MARSHALL - Carl Colwell, the Renville County Historical Museum director in Morton, said he was delighted to give "the commencement address" for the Senior College of Southwest Minnesota State University's closing ceremonies for the fall session on Friday. He commended the students for their eagerness to continue their quest of lifelong learning.
"If you're ready to learn, a teacher appears," he said.
Colwell, a Morton native, said he is not a historian, but a soldier. He is a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the U.S. Army, working at the Pentagon. After retirement, he moved back to Morton and in addition to being the county museum director, is the mayor of Morton and is the director of the Minnesota Valley History Learning Center.
He said being appointed the museum director by the board of directors was like getting a "scholarship to learn about my own past."
Colwell gave a brief overview on a part of the area's local history that had a huge impact on the area - the U.S.-Dakota War.
"The war was the most significant cultural event in the history and formation of the state of Minnesota," he said. "I certainly can't cover every aspect of this war, but hopefully it will make you curious to learn more about it."
The war was caused by escalating tensions between the white settlement of the Minnesota Territory and the American Indians. Throughout the late 1850s, treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota.
If the war happened today with the same proportion of deaths, it would be "over 15,000 dead, because over 600 whites were killed in 1862," he said. "Compare that with the 615 battlefield deaths of Minnesota Civil War soldiers."
Colwell said the largest execution in one day in U.S. history took place because of the events from that war.
"Thirty-eight Indians were hanged in one day and two were hanged two days later," he said. "It started out with 100, but President Lincoln set free all but the ones who supposedly had killed the settlers."
Colwell said there are still ramifications of the war 150 years later.
"The Lower Sioux Community are not Sioux," he said. "It's a name given to them which is derogatory. The Dakota cannot be a tribe because of the Indian Removal Act makes it illegal to live in Minnesota. It's still on the books."
Audience member Gordon Alexander of Redwood Falls said his great-grandfather was among the troops "that chased the Indians into North Dakota."
Colwell said a "lot of devastation has been done to American Indians culturally." He quoted Bishop H.B. Whipple as saying "I believe that God will hold the nation guilty."
"Most people hold the Dakota responsible and the government gets off scot free," Colwell said.
Colwell said many of the dead were not given a proper burial and are in unmarked graves.
"We are in the process of discovering all the names of the settlers who were killed," he said.