I have more “driveway moments” with This American Life than any other radio program I can think of. It’s such great storytelling, going into all sorts of corners of life.
Last weekend, I was in the car on the way to an MDK Team Blanket sewing-up party in Yonkers, and heard the beginning of this episode: “Little War on the Prairie.” It took all my willpower not to sit there in front of a parking meter on Main Street and listen until the end. I promised to listen to it online later, and I did.
It’s the story, largely erased from school history books of my time, of the United States-Dakota war of 1862. This short, brutal war ended with the execution, ordered by President Lincoln, of 38 Dakota warriors, and the expulsion of the Dakota people from Minnesota. It’s a terrible chapter that’s been papered over with more palatable narratives.
What drew me into the story initially is that the narrator, John Biewen, grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, the site of the hanging of the warriors, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and yet he did not hear the story until he was a middle-aged man living in North Carolina.
I can relate. One story that I tell, under the general category of “my family—go figure,” is that I was in my late teens or early 20s before I happened to learn, at a family reunion, that my mother’s grandfather (whom she knew) and his brother were orphaned as children when their homesteader parents were killed by Native Americans. My mother knew the basic fact of it—her maiden name would have been different had the boys not been adopted by a family with that name—and she knew that much of my childhood was spent fixating on pioneer times, the Nebraska Centennial, and Little House on the Prairie, yet she never mentioned it to me. I don’t know the circumstances, the location in the vastness of the Plains, or even the year this happened, although I’m sure some of it is knowable, and even known to some in the extended family. But like the Minnesotans described in this episode, we did not think very much about the history of our own home place.
If you’re looking for upbeat knittertainment, this is not it. But we can knit while we learn, too.