Pioneer Spirit

The Art Gallery at Minnesota State University, Mankato, 2004

Materials: 38 deer hides each branded with a map of the United States with a heart-line arrow, 38 ceramic bowls glazed in bluish green and each filled with flour and a Cottonwood leaf imprinted in the flour, two muslin banners with text from Little House on the Prairie in English and in Arabic

Another Proclamation - Sherman Alexie

When
Lincoln
Delivered
The
Emancipation,
Who
Knew

that, one year earlier, in 1862, he’d signed and approved the order for the largest public execution in the United States History? Who did they execute? “Mulatto, mixed-bloods, and Indians.”
Why did they execute them? “For uprising against the State and her citizens.” Where did they execute them? Mankato, Minnesota. How did they execute them? Well, Abraham Lincoln thought it was good.

And
Just
To
Hang
Thirty-eight
Sioux

simultaneously. Yes, in front of a large and cheering crowd, thirty-eight Indians dropped to their deaths. Yes, thirty-eight necks snapped. But before they died, thirty-eight Indians sang their death songs. Can you imagine the cacophony of thirty-eight different death songs? But wait, one Indian was pardoned at the last minute, so only thirty-seven Indians had to sing their death songs. But, O, O, O, O, can you imagine the cacophony of that one survivor’s mourning song? If he taught you the words, do you think you would sing along?”                          

What happened on 9/11 has been called the worst act of terrorism the United States has witnessed since it was founded.  Yet, the warranted acts of terrorism by the federal government upon the native peoples of this country are, by far, much more tragic.  Motivated by the concept of manifest destiny, the government used biological weapons to wipe out native cultures in the form of wool blankets infested with smallpox.  The government then tried starving native peoples by condoning the slaughter of their main food supply, the bison.  Successful in this, the government then forced them to settle onto concentration camps called reservations.  And finally, the government tried to re-educate them by taking away their language and outlawing their religions. 

As a result of 9/11, our government invaded Iraq.  In her book, Blue Earth County from 1700-1900, Anna M. Wiecking observes that, "Today we think it very wrong for one country to invade another and take away from other people their land.  When it does happen today we have the United Nations to help to settle such problems.  But the people who settled our great country, as well as those who settled our state, thought it was all right to take away from the Indians their land and their rights" (p.15).  In fact, on September 9, 1862, Minnesota Governor Ramsey declared that the "Sioux" Indians must be exterminated, or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.

I believe that what is currently happening in Iraq is similar to what happened during the Dakota War of 1862.  Oppressed peoples as well as oppressive governments often act in violent ways.  In the early 1860s, the Dakota, having had their treaties broken and seeing their lands taken away, terrorized the countryside of Minnesota.  On December 26, 1862, in the largest mass public execution in U.S. history, 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato because President Abraham Lincoln believed that they had participated in the killing of white settlers in Blue Earth County.  Today, the “insurgents” of Iraq, believing that they are being occupied by an unwanted foreign power, use violence to strike back at their occupiers. 

Pioneer Spirit can best be summarized with reference to Ms. Wiecking's conclusion: "We don't know very well yet how to live peacefully with our families, our neighbors, with people of other beliefs, or with other nations.  We need pioneers to help with these problems.  Today's problems are the problems of living together.  We need people who care deeply about the safety and happiness of others, and who will think hard how to help instead of how to hurt people" (p. 27).

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder in her day, each of us plays a role in the pioneer spirit.  Like Laura, we are caught in a dilemma.   How each of us acts will determine the course of the history of this republic. 

In this kinetic installation, 38 deer hides, each with a brand symbolizing Manifest Destiny, were hung above a bowl of flour.  The deer hides created “raven” shadows, which moved around a cottonwood leaf imprint in the flour.  On opposite corners of the gallery were banners with passages from Little House on the Prairie, one written in English, one in Arabic.