Whose History? Why Not All History Needs to be Represented in Our Capitol (Part 2)

If you’ve been to St. Paul lately, you’ve likely seen that the Minnesota Capitol Building is undergoing a massive renovation. More than $300 million is being spent to make the century-plus building a host of structural and technological upgrades. Once completed in the fall, a nearly two year-long project will come to an end.

However, it is not the building itself that’s been grabbing headlines. Instead, it’s the art inside – art that’s been estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion. Many of these pieces depict key moments in the state’s history: Among them the landing of Father Hennepin and the gallantry of the 2nd Minnesota Company from the American Civil war. One piece that will not be on display when the Capitol reopens is a 1906 work by Anton Gag. It shows the attack on New Ulm by Dakota warriors during the short-lived 1862 conflict.

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“Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag, 1904

The decision to not display “Attack on New Ulm” has been a controversial one. State Representative Dean Urdahl, a social studies teacher and author of several books on the 1862 conflict, has urged the Minnesota Historical Society, the body that decided to remove the work, to reconsider its decision. Rep. Urdahl, a descendant of settlers who fought in the conflict, argues that the painting represents an integral part of the state’s history.

While the painting itself may represent an aspect of history, viewed in a wider context, it’s not one Minnesotans should be proud of. Just weeks after the Battle of New Ulm, recently arrived Union forces crushed the Dakota at the Battle of Big Woods. Nearly 400 Dakota men were arrested and 303 were sentenced to death. Ultimately, 38 were hung in Mankato – the largest mass execution in American history. The Dakota men who weren’t executed were shipped out of state. Meanwhile, Dakota women, children and elderly – nearly 1600 of them – were detained over the winter on Pike Island, below Fort Snelling. Over 300 would die of exposure and illness. They too were removed from the state. To ensure Minnesota was cleared of Dakota, the state established a bounty for Dakota scalps and recruited volunteers to lead punitive campaigns across the state and into the Dakota Territory.

The Battle of New Ulm and its aftermath should not be forgotten. The Dakota conflict of 1862 is a tragic reminder how easily territorial greed and racism can lead to violence and genocide. But it’s also not history that should be represented in our state capitol, a building meant to represent all Minnesotans. Unfortunately, Gag’s “Attack on New Ulm” presents a literal snapshot of the complicated history the Dakota conflict, without a place for the larger impacts of the conflict or its painful legacy. The devastating effects of the conflict for the Dakota and the rest of the state’s Native American community in the aftermath of the conflict are all but ignored, leaving visitors to the capitol with a skewed perspective of it. The Minnesota State Historical Society Director, D. Stephen Elliot, said it best when he wrote, “The ‘Attack on New Ulm’ portrays one incident during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which not all Dakota supported. This painting should not be the primary portrayal of American Indians who lived in Minnesota for more than 10,000 years.”

Surely we can find many aspects from Minnesota’s great history that we can all be proud of for the newly renovated capitol.


Joe Eggers is a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota. His master’s thesis explored the cultural genocide of indigenous people through the boarding school system. 

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