‘Minnesota Nice’ Won’t Solve This


A story: In 1984, I interned at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle newspaper. It was my first experience working at a large paper in an urban area. For a young reporter, even covering ‘night cops’ or obituaries, it was a great summer.

The year 1984 was also the 20th anniversary of race riots in Rochester, touched off on a Friday night in July 1964 when police with dogs arrested a disorderly man at a block party. Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of the decades since, they used what bystanders believed to be excessive force. The bystanders later began to throw bottles and bricks at the police. And so the radio call went out, ‘every city car, respond to the corner of ….’ Then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller called out the National Guard. More than 200 stores were looted or damaged before calm was restored three days later. Almost 1,000 people were arrested.

Friends, this was 56 years ago.

II: I grew up in Pipestone, Minnesota, on a farm about 4 miles out of town, 4 and a half miles if you took the long way. Fertile prairie, wide open and flat as a griddle. The Homestead Act of 1862 brought settlement and farming, spurred by the railroads. But of course, the Indians were there first. North of town, the other side of the railroad tracks, was the Pipestone Indian Training School. This boarding school, like others, was a central tool in forcing Native American children to assimilate, to abandon their Native American identity and culture. Cut the boys’ hair, give the children new names, make them abandon their language, make them wear European clothes instead of Indian clothes. This school opened in the 1890s and held up to 400 children at a time from all over the Midwest. It closed in 1953. Today, the presence of these schools is considered a stain on our history. In addition to the basic crime of ripping children from their parents, corporal punishment, strict discipline and sexual abuse were common in these schools.

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were a world away from my little town of Pipestone, all of 5,328 people at the time. There is a phrase, “Minnesota Nice.” In addition to representing the basic tendency of many Minnesotans to be, generally, pleasant toward one another, it covers the many, many ways Minnesotans are willing to put a veneer on almost everything. Every hot dish is good, every family goes to church, and these rioters should just go home.

Minnesota Nice is not going to fix this. Not in Minnesota, which prides itself on being forward, and not in the rest of the country. The thing is, the peaceful protests, over decades, have not brought progress. Racism may be more subtle in some quarters than years ago, decades ago, but it’s still endemic.

I have come to think that we – the nation – are willing, maybe even eager, to elide parts of our history, to reject the idea that somehow A and B will lead to C. Why are we so resistant to the logical result? We have deep inequalities in our society, deep class divisions. Many of these divisions cleave along racial lines. Driving while black, jogging while black, selling single cigarettes while black and birdwatching while black are, apparently, deeply concerning criminal activities. And, a punishment of death is not uncommon, as we have seen in tragic incident after tragic incident, including last week in Minneapolis. Yet, nothing changes.

What was, supposedly, a fantastic economy with nearly full employment has been thrown into chaos by a pandemic shutdown. We are at Great Depression levels of unemployment. We have lines that go for miles in some communities as the hungry and needy seek food. Miles, in supposedly prosperous communities. The differences and divisions we had before have been growing starker, broader. Meaner. I believe this has been going on for some years. I have seen it in Minnesota, when I was last there (2016), and I think it’s even worse now. For decades, Native Americans were the other people there, the ones who lived on the wrong side of the tracks and were summarily regarded as criminals. They’ve been joined in Minnesota more lately by African-Americans from a host of countries, especially Somalia, as well as immigrants from Central and South America.

So on the cusp of summer in 2020, the surprising thing is not that violent protests are convulsing our cities. The surprising thing is the protests are not more frequent and more widespread.

A postscript on the Pipestone Indian School: In 1926, the Supreme Court ruled the federal government had illegally taken the land from the Yankton Sioux, and they were owed compensation. In 1928, the government paid the tribe $328,558. And in return, the Yankton Sioux were forced to cede control of the pipestone quarry land to the National Park Service. One more indignity, in a line of them. The quarry land is now the Pipestone National Monument, which makes some effort today to preserve the Native American culture that earlier political leaders tried to extinguish via the Indian Training School.

Until next week.

Douglas Cunningham is editor of the Putnam County Courier and the Putnam County News and Recorder. Reach him at or at 845-265-2468.

Letters are welcome; please limit to 500 words and send to the same address.

One response to “CUNNINGHAM’S CORNER”

  1. William D Spain says:

    Mr. Cunningham:
    I am a student of American history, and have read extensively on the Indian Wars. My great-grandfather served with the 4th. US Calvary and participated in the capture of the Apache renegade Geronimo. I read, with interest, your article on the Pipestone Indian Training School. I then sent it to an old friend for his thoughts. He was not in complete agreement with your assessment.
    I told him I would send him any future articles on the subject. My friend in Larry Perkins from Pipestone County, MN.
    W.D. Spain
    Mahopac, NY

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