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Birch Coulee School
The Birch Coulee School, located in the Lower Sioux Indian Community just outside Morton, is Minnesota’s earliest and best-preserved building affiliated with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Indian education. It is a rare example from the time in which members of the Lower Sioux Indian Community returned to the Minnesota River Valley following the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. As such, it serves as a reminder of the complex historical relationship between the indigenous and immigrant residents of Minnesota.
Situated approximately ninety miles southwest of Minneapolis, the location of the Upper and Lower Sioux communities was ceded to the United States in 1851 by four Dakota bands: the Wahpekute, Mdewakanton, Sisseton, and Wahpeton. In the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, close to 24,000,000 acres of land were made available for white settlement. The bands were relocated to two main settlement areas along the Minnesota River, and the government established two corresponding administrative centers: the Upper Sioux Agency, near present-day Granite Falls, and the Lower Sioux Agency, which lay approximately thirty miles to the southeast. By 1860, the community near the Lower Sioux Agency had grown to over 3,000 Dakota.
On August 18, 1862, motivated by regional crop failures and overdue payments owed by the federal government, a group of Mdewakanton Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency. The ensuing series of conflicts, now known as the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, was a six-week war that resulted in the destruction of most of the buildings in the Upper and Lower Sioux agencies, the death of hundreds of soldiers, and the execution of over three hundred Dakota men in Mankato. Following the end of the war, the majority of Dakota were relocated to reservations outside Minnesota, first to the Crow Creek Reservation in what is now central South Dakota, and later to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.
By the 1880s, groups of Dakota began returning to Minnesota. Of those who returned, many established farms near the Sioux Agency locations, and by 1886 the area was once again flourishing. As the community grew, Archbishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, the first Episcopalian bishop in Minnesota, felt that formal education should be available in the thriving community. Consequently, Reverend Samuel Dutton Hinman, a previous resident, was invited to come teach the Dakota youth. He first instructed pupils in his house. When the number of students grew to over forty, Hinman made an appeal to Whipple to apply for federal funding to build a schoolhouse.
For Whipple and Hinman, the purpose of the schoolhouse and the educational program taught within was to inculcate the Dakota into mainstream American-Christian culture. As such, it was their original intention to have the Episcopal Church run the institution as a boarding school. This desire was, in fact, encouraged by federal education policies of the time, which aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society through the use of formal education. Birch Coulee, however, came to be maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a day school. This was atypical, as most similar schools required students to live away from their homes on the reservation.
In 1888, through Whipple’s appeal for funding, $1,000 was appropriated to the Mdewakanton band for the establishment of a school. The following year, an additional $1,000 appropriation was given for completing and furnishing the schoolhouse. The Birch Coulee School was completed in 1891. The single-story, wood-frame building features clapboard siding and a gable roof. The T-shaped structure is symmetrical in plan. Three entrances along the east side each have their own small, gable-roofed porch. A louvered belfry with a flared spire was originally located above the central gable, but it was removed at an unknown date. Two stucco-covered brick chimneys are located at the north and south ends. The interior of the building originally consisted of classrooms at the north and west ends and a dining room to the south. Interior decorative elements included beaded wainscoting and exposed rafter tips. Rectangular multipane windows can be found throughout the building.
In 1892, Robert H.C. Hinman, Reverend Hinman’s son, was appointed as the first teacher of Birch Coulee. Eight years later, his wife, Jessie H. Hinman, became the designated housekeeper of the school. At the time, Birch Coulee was seen as a notable success. The Native American community was reported to be very engaged in the students’ education, and their students’ record of attendance made them a role model for other day schools.
Robert Hinman remained a teacher at Birch Coulee School until 1918. In 1920, the school closed, and students were relocated to Indian boarding schools or local rural public schools. The school reopened in 1939 as a public school after several years of WPA-sponsored community rebuilding efforts, but it later closed in 1969 due to consolidation of the state’s rural public school system. From 1979 until the mid-1980s, the building was used as a pottery shop that showcased traditionally inspired Dakota artisanal items. Restoration work completed in the late 1980s included rebuilding the three entrance porches, covering the roof with cedar shingles, and repainting the clapboard exterior. Following the restoration, the building continued to be used by the Lower Sioux Indian Community as a library and community center. Presently, the building remains in the care of the Lower Sioux Indian Community but has been closed for use since 2009. The community is currently in the process of establishing funding for renovations so it may be safely opened for use again.
Annual Reports of the Department of the interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1901. Indian Affairs. Part 1. Report of the Commissioner, and Appendixes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902.
Gardner, Denis. Minnesota Treasures: Stories Behind the State’s Historic Places. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.
Koop, Michael, “Birch Coulee School,” Redwood County, Minnesota. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1989. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Meyer, Roy Willard. History of the Santee Sioux United States Indian Policy on Trial. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
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