The average class size at Gustavus Adolphus College is 15, but some academic courses at the College find a way to influence and educate a broader audience. That is certainly the case with the 2012 January Interim Experience course “Commemorating Controversy: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”.
The course was co-taught by Gustavus Professor of English Elizabeth Baer and Executive Director of the Nicollet County Historical Society Ben Leonard. The course sought to create dialogue about sensitive topics and bring to light details about a largely forgotten conflict across southern Minnesota between the Dakota people and the region’s white settlers, which included the public hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato by order of President Abraham Lincoln.
Professor Baer is no stranger to tackling sensitive topics as her previous research and scholarship has focused on issues such as sexual violence during the Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda. In many ways, the Commemorating Controversy course was a perfect fit with her interests and areas of expertise.
“2012 is the Sesquicentennial of Gustavus as well as the Sesquicentennial of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. I wanted to teach this course to draw attention to the historical, political and geographical context in which Gustavus was founded as well as to honor the history of the Dakota who lived on this land before Euro-American settlers arrived,” Baer said. “The class embraced a number of themes: memory and memorialization, ethics, how history is written, genocide, and the importance of story.”
In conjunction with the course, the College hosted a six-speaker lecture series during the month of January that filled Alumni Hall to capacity and also garnered a strong audience online as the lectures were live streamed.
Besides regular coursework and required attendance at the lectures, students in the class were challenged to create a 12-panel exhibit that could be shown to larger audiences. The panels explore the war’s causes, voices, events, and long-lasting consequences.
“The process of creating this exhibit was intense. From the beginning, the prospect of making an effective and appropriate exhibit in three weeks with a class of near strangers about a topic none of us had previous class experience with was a little overwhelming,” said senior Alex Christensen, who was one of 15 students enrolled in the course.
Nonetheless, with guidance from Baer and Leonard, students split up the responsibilities of creating the panels, went through a peer-review process, and completed the project on time. The exhibit was displayed for the first time in March at the College’s annual Building Bridges Conference, which coincidentally, was titled “Unresolved Conflict: Remember Our Forgotten History,” and focused on the impacts of colonization on Native Americans.
“The reaction to our exhibit has been nothing short of a marvel to me,” Christensen said. “Watching people make their way along the panels during the conference, I felt the beginnings of a profound sense of fulfillment. Almost immediately after Building Bridges we began to get offers and requests for our presence and our exhibit.”
Things haven’t slowed down since. Those associated with the course were invited to Flandreau, South Dakota in mid-August to display the exhibit at a three-day event sponsored by descendants of the Dakota who were exiled after war. In September, the exhibit was displayed at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities and at Winona State University. It has also been on display in libraries and historical societies all across Minnesota. The demand for the exhibit was so high that second and third copies of the exhibit panels were made.
The exhibit has even made its way out of the Midwest to our nation’s capital. During the College’s Fall Break (Oct. 20-23), students Danny Schmalz and Laurel Boman along with Leonard and Provost Mark Braun, were able to travel to Washington, D.C., where the exhibit was on display at President Lincoln’s Cottage. The exhibit was part of A Weekend of Reflection and Remembrance, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Boman says that the class has been a challenging, yet rewarding experience. “I think the unique thing about this class is that it challenged all of us in ways that I don’t think you are challenged in normal classes,” she said. “It was a journey that was not only academically challenging, but it was also emotionally challenging. There’s a certain amount of pride connected to what we were able to accomplish with the exhibit, but also a lot of humility.”
“Without a doubt, choosing that J-term class was the best academic decision I’ve made since I got to college,” Christensen said. “It has enabled me to explore an area of social and environmental justice that I knew little about, but was more connected to by personal and family history than I could have ever imagined. Every day there are times when I take a second and treasure the immense value the class and ensuing experiences have in my heart.”
Gustavus Adolphus College’s dedication to telling the story of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 will continue this winter when the Hillstrom Museum of Art opens an exhibition of Dakota art on the theme of the 1862 war. The show is titled “Hena Uŋkiksuyapi: In Commemoration of the Dakota Mass Execution of 1862,” and will be on display from December 17, 2012 through February 8, 2013. A series of public events will take place in January, including a talk by Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian.
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