Different Perspectives

NEW ULM Two author/educators provided very different viewpoints on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and related subjects Saturday at the New Ulm Public Library and Brown County Historical Society speaker series.

Sisseton Wahpeton College President Emeritus Dr. Elden Lawrence said the “inside story” on why the U.S.-Dakota War was fought can be confusing, but that it involved some issues that remain today.

“There were epidemics in the 1830s that nearly wiped out Indian villages due to their lack of immunity to illnesses,” Lawrence said. “It reminded me of a brother I was really attached to who started to cough. My mother was overcome with grief. She lost two sons in one month. I learned later that the cough was a death signal and that Whooping Cough was a fatal disease.”

Lawrence said the details of real stories of the real lives of real people need to be told to prevent tragic events from happening again.

Milford Township resident Jeff Juni, who lives near the eastern boundary of the Dakota Reservation established by 1853 U.S-Dakota treaties, was introduced by Lawrence. “It’s been fun to become friends with Elden and learn how history happened,” Juni said. “Overall, people have may have different viewpoints of history. Put it all together and you have a better understanding.”

Lawrence said his latest book “Stepping off the Keel Boat: An Inside Look at the Dakota War of 1862” came about after he spoke with (tribal) elders and learned the viewpoints they passed on to him. “I was never the same after that,” Lawrence said. “Elders told me stories from different perspectives. They talked about the younger generation and made me realize how it was when I was young, before I came a Christian man.”

Lawrence said traditions live on when elders sit down and talk to younger men about what to do and what not to do. “Other people have told me they experienced the same thing I did,” he added. “Tribal elders are often not consulted, but they should be.”

His interest in Dakota history intensified when he learned about his ancestor Lorenzo Lawrence, one of a group of non-hostile Upper Sioux Agency leaders (aka the “Peace Party” and “friendlies”).

The leaders became concerned when they saw a large number of captive women and children in Little Crow’s camp and created plans to protect the captives, according to the Yellow Medicine County US-Dakota War of 1862 Study Resource Guide (SRG).

The Peace Party met with Little Crow and his followers in an attempt to protect and free the captives, return their wagons, carriages, cattle, horses and other property; before sending a message to General Sibley that they wished to turn the captives over to his troops, according to the SRG.

Lorenzo Lawrence was credited with leading a group of women and children escapees by canoe down the Minnesota River to Fort Ridgely, according to the SRG. Elden Lawrence said the “neutral” Indians are cited on a monument overlooking the Minnesota River Valley near Morton that was pictured in his latest book.

“A handful of real Christian Indians remained neutral but tried to stop the war and save the lives of Indians and whites,” Lawrence said.

Juni said some of the cultural differences between whites and Dakota include identity and how it is defined. “For the Dakota, it’s about who you are as a people. With us, it’s what you do,” Juni said.

He added that some of his ancestors were killed or split from the rest of the family during the war, but his relationship with Lawrence helped him learn more about what happened 150 years ago.

University of Iowa Associate Professor of History Dr. Glenn Penny visited New Ulm while doing research for his book “Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800,” which explores the affinity for American Indians in the German culture for the past two centuries.

“There are lots of people speaking German at the Pine Ridge Reservation today,” Penny said. “Large numbers of German men, women and children take part in rendezvous in Germany. There are professional performers in Germany and other European countries, well-known for their ability to replicate a certain group of people at a specific time.”

Penny said he studied the New Ulm Pioneer newspaper for detailed descriptions of American Indians including their facial expressions, ancestral and other historical notes.

“I learned that cultural confusion, clashes, financial corruption by government agents and turning Indians from hunters to wards of the State had a lot to do with the conflicts.” Penny said. “I also learned that the Germans moving to the American frontier wasn’t unlike colonial settlements in other parts of the world.”

Penny said lots of Germans who would like to spend a week in a tepee instead of reading about American Indians in books. “And they buy lots of Indian things here, not tourist stuff,” he added.

He mentioned the popularity of Karl F. May, a German writer noted mostly for adventure novels set in the American Old West. Many of May’s works were filmed, adapted for the stage, and became audio dramas or graphic novels.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.

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