“Little War on the Prairie”: Listen to “This American Life” Broadcast of New CDS Radio Documentary

A Dakota dancer at the annual Mahkato Wacipi (Pow Wow) in Mankato, Minnesota, September 21, 2012. Photograph by Caroline Yang.

A new one-hour radio documentary produced by Center for Documentary Studies audio director John Biewen—”Little War on the Prairie”—aired on This American Life recently. The documentary tells the long-overlooked story of one of the key episodes in the Plains Indian wars of the nineteenth century, a troubling history that Biewen, a Minnesota native, says is “deeply at odds with the state’s cherished tale of peaceful settlement by Scandinavian and German settlers.” Listen to the documentary below.

Biewen describes the story:

Once called the “Sioux Uprising,” the bloody, thirty-six-day U.S.–Dakota War raged up and down the Minnesota River Valley, claimed hundreds of lives (perhaps thousands in its aftermath, including the official Congressional exile of the Dakota people from Minnesota), and culminated in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hanged in the town of Mankato, with four thousand eager spectators looking on. President Lincoln approved the list of the condemned after sparing hundreds of others. The war, and the longer process of Native American removal that the war essentially completed, cleared the ground for modern-day Minnesota.

The show is historical of course, taking listeners on a journey into the events of 1862—what happened and why. But the story is also partly personal. Mankato is my hometown, yet I grew up hearing next to nothing about the events that so shaped the place; it was only through researching the documentary that I learned the facts in any detail. So the program also explores the evolving ways in which Minnesotans have told the story of the U.S.-Dakota War—or, just as often, have mis-told or forgotten it. If you ask a typical Minnesotan about what happened there in 1862, you’re likely to get an uninformed shrug. Why do Minnesotans know so little, and seemingly care even less, about their own civil war? One answer, offered by my father, a retired schoolteacher: “Maybe because we won.”

“Little War on the Prairie” is framed in the larger context of American collective memory, or, in this case, regional memory. I grew up with a sense of historical innocence, a pervasive notion that as a white midwesterner I had no great ancestral sins to answer for—unlike, in particular, white southerners. I interviewed white southern friends who’ve lived in the Midwest, including CDS colleague Tim Tyson, about their experiences on the receiving end of such smugness. “The South becomes the bearer of the bad stuff,” Tyson says, summarizing what he perceived as the prevailing Midwestern view. “So all bad things are projected onto the South, and then that’s not us, so we’re clean.”

Read a story and view a slideshow that ran on the Minnesota Public Radio website.

Read a story that ran in the Mankato Free Press following a listening event at Minnesota State University, Mankato, for the This American Life broadcast.

Read an interview with John Biewen from the Durham Magazine blog.

Click here for more information on the Center for Documentary Studies audio program.

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    6 Responses to ““Little War on the Prairie”: Listen to “This American Life” Broadcast of New CDS Radio Documentary”

    1. Judy Loest says:

      Thank you for this powerful documentary. I was in tears at the end.

      Congratulations and best wishes for continued rewarding work,

      Judy Loest
      Knoxville, TN

    2. Anne Lowe says:

      Re: The Minnesota War of 1862: Great show! I heard it today on This American Life on MPR, 91.1 in the Twin Cities.

      I visited most of the sites that were mentioned in the program, as well as the Minnesota History Center’s U.S-Dakota War of 1862 exhibit this past year. Your program did a great job summing up the complex history of the war and its aftermath, from the deceitful treaties of the 1850’s, to the present day inability or unwillingness of some to admit the truth (e.g. the elementary school teacher who I think said the war occurred because the Dakota didn’t know how to talk through conflict.)

      As a white Minnesota, I myself don’t want to take on the guilt; when I think about my great, great grandparents who immigrated from Canada, Germany, and Ireland into southwestern Minnesota in 1878 and later, I tell myself, “Well my ancestors weren’t there in 1862, so they weren’t part of it.” But my ancestors (and I, being descended from them) benefited by being able to move onto land that was taken from the Dakota by the signing of the treaties.

      I also went to Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul, just up the road from Fort Snelling. (I think you mentioned Sibley High School in the program.) We were called the “Sibley Warriors” back when I graduated in 1981. I think some students in the mid-1990′s wanted to change the mascot, but the community put pressure on the school board to keep the “Warrior” name. They are still the “Home of the Warriors,” but they no longer have an Indianhead as their mascot; now they are the “Warrior Knights”.

      I can’t believe I didn’t see the irony of our being called the “Sibley Warriors” back then, but then again, we didn’t learn this history when I was in school. I’m glad it’s part of the curriculum today and that students are learning about it now. We no longer have an excuse to be ignorant.

      Thanks for a wonderful program.

    3. 40-something white guy from California says:

      Just heard this on This American Life. Unbelievably good and astonishingly tragic. I stood in my kitchen for an hour listening, fascinated, furious, and gut-punched. I’m blinking away tears as I write this. Thanks John.

    4. Jody Berryhill Foshee says:

      I heard your program on KUT Austin TX today. I read everything I can find on Indians and the past. I am registered Creek-Cherokee Indian living in Spicewood TX.

      Thank you for this documentary. The stories need to be known and the truth revealed.
      Jody

    5. The already high bar set in place by “This American Life” was raised considerably by your audio documentary. I was enthralled and cannot say enough good things about this work. I will make a small but serious effort to pay credit to what you’ve done in a planned blog post on my own site after listening to this as a podcast earlier this morning. But I just wanted to say somewhat directly…thank you for what you’ve done. I believe that many people from a wide spectrum of interests will find value in this work.

    6. [...] recently on This American Life to great acclaim. Read more about the show and listen to the podcast here. Be Sociable, [...]

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