"This American Life" offers up some sharp audio portraits, along with the occasional dud. Seldom do they knock me flat and send me back to a broadcast for repeated digging. That is, however, exactly what I find myself doing after a first listen to this week's show - "Little War On the Prairie" - and with good reason. It not only satisfied my own interest in learning more about trade and cultural interactions with those Nations of inhabitants who predated the expansion of the United States. It does so by providing the most compelling portrait of a previously hidden history I've experienced in a very long time. Do yourself a solid and listen to it all the way through. Maybe you'll even find yourself following my lead, which will mean checking out what other work is to be found at the Minnesota History Center's online and in-person (if you're so lucky - on display through September 2013) exhibit on this conflict which they call the "U.S. - Dakota War of 1862". The little that I've browsed through this compiled work stands as wholly impressivex.
Taking this a bit farther, let me first of all say that I don't think this is a spoiler alert for either this audio documentary (done by John Biewen) or the fresh and fabulous movie "Lincoln" which I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday. But for those most staunch in their seriousness about knowing nothing of any particular narrative going in, you might want to return to this post after you've gotten through both. Wth that said...it's no surprise that the real Abraham Lincoln was a leader who had to weigh immense philosophical costs for benefits that sometimes only he could see coming down the pike. Such is possibly the case with respect to his treatment of the Native Americans and the effected mostly white settlers in hugely complex situations like the Dakota War. It is stunning to imagine how Lincoln dealt with such daunting news while simultaneously trying to soldier on through the bloodiest part of the Civil War (September, 1862 included the Battle of Antietam - the first major battle to be fought on Union soil and the single deadliest day in the history of all U.S. wars). But that is just what ol' Abe did. Which tangentially brings up my admiration for the truly amazing storyline used in the film version of "Lincoln". I have yet to hear of arguments raised with respect to Tony Kushner's script or Daniel Day Lewis's uncanny portrayal. Which makes me think they were spot on. That being said, Lincoln's implied presence also factors into this narrative about the Dakota War. Specifically, he's described from a distance dealing with the difficult decisions of what to do with captured Dakota warriors who certainly sound like were the victims of horrible injustices. Heartbreaking stuff. In this, the Minnesota History Center's bibliographic sourcing offers much more fuel for future mental journeys.
The leap of my specific interest(s) have then taken me to one character in the Dakota War episode - Henry Sibley. This guy's name is all over Minnesota, but the story behind his ascendancy was a blind spot for me. Thanks to this incredible hour of radio drama - and the thoughts that got rolling from seeing "Lincoln" a few days ago - I'm headed in a fascinating direction toward that understanding. I'm sure I'm not alone in that.
The point being? Hidden history provides storytelling gold. Or an honest attempt to accurately read and capture that history once in a while offers a chance to shoot for an artful summation. That is, after all, what some of aspire to do. All the while looking to others who have done it so dang well.