more than a century — 150 years, really — of denial and forgetfulness on the part of the state that was built upon the bones of its original inhabitants.  Here Were Hanged 38 Indians? Why? What happened after that? What led up to it?

That marker had to go: It didn’t represent the truth, an explanation or the end of the story. It — and its unceremonious disappearance — represented the end of the old way of telling it. We are still trying to figure out how to begin telling the real story.

HERE WERE HANGED THE 38. And here is where the story starts.