Nick Coleman: The man who helped Minnesota face up to its Indian past

Roundup: Talking About History

Until 30 years ago, visitors to the Rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol could admire a painting of white soldiers vanquishing Sioux Indians at the battle of Killdeer Mountain, out in the western part of what later became North Dakota.
But these Sioux weren't fighting. They were fleeing.

That 1864 incident was more massacre than battle, costing the lives of two soldiers and 150 Indians, including women and children. The soldiers destroyed the Indians' village and possessions, and made the Sioux refugees in their own land. It was the culmination of a punitive military campaign that followed the Dakota Conflict of 1862, in which the eastern Sioux, or Dakota, attempted to drive white settlers from Minnesota. That war led to an official state policy of banishing or killing all Sioux, wherever they were found, even those who knew nothing of the war, such as those at Killdeer Mountain, whose bitter experiences would fuel the wars that stretched from George Armstrong Custer's last ride all the way to Wounded Knee.

It's a story too big for a painting, even one as large as 10 feet wide by 7½ feet high. But those kinds of paintings weren't supposed to represent the complicated history of relations between American Indians and white Americans.

Such paintings were meant to celebrate white triumph.

The 1914 painting, by Norwegian-born artist Carl Boeckmann, was displayed in the House of Representatives until the 1930s, when it was moved to the Rotunda.

Then something happened that changed everything: The "vanquished" started demanding that their story be told, too.

That change was painful, and is still incomplete. But it was necessary, and some of the credit for making it happen goes to Vernon Bellecourt.

Bellecourt -- Indian activist, citizen of the world, politician, provocateur and ambassador for the dispossessed -- was a giant force in helping to end the triumphal approach to the history of this state. Bellecourt died last weekend at 75, and is being buried today on his native White Earth Indian Reservation. During his life he helped change the way we see the world, and the way we see ourselves....

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