Remembering history

Published 6:00 pm Saturday, November 12, 2011

Danielle Heiny, director of retention and student success, who also serves as one of Riverland's diversity officers for students, uses a touch screen to watch a video of Native American Tom Ross from the "Why Treaties Matter" exhibit. - Matt Peterson/

Exhibit shows how Native American history is lasting

Riverland Community College and volunteers have joined an effort that is resurrecting more than 150 years of history that happened in many local backyards.

John Grabko, a historian of Native American affairs, delivered a presentation Tuesday night about events leading to the Dakota War of 1862 and the social issues that followed. - Matt Peterson/

The “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit in the college’s library, part of a traveling display put on by the Minnesota Humanities Center, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Smithsonian Institution, shows how many events that affected Native Americans and settlers in 19th century Minnesota are still felt today.

Through 20 life-size posters, slide-shows, an interactive TV display and speakers like John Grabko, visitors can feel the events of the past like the Dakota War of 1862. That conflict led to Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the largest public execution in U.S. history — 38 members of the Dakota Nation hanged in Mankato. Other images like a $500 bounty check paid for Dakota Chief Little Crow show how serious conflicts were.

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But even though those conflicts are long removed, the social effects to Native Americans are still present. The treaties that were signed more than 100 years ago still have significance.

“These treaties aren’t artifacts of the past,” said Grabko, a supervisor with the Minnesota Historical Society who presented his independent views at a forum on Tuesday evening. “To have us look at this as a piece of history that doesn’t relate to today is wrong.”

Today, treaties still govern how much land Native Americans have, and where and how they use it.

Danielle Heiny, director of retention and student success, who also serves as one of Riverland’s diversity officers for students, was interested to see how the traveling exhibit reveals so many current social and cultural issues.

“One thing that we learned is: The American Indian story is basically invisible,” she said.

By that, Heiny means many specific events in Native American history are overshadowed by more well-known events.

As someone who works with cultural differences among students, Heiny learned how Native Americans’ views on education were shaped by the events of centuries past, such as settlers forcing younger Native Americans to dress in modern ways or abandon their native languages.

One of 20 freestanding posters, this display shows events from the 1862 Dakota War, like the hanging of 38 Dakotas in Mankato and a $500 bounty check for Chief Little Crow. - Matt Peterson/

“That still has as far-reaching impact on how American Indian families feel about education today,” Heiny said, and added the Native American population within colleges is very low.

“That has been just a huge eye opener for me,” she added.

Heiny and speakers have been delving into topics about many of the barriers still facing Native Americans today. Part of those problems stem from a long-standing unawareness.

“I think that there’s a huge misconception in Minnesota that all Indians are becoming rich through gambling revenue, and that’s just not true,” she said.

Many Native Americans are not seeing the gambling revenue that casinos generate, Heiny said. Much of the profits end up in the hands of a select few in power, which creates a very wide socio-economic gap.

“There’s still a lot of poverty, a huge unemployment rate and a lot of economic barriers that are really impacting American Indian families,” Heiny said.

So speakers like Grabko are trying to reconcile the wrongs of both sides in the past and raise awareness about problems for the future.

Others, like Anton Treuer, are trying to preserve Native American heritage through classes.

20 displays of Minnesota Native American History skirt the corners of Riverland Community College's library. The "Why Treaties Matter" exhibit is on display until Nov. 23. - Matt Peterson/

Heiny said the exhibit is also an avenue for people to ask questions without worrying about being racially insensitive or ignorant.
“Sometimes, we are afraid to ask questions,” she said.

The Minnesota Humanities Center and host sites of the exhibit hope to break down those barriers after many more stops around the state. “Why Treaties Matter” will run through Nov. 23. Library hours are 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 4:30 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. More information about the exhibit is available at www.