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Reexamining the one-sided history depicted on markers in the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We've been examining the nation's more than 180,000 historical markers. Many of them are comically wrong, others brazenly offensive. Today, we're going to turn our attention to markers that tell a one-sided version of American history. As part of our ongoing series, Off The Mark, NPR's Laura Sullivan went to what was once the American frontier in Minnesota.

M L KELLY: We've been examining the nation's more than 180,000 historical markers. Many of them are comically wrong, others brazenly offensive. Today, we're going to turn our attention to markers that tell a one-sided version of American history. As part of our ongoing series, Off The Mark, NPR's Laura Sullivan went to what was once the American frontier in Minnesota.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you want to know what happened to white settlers in the 1800s in the Midwest, you don't have to look far. Just find a historical marker - even one in a 170-year-old cemetery in New Ulm, Minnesota.

DARLA GEBHARD: We're in the pioneer section, tract A, and that's where the Dakota War burials are.

SULLIVAN: Darla Gebhard is a research librarian here with the Brown County Historical Society.

GEBHARD: We're going to head right over here.

SULLIVAN: In front of her is a soapstone-and-marble marker. It's an obelisk, each side carved with writing. It begins, in memory of those who fell in the defense of New Ulm in 1862.

GEBHARD: On this side, it honors those who were...

SULLIVAN: (Reading) In memory of those who - something by the Indians.

GEBHARD: Yeah. Yeah. And I believe that that word might be massacred.

SULLIVAN: Massacred.

GEBHARD: Massacred by the Indians - and that is an objectionable word today.

SULLIVAN: Objectionable, Gebhard explains, because it takes sides. And if there are two sides on the American frontier, NPR found the nation's markers come down solidly on the side of white settlers. From the East Coast through the Plains, NPR found more than 270 markers still call Native Americans savage, hostile or use racial slurs. And many of them tell an eerily similar story - Native Americans killed innocent white settlers for no reason. Gebhard knows this tale well.

GEBHARD: And I'll show you what was...

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GEBHARD: ...Going through their mind if we come over here, and you'll see the gravity of it.

SULLIVAN: She stops in the middle of several dozen gravestones.

GEBHARD: These are the people that were killed.

SULLIVAN: The names have faded with time.

GEBHARD: We have Julius Fensky (ph), Erince Dietrich (ph), John Schneider (ph).

SULLIVAN: But the writing underneath is clear.

GEBHARD: Killed by Indians, killed by Indians, killed by Indians - you have entire families that lost their lives. This is what the reality was for them in 1862.

SULLIVAN: This was the reality for many people who lived here. It just wasn't the reality for all the people who lived here.

JOHN ROBERTSON: The direction we're facing now is basically south, and we're looking out over what would have been, in 1862, the Tallgrass Prairie.

SULLIVAN: John Robertson is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe and a descendant of Minnesota Dakotas. He's standing at the edge of an expansive field in southern Minnesota known as Cansa'yapi. It's the homeland of the Lower Sioux Indian community.

ROBERTSON: Even today, you don't see any trees, and that's the way it would have been for 250 miles.

SULLIVAN: This prairie has a story full of twists and turns, the most recent being three years ago, when Minnesota agreed to return 114 acres of it to the tribe. When tribal members took possession of the property, they also took over management of 22 state historical signs. Robertson says many told a similar tale.

ROBERTSON: You know, that at this point, this poor settler family was massacred, blah, blah, blah, and they had no defenses. The women were violated, and the children were taken, blah, blah, blah. I mean, that's the kind of language that are on these markers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

SULLIVAN: The signs wind their way along a series of trails, and Robertson says tribal members spent a long time considering each one. And then they made a decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

SULLIVAN: They decided to take them all down. As the signs land in a heap on the grass, Robertson says it's not just that some call them savages. It's the signs they're not even on. He stopped in front of one with the title "Stone Warehouse." Amber Annis, who's Cheyenne River Lakota and works with the Minnesota Historical Society, reads it.

AMBER ANNIS: It is 43 by 23 feet, 20 feet in height, the first-story walls 2 feet, and the second-story walls 18 inches thick.

SULLIVAN: Robertson shakes his head. The sign's not wrong, he says. It's just oblivious. The stone warehouse was the spark that started the U.S.-Dakota Wars.

ROBERTSON: This was the flashpoint of the actual war beginning here and the establishment of the conquered status of the Dakota nation.

SULLIVAN: It's the reason all those white settlers in the cemetery died - and an untold number of Dakotas with them.

ROBERTSON: This contained all of the food that was listed in the treaties that was to be distributed to each family.

SULLIVAN: The Dakotas were a formidable force known for their brilliant political and military strategy. But the federal government prohibited them from hunting or farming, and they were forced to accept food payments from this stone warehouse. Except, in 1862, the federal government, mired in the Civil War, stopped providing food. According to letters from the time, the federal agent in charge locked the warehouse, and the main trader told the Dakotas they could, quote, "eat grass or their own dung." Facing starvation, the Dakotas declared war.

What does the new sign say?

ROBERTSON: (Speaking Dakota) - so that would be place of storage house. The warehouse was a central scene during the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War in 1862.

SULLIVAN: New signs now describe the arrival of the Europeans, the loss of the land, the decimation of the tribe. Robertson says he's not trying to change that history. He's trying to explain why it mattered.

ROBERTSON: Hopefully, when you read it, the sign is going to speak to you in a different and continuing way. That's the goal of the signage. You would say, I heard something about that, or I want to know more about that, and it's going to be alive for you.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

ROBERTSON: I hope.

SULLIVAN: Mmm hmm. That's good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK PASSING)

SULLIVAN: Throughout the state, though, the signs speak the same way they did a hundred years ago. One in New Ulm tells how, quote, "savages" massacred nearly all the whites. Another uses a racial slur and concludes Native Americans, quote, "had no pity for women or children."

GEBHARD: So now we're on the Brown County Courthouse lawn.

SULLIVAN: Darla Gebhard, the Brown County historian, makes her way up a patch of grass to a large marker honoring pioneers.

GEBHARD: It's paying homage to the pioneers who founded the territory of Minnesota.

SULLIVAN: But couldn't the Dakota say that they founded...

GEBHARD: Oh, absolutely.

SULLIVAN: ...The area and the land?

GEBHARD: Yes, absolutely. And so if Dakota would put up a marker saying, this is our homeland, they would be absolutely correct in doing so.

SULLIVAN: But this idea of dueling markers - that stories that can be told in two ways should be told in two ways - is problematic for historians. What if people only see one sign? The back of the marker lists the name of every town resident who died in the U.S.-Dakota Wars fighting for their families. We could find no marker that lists the names of the Dakotas who died fighting for theirs. Darla Gebhard says a member of the Dakotas asked her about this once.

GEBHARD: I was doing a a downtown tour with a Dakota person.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GEBHARD: And she asked me, what do people in New Ulm think about the Dakota War? And I said, they don't. And then this person said, well, why is that? And I said, because we won.

SULLIVAN: But when it comes to the country's tens of thousands of markers and how they tell the story of a nation, it's not exactly clear who that we refers to.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.
Nick McMillan
Nick McMillan is a fellow with NPR's Investigations Unit. He utilizes data driven techniques, video and motion graphics to tell stories. Previously, McMillan worked at Newsy on investigative documentaries where he contributed to stories uncovering white supremacists in the U.S. military and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican school children. McMillan has a bachelor's in Statistics from Rice University and a master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland.

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