Before the bridge

2001 Salisbury Bridge in autumn - 2In 1899, the Salisbury bridge,
steel and angular and strong,
rose over the North Fork of the Crow River,
where Big Woods and Big Prairie met.

I do not know what came before:
before the bridge,
before the plows and wheat and corn,
before the war that drove
First People from this land.

Dakota people hunted, fished,
lived, loved, raised children, told
their own stories.

Then European settlers came:

“Ripley, Hall, Whitney, DeCoster, Campbell,
Fitzgerald, Weymer, Salisbury, Dougherty, Atkinson,
VanNess, Mitchell, Dorman, Taylor, Evans,
Skinner, Jewett, Kennedy, Stevens, Harvey, Piper,
Caswell, Angier, Willis, Dart, Whitcomb,
King, Greenleaf, Branham. Fitch, Ball, Hoyt, Griswold,
Grayson, Stanton, Robson, Richards,
Gorton, Wakefield, Heath, Warren, Willie, Kruger,
Ralston, Schultz and a score of others[i]

In 1876, A.C. Smith recorded
their names,
so they would be forgotten.

In 1876, A.C. Smith wrote down their story
before it was forgotten
before it became pretty,

“The region known as the “Big Prairie ” west of the “Big Woods”
has been known to white settlers but 21 years,
and yet the twilight of uncertainty has already thrown its shadows,
and the night of forgetfulness seems about to descend …[ii]

Smith wrote of the 1862 Dakota-U.S. War,
of the Forest City Stockade,
of the local militia —
“a hasty collection of men from work shops
and the counter, totally ignorant of the art of war,[iii]

Smith wrote
of Captain Strout, whose
“pusillamious course
when he first entered on Indian Territory,
marked him as an ill-qualified and unsafe leader.”

and whose

“official report was a mixture of truth and folly.[iv]

Smith wrote
of the shooting of Little Crow,
“chieftain of singular power and genius.[v]

Smith wrote
of “savages,”
of battle and massacre and bravery and cowardice:

“Crowd the Indian to the wall —
wait a time for further decimation,
then drive them into still narrower limits and so on,
till the Indian canoe with its solitary occupant,
disappears toward the setting sun,
and is finally lost to sight and sense,

and the life of one race,
whose glory was to hunt and fish,
gives place to another
more powerful,
but with as little regard to moral and intellectual attainment
except so far as it is enforced by law
falsely denominated
the law of civilization.[vi]


“Indigenous women, children and elderly
were held in a concentration camp
at the base of Fort Snelling,
separated from the men,
before being exiled to reservations
in neighboring states and Canada,
and later being stripped
of their culture and traditions in boarding schools
and subjected to white culture and religions …[vii]


In 1876,
A.C. Smith did not have the word,
but he knew what happened:

like all other tribes
are gradually losing their prestige
and compelled
to leave their reservations granted at some prior period,
in apparent good faith.

Their fate is inevitable.
The only practical law of what we call civilization is,
that the inferior in prowess, yield to the superior race.

The doctrine is cruel and inhuman,
not to say “savage,”
but unavoidable and imperative.[viii]

In 1862, European settlers built the stockade.

In 1976, European settler descendants
rebuilt the stockade.

In 2010, the census counts
only 80 Indians in all of Meeker County.

History is written by the victors.

Today’s stockade

“a memorial to the brave pioneers
who settled here
and sought safety behind its walls
during the Sioux Indian Uprising of 1862.[ix]

which came after

“unfair and dishonest treatment by government officials
in the distribution of annuities
and the breaking of treaty agreements
had antagonized the Indians.
They had made many futile attempts to collect the payments due them.[x]

History is written by the victors.

Nothing is written of
what came before:
before the bridge,
before the plows and wheat and corn,
before the war that drove
First People from this land.

x x x

Footnotes to this poem (because who made the rule that scholars have footnotes and poets don’t?)

[i] A random historical sketch of Meeker County,
Minnesota : from its first settlement to July 4th, 1876

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

[vi] ibid

[vii] Minneapolis City Council resolution, December, 2012

[viii] op cit

[ix] Forest City Stockade website

[x] ibid


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