Not long ago and not far away, 38 men were hung on this day, Dec.26. It's convenient to separate ourselves from that, to think it was an ancient, distant event.
It wasn't. I've driven past the spot in downtown Mankato where the scaffolding was constructed hundreds of times. As for the passing of time, it was only long ago if we measure time by our own years. My father would have known people that were living then.
I write, of course, about the hanging of 38 Dakota men 150 years ago today. They were killed at what is now called Reconciliation Park in Mankato. It was the first immediate result of the US-Dakota War of 1862. It remains the largest mass execution in our nation's history.
Today brings a formal end to the 150th Anniversary commemoration of the War. The discomfort and suffering visited on the Dakota people was just beginning in 1862.
Why should this be recalled? Why should we think about it? I don't think it's useful to feel some sort of "guilt." Some of the Dakota men had taken part in horrible acts. Some were caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. And some were just falsely accused. We can speculate as to how we would have behaved in the situation our ancestors found themselves in and hope we would have been noble. But that wasn't us; we are called to behave well here and now.
We should remember because the past is the foundation of our lives. We live where we live, we work where we work, in the steps of those who came before. Literally. Our world is the accumulation of all the good and bad decisions that preceded. The better we understand "them," the better we understand "us."
I was struck this last year in conversations I had with people my age who learned almost nothing of the Massacre/Uprising/Conflict/War when we were young. It has a critically important place in United States history. Historians draw an arc from 1862 to Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. In that arc are the American Indian Wars which opened much of a continent to one group of people. It bound another group to harsh reservations.
Now, school children at least learn some of these things that happened under our feet. It's a start, but awareness of the past will never be a strong suit of our nation. The present is filled with so much stimulation, it's hard not to live in the current moment. With computers, smart phones, etc., it's hard not to drown in the current moment.
I went to several talks last August that were part of Brown County's 150th Anniversary commemoration. There were professional historians along with others for whom history is an intense hobby. You could see how engaged these folks were in the stories they tell. You could sense the emotions they felt, emotions mined from the past like valuable metals. Their time reading, studying, and "living" in history led them to "know" the participants, almost like family.
I was fortunate to tag along with Greg Roiger on a personal tour of the Leavenworth Rescue Expedition by Gary Wiltschek. Gary began years ago looking into the history of his family and the farm where he grew up. One story led to another, and he found himself doing the work that led to a wonderful book, The Leavenworth Rescue Expedition Revisited.
Gary knows the people in his book as well as one can know someone from that distance. He's spent time with their personal stories, along with the larger historical perspectives. He's walked around where they lived and where they died. As with any good historian, Gary gives life again to his subjects.
It all was a little overwhelming to follow as Gary told us about the people that were involved in the Leavenworth Expedition; there are so many intimate details that he knows. Of course, it ended badly for many of the participants on that August day. At one point, a tear rolled down Gary's cheek from under the sunglasses he wore. It might be what would happen if any of us were telling about tragedy involving a close friend.
Edmund Burke is the Irish statesman who wrote, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." I don't know. It seems as if we are destined to repeat it anyway. Echoes of the US-Dakota War are in the news all the time. We're several generations removed from it, but people are still people. We love the same; we hurt the same; we screw up the same.
When I started this piece, I went to the internet to check some facts about the Mankato hangings. That's when I first saw a headline about the school shooting in Connecticut. Since then, the two events have circled around together in my head. Nothing especially links them. They both fill me with sadness, but I would be contorting words to do more than that.
By coincidence, they fall on both sides of Christmas. The darkness will have it's moments as long as we humans are flawed and touched by sin. It is as it always has been. It was so 150 years ago; it was so 12 days ago. It will be so tomorrow. Into the dark, shines the light of Bethlehem. The gift of a baby in a stable is brightness in the barren night.