Helty Skelty  By Harry Welty
Published March 21, 2002

"Here were hanged"

"Here were hanged 38 Sioux Indians December 26 1862." 

This was the Mankato "memorial" that greeted our family when we moved north from Topeka, Kansas in 1963. It was a five-ton; granite marker erected fifty years after the infamous deed and fifty years before my becoming a Minnesotan. I've never been clear about why it was erected. It was too terse to suggest either pride or remorse that Mankato had been the scene of America's largest mass hanging. 

After it was erected it didn't take long for locals to complain that the "memorial" reflected badly on the pretty little town nestled in the Minnesota River Valley. Had they been consulted the few Dakota Indians left in southern Minnesota after the Great Sioux Uprising would probably have objected too. Not only was it not a mea culpa, the word "Sioux" wasn't what the Dakota called themselves. "Sioux" came from the Ojibwe and reflected the centuries of conflict between their tribes. In Ojibwe sioux means snakelike whereas "Dakota," in Dakotan, means "friend." 

The two-month uprising couldn't have come at a less opportune time for Minnesota. Many of its young European men were off fighting in the Civil War when the Dakota got tired of starving. The food promised them by treaty was not forthcoming. Consequently, angry young warriors, who couldn't help but notice that the whites were busy killing each other, decided to lend them a hand. It was a costly mistake. It only took two bloody months for the settlers and their army to route the Indians. 307 Dakota were sentenced to death until President Lincoln intervened and whittled the number down to 38. Thousands of vengeful white settlers attended the execution on the day after Christmas. 

By the 1970s, after members of the American Indian Movement splashed red paint on the stone, the monument's days were numbered. The City eventually carted it off and buried it in a semisecret location. 

Every place I've lived has had its shameful episodes. That's what comes from having humans around. Shortly before Mankato's hanging, my birthplace, Kansas, was called "bleeding Kansas." Civic-minded fellows like Jesse James and John Brown were busy murdering each other lest the wrong side take control of the territorial legislature and adopt a pro-slavery or anti-slavery constitution. 

A century after 1854's Bleeding Kansas came the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. I vividly recall when the "colored school" in my neighborhood closed and its children were marched to my school. I don't know if Topeka has a memorial to the Brown case or not. They ought to even though Topeka did not play a very noble part. The town fathers argued against integration and when the decision went against Topeka and the colored schools were closed it was the black teachers who lost their jobs. 

How long should any people have to hang their heads over the misdeeds of their ancestors? Germans, have borne the shame and stigma of the Holocaust for fifty-five years even though 90 percent of the population was born after the war. I think Germany should be given credit for facing its history honestly. By contrast, Japan prefers to remember itself as a nuclear martyr for Hiroshima. The Japanese are still in denial about "comfort women," the "Rape of Nanking" and other war atrocities committed by their side. Few things are more seductive than a selective memory.

A few days ago I read a letter from a man who objected to the memorial Duluth plans to build for the lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie. Its author didn't want to have to explain the memorial, or the stain on Duluth's history, to his grandchild.

There have been thousands of lynchings across the nation, from the civil war right up until my youth, but the 1920 Duluth lynching was notable. Black Americans realized that if a lynching could take place as far north as Duluth they weren't safe anywhere. This realization was so profound that a bright, young, black, college student at the University of Minnesota decided to dedicate his life to winning equal treatment for African Americans. Roy Wilkins became the chief legal strategist for the NAACP in the 1940's as that organization began to systematically challenge the Jim Crow laws, which hid behind the polite lie "separate but equal." Those challenges culminated in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education and that long line of black children who came to join me at Loman Hill Elementary when I was in second grade.

There is a new memorial in Mankato today next to the public library where 38 Sioux Indians were hung. It is a huge limestone Buffalo in what is now called "Reconciliation Park." 

Reconciliation should be our aim too as we memorialize the murders of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie. It should not be regarded as an homage to infamy but rather as a testament to the path we've taken since. If we wish to stay on this new path we would do well to remember Santayana's warning. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This would be a worthy admonition for any grandfather to share with his grandchild.

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com 

The editors are not sold on my suggestion, "Not Eudora," for a regular column title. So far it has received one vote. It's the only vote cast thus far but another reader suggested today's "Helty Skelty." Your choices to date include both of these and "Snow Kidding" and "Big Harry Deal." Weigh in if you have a preference or a better suggestion. Email harrywelty@snowbizz.com

Check out the Minnesota Historical Society Website devoted to the Duluth lynching created in 2003