Sins of Our Past

Dave and I spent Saturday morning hiking in Fort Snelling State Park and then visited the fort itself. Despite the fact that we’ve now lived here five years and that we pass Fort Snelling every time we drive to the airport, we had never visited it before. It was well worth the visit.

In addition to some nice hiking on a beautiful day, we spend almost three hours at the Fort, listening to various historical interpreters tell their story. (I live historical interpreters!)

More sobering, we visited a display having to do with the 1862 war between the United States and the Dakota Indians (which appears to have been the result of bad faith treatment of the Dakota by the US), and the aftermath of that war. 1600 Dakota Indians – mostly women, children and the elderly – were forcibly interned at an camp at Fort Snelling during 1862-63. Between 130 and 300 died within the camp, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the poor conditions inside the camp, and the remaining were taken by steamboats to western reservations in May 1863.

The exhibit included several pictures of Indian women and their children, below which was this caption, which I found quite arresting:

These old photographs have an eerie quality….[T]hey show us the birth of an institution, the beginning of a whole new social practice of concentrating innocent civilians into an area and imprisoning them for protracted periods without charging them for any crime. The British used the same types of camps to intern Boer women and children during their war in South Africa. By the middle of the twentient century, the concentration camp had spread virtually around the world. The French used them in Algiers, the Germans constructed them in Europe and the Russians built them in Siberia. (Jack Weatherford, Native Roots.)

There are many things we can be proud of having created or popularized. This is not one of them.

We look at what the Germans did during World War II and we react (quite correctly) with horror. But we need to realize our own participation in such acts….our own guilt for the sins of our past.