Little War on the Prairie

A Dakota dancer at the annual Mahkato Wacipi (Pow Wow) in Mankato, Minnesota, September 21, 2012. Photograph by Caroline Yang.

A radio documentary produced by Center for Documentary Studies audio director John Biewen—“Little War on the Prairie”—aired on This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, in November 2012. The documentary tells the long-overlooked story of one of the key episodes in the Plains Indian wars of the nineteenth century, a troubling history that Biewen, a Minnesota native, says is “deeply at odds with the state’s cherished tale of peaceful settlement by Scandinavian and German settlers.” Biewen describes the story:

Once called the “Sioux Uprising,” the bloody, thirty-six-day U.S.–Dakota War raged up and down the Minnesota River Valley, claimed hundreds of lives (perhaps thousands in its aftermath, including the official Congressional exile of the Dakota people from Minnesota), and culminated in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. On December 26,1862, thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hanged in the town of Mankato, with four thousand eager spectators looking on. President Lincoln approved the list of the condemned after sparing hundreds of others. The war, and the longer process of Native American removal that the war essentially completed, cleared the ground for modern-day Minnesota.

The show is historical of course, taking listeners on a journey into the events of 1862—what happened and why. But the story is also partly personal. Mankato is my hometown, yet I grew up hearing next to nothing about the events that so shaped the place; it was only through researching the documentary that I learned the facts in any detail. So the program also explores the evolving ways in which Minnesotans have told the story of the U.S.-Dakota War—or, just as often, have mis-told or forgotten it. If you ask a typical Minnesotan about what happened there in 1862, you’re likely to get an uninformed shrug. Why do Minnesotans know so little, and seemingly care even less, about their own civil war? One answer, offered by my father, a retired schoolteacher: “Maybe because we won.”

“Little War on the Prairie” is framed in the larger context of American collective memory, or, in this case, regional memory. I grew up with a sense of historical innocence, a pervasive notion that as a white midwesterner I had no great ancestral sins to answer for—unlike, in particular, white southerners. I interviewed white southern friends who’ve lived in the Midwest, including CDS colleague Tim Tyson, about their experiences on the receiving end of such smugness. “The South becomes the bearer of the bad stuff,” Tyson says, summarizing what he perceived as the prevailing midwestern view. “So all bad things are projected onto the South, and then that’s not us, so we’re clean.”


Related Minnesota Public Radio Photo Gallery The Dakota War Then and Now by Caroline Yang.