My friend Debra Hogenson, who lives in rural Brewster with her farmer husband, has a thoughtful letter about the power of language to divide or unite in today's Worthington Globe. With her permission, Bluestem reprints Infamous comments of 1862 have echoes today here:
This past weekend I went to the Minnesota Historical site at the Upper Sioux Agency near Morton, where the 1862 Minnesota Dakota War began. I walked along some of the trails and spent some time reflecting near the spot where Andrew Myrick’s trading post once stood.
Myrick is infamous for his comment regarding starving Dakota children, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” While there is considerable debate about just when the insult was delivered — immediately before the conflict, or several weeks prior — and debate about where it was said (Upper or Lower Agency), several things are certain.
Myrick, who had a Dakota wife, knew that Dakota leaders at the council understood he was calling their children animals that should be fed on grass.
The agency’s Dakota interpreter refused to translate the comment, either out of personal offense, or fear of the reaction of Dakota warriors being addressed. Myrick insisted a second translator be brought to ensure his insult was heard.
Dakota people across Minnesota quickly heard of the comment and angrily added it to their growing list of injustices.
All of this is relevant in 2012. For one, this summer marks the 150th year since the Minnesota Dakota War. But, it is also important to remember Myrick’s comments because cruel people are never in short supply and often inadvertently imitate their predecessors.
Minnesota Republican Rep. Mary Franson’s atrocious statements comparing people who survive on food stamps with wild animals in our state parks echoes Myrick’s infamous insult. Like Myrick, when given a chance to tone it down, Rep. Franzen doubled down, repeating the comment as a laugh line at a fundraiser.
Myrick’s insult played a role in the buildup to the war in which he was one of the first casualties, something that isn’t remotely possible in Rep. Franson’s case. However, Myrick’s and Franson’s comments hold a commonality. Both are insults that attack and destroy the threads that weave people together as a community. Myrick and Franson described people similar to them as human, while others are demoted to animals.
Sunday, sitting in the sun and high grass near the banks of the Minnesota River, I reflected how language can be used to build or fracture communities. This is what is clear to me: It is the responsibility of each of us to condemn language that insults and divides the human community, and instead speak in ways that strengthen the threads that hold us together.
There's one inaccuracy in the letter. Franson repeated the story at a Tea Party rally in Browerville, rather than a fundraiser. City Pages has the full clip of her remarks in Mary Franson, in speech, stands behind food stamp recipient-wild animal comparison [VIDEO].
Hogenson is a private case manager who works with people living with developmental disabilities. Perhaps she and Representative Franson should have coffee and discuss rural poverty. Such discussions--and elections--are to be preferred to death threats.
One final thought: Franson tells the Tea Party members that outside activists alone came to her defense after she told the "joke" in a Youtube the House Republican caucus taped for her constituents. The Alexandria Echo Press reported on March 7 that Republican party leaders denounce threats made against Rep. Franson of Alexandria.
It's not quite the way she remembers it, it seems.
Photo: Andrew Myrick, from the North Dakota Historical Society. A trader with the Dakota people living along the Minnesota River, he was not subject to election or recall.
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