Visiting Dickinson State University

Left to right, Historian Frank Varney, Aaron Barth, and Political Scientist Steven Doherty.

Left to right, Historian Frank Varney, Aaron Barth, and Political Scientist Steven Doherty on the campus of Dickinson State University, western North Dakota.

Yesterday Dickinson State University (via Frank Varney) invited me to speak about a component of research concerning how and why the US-Dakota Wars (1862-1864) were remembered at the turn of the 19th century throughout the Minnesota River Valley and on the northern Great Plains. It was great to get west of the upper Missouri River and spend some time with Varney and other fellow history and humanities nerds. I like this topic — thinking about how the US-Dakota Wars were remembered — because it mitigates what I call historical anxiety. I’ve thought about this phrase for a while, and loosely define it as that anxious feeling of not knowing how and why something happened in a particular place in time. A way to mitigate historical anxiety is to head into the archives and cobble together a narrative from the disparate bits and pieces. Through this I’ve been able to understand why the US-Dakota Wars were memorialized the way they were at the turn of the 19th century.

I’m using this, in turn, to push the way in which we think about the US-Dakota Wars today: largely as genocide, the word invented and deployed by Raphael Lemkin first in 1944. At the root, genocide comes from the Greek genos, which roughly means people or tribe; and the Latin cide, which means killing. Don’t take my word for it, though: visit Sully and Sibley in their own words. One humanistic universal I pitched out there to the group was that if the United States concerns (as it should) itself with genocide taking place today in Syria, and in other parts of the world, the U.S. should also concern itself with and consider the genocide that took place in our own past. Otherwise it just gets awkward, as the question will invariably come up time and again. So we can either chat and consider this, or just pretend like it doesn’t exist. If we pursue the latter, it just ends up leading to long bouts of awkward, uncomfortable silence. More on all this scholarship later, at least as it applies to the US-Dakota Wars, and the broader 19th-century Anglosphere.

Just a real quick warranted amplification of Varney’s work (he is in the midst of preparing a second volume that builds off his first monograph), General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (Savas Beatie, 2013). Click on that link. If you enjoy history, or have thought deeply or superficially (there are only so many hours in a day) about memoirs, or Grant’s memoirs, definitely give it a go.


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