Remembering the past: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

On August 17, 1862, as the United States fought our bloody Civil War, another civil war began in Minnesota, pitting native Minnesotans against immigrants, Dakota against European. Today Governor Mark Dayton ordered that all flags be flown at half staff on August 17, “to honor the American soldiers, Dakota people, and settlers who lost their lives in that war.” (See Governor Dayton’s entire proclamation in sidebar.)

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,” according to 18th-century Irish statesman/philosopher Edmund Burke. In this 150th anniversary year, there are plenty of opportunities to learn the history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

That history is difficult to face. As Mary Treacy wrote earlier this year, “In a word, I have always resisted knowing the truth about the US-Dakota War of 1862. The truth was too painful, too much.” The history includes broken treaties, massacres and atrocities on both sides, and a genocidal proclamation by then-Governor Alexander Ramsey: “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. …”

In the end, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato on December 26,1862, and about 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders were forced across the winter prairie to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where many died.

Proclamation by Governor Mark DaytonAugust 17, 1862 marked a terrible period in Minnesota’s history.  The first victims of the “U.S.-Dakota War of 1862” lost their lives on that day, 150 years ago.  The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people.  Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.

The events leading to those atrocities actually began before 1862.  The United State Government, through its agents in the new State of Minnesota, either persuaded, deceived, or forced the state’s long-time inhabitants from Dakota and Ojibwe Indian tribes to give up their lands for promises of money, food, and supplies.  Many of the government’s promises were repeatedly broken.

The displaced Dakota and Chippewa tribes watched newly arrived settlers claim the lands that had been theirs.  They were denied their treaty payments of money and food, which resulted in starvation for many of their children and elderly.  Often, when annuity payments did finally arrive, they were immediately plundered by some dishonest officials and traders.

On August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota braves attacked and killed five new settlers at Acton in Meeker County.  The Dakota community was not unanimous in the decision to go to war; some of them helped the settlers.  Nonetheless, the war began.  Atrocities were committed by combatants on both sides against combatants and noncombatants alike.  Hundreds of people were killed.  Many more Indian and immigrant lives were ruined.  And the lives of Minnesotans were altered for the next 150 years.

The war ended, but the attacks against innocent Indian children, women, and elderly continued.  They were even encouraged by the Governor of Minnesota.

On September 9, 1862, Alexander Ramsey proclaimed:  “Our course then is plain.  The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . .”

“They must be regarded and treated as outlaws.  If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”

A Minnesota newspaper chimed in, “We have plenty of young men who would like no better fun than a good Indian hunt.”

I am appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them.  I know that almost all Minnesotans, living today, would be just as revolted.  The viciousness and violence, which were commonplace 150 years ago in Minnesota, are not accepted or allowed now.

Yet hostile feelings do still exist between some Native Americans and their neighbors.  Detestable acts are still perpetrated by members of one group against the other.  Present grievances, added to past offenses, make it difficult to commemorate the past, yet not continue it.

I call for tomorrow, the 150th anniversary of August 17, 1862, to be “a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in Minnesota.”  I ask everyone to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.

To everyone who lost family members during that time, I offer my deepest condolences for your losses.  I ask you especially to help lead us to better attitudes and actions toward others.

To honor the American soldiers, Dakota people, and settlers who lost their lives in that war, I order that all state flags shall be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on August 17, 2012.

And I urge everyone participating in the events commemorating this 150th Anniversary to practice not only remembrance, but also reconciliation.

The TC Daily Planet series about the war, written by Sheila Regan, was published two years ago,

Forest City to Fort Snelling: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
Trail of treaties: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
Telling the story today: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

along with responses submitted by readers, including

Immigration: An indigenous perspective by Chris Mato Nunpa

Fort Snelling, U.S. Imperialism and the Dakota People by Chris Mato Nunpa

OPINION | Dakota War of 1862: Educators and local historians deserve credit for their hard work and fair-mindedness by Peter Shea

This month the story is told and retold in many different forums, and every commemoration is fraught with controversy, as described by Curt Brown in the Star Tribune. Brown also calls the six-part history that appears in the Strib this week, “the most complicated event I’ve written about in 30 years in journalism,”

Curt Brown’s series in the Star Tribune
Sunday: A man lost in history
Monday: Born to lead
Tuesday: “When men are hungry they help themselves”
Wednesday: Terror spreads across the prairie
Thursday: In Little Crow’s wake, horrors for the Dakota
Friday: Little Crow’s legacy

Minnesota Public Radio also has a collected series of interviews, with some focusing on historial figures (Little Crow, Alexander Ramsey, Henry Sibley and more) and some current perspectives.

The Minnesota Historical Society has a website dedicated to the history as well as exhibits in St. Paul and across the state.

Some voices still are not heard. Mordecai Specktor interviewed Cora Jones last year for The Circle:

Cora Jones lives on the Santee reservation in Nebraska. After the 1862 war, some groups of so-called “friendly Dakotas” were allowed by the U.S. authorities to remain on small reservations in Minnesota (Prairie Island, Shakopee, Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux). As for the Santee Sioux Nation, their website states that Congress abrogated treaties between the U.S. and the Santee, in 1863, and sent them into exile at Crow Creek, in what is now South Dakota. “Over 300 Santee died during the first months there, mostly from disease and malnutrition,” according to the Santee history. They were later settled on a small reservation in northeastern Nebraska.

“We’re the true Dakota,” Jones said of the exiles from the northern woodlands. “We were the western gatekeepers.” She said that her committee also is working with Dakotas living on the Flandreau reservation in So. Dakota.

While the story is difficult, it’s part of our history as a state, and that past still shapes our present. With all of the gathered resources, there are many opportunities to learn.

In an interview with The Uptake earlier this year, Mendota Dakota Tribal Chair Jim Anderson explained that, “The ceremony today was to honor our relatives that were put in a stockade here. It was the first concentration camp in the United States.” Anderson explained his reasons for allowing The Uptake’s cameras at the ceremony:  “Ignorance is racism. We need to educate others about what happened to our people.”

(Originally published in TC Daily Planet)

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