November 23, 2012

Little War on the Prairie

Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen says, nobody ever talked about the most important historical event ever to happen there: in 1862, it was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged after a war with white settlers. John went back to Minnesota to figure out what really happened 150 years ago, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it much after.

Public execution of 38 Dakota. Illustration by W. H. Childs, 12/26/1862. Courtesy to Pioneer Press: Minnesota Historical Society



Ira talks to John Biewen about how remarkable it is that he could grow up in a town and never learn about the most significant event in its history. This show about Native Americans and settlers was first broadcast on Thanksgiving weekend 2012, on the 150th anniversary of the war. (4 minutes)

John Biewen is director of the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He hosts the podcast Scene on Radio

Act One

John meets up with Gwen Westerman, a Dakota woman who moved to Mankato twenty years ago, also having no idea about its history. Together they travel to historic sites across Minnesota, reconstructing the story of what led to the war between the Dakota and the settlers. Gwen is a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and co-author of the book Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. (25 minutes)

Act Two

John continues the story of the Dakota War of 1862, and how it resulted in the expulsion of the Dakota people from the state of Minnesota. Then John goes back to his hometown to see how this history is being taught today. He speaks with historian Mary Wingerd, author of North Country: The Making of Minnesota, about why so many people — including both of them — grew up in Minnesota and heard so little about the war. And he witnesses Dakota people, on the 150th anniversary of the war, crossing the state line and returning to Minnesota. (26 minutes)