More than 150 years after the bloody summer and bitter winter of 1862, the Dakota War and its aftermath are with us still.
The annual Dakota 38 + 2 ride to Mankato, Minn., to honor the 38 Dakota warriors hanged after the bloody 1862 Dakota War, and two other men who were executed later, is underway again. I spent a day with the memorial ride in 2012. It was a moving, revealing experience.
That mass hanging — held the day after Christmas — was the culmination of the 1862 Dakota War, also known as the Dakota Conflict, the Sioux Uprising of 1862, and Little Crow’s War, among other names. The executions were held after weeks of attacks, skirmishes and out-right battles between white settlers and soldiers and Indians angry about the loss of their homeland and being denied access to food.
Hundreds, many of them settlers, died in August and September 1862. The Mankato hangings were intended to put the war to rest, but it has remained a heated topic for more than 150 years.
This month, dozens of American Indians, along with other supporters and friends, left the Crow Creek Reservation and rode horses across South Dakota and into Minnesota. They will take part in a solemn ceremony in Mankato at the site of the executions on Dec. 26.
The men who were hanged were among more than 300 who were arrested, convicted in brief trials that were a mockery of justice, and condemned to death. President Abraham Lincoln, urged on by Episcopalian Bishop Henry “H.B.” Whipple, reviewed the 323 convictions and 303 death sentences. He faced a difficult decision but was led by his strong sense of morality.
“I cannot afford to hang men for votes,” Lincoln said.
In the end, despite immense political pressure, Lincoln pardoned 264, but ordered 39 to the gallows. One man would receive a reprieve, but the other 38 were hanged on a large, square platform, with a large crowd gathered to witness the mass execution.
On Dec. 26, the memorial riders will arrive in Mankato. It will mark 156 years since the mass execution. I lived and worked in Mankato from 2003-05 and attended the Mankato Pow Wow. I spoke with people at the wacipi and most said relations between Indians and whites were greatly improved.
So why the need for the ride and the ceremony each year? Why no commemoration for the hundreds of settlers killed in 1862? Should we also honor those who fell in the battles during that brief war?
The blood flowed for nearly three decades, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s called the Battle of Greasy Grass by Natives, and Custer’s Last Stand by many whites. We can’t even agree on names, so it’s not surprising the war as well as its causes and impact, remain controversial.
The Sioux Wars ended with the horrors of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.
I have attended wacipis, accompanied the memorial riders, studied the issue and read as much as I can find on it. There was much wrong done to Indians that led to this war, and their treatment then and now remains a national sin.
But the men who were hanged were guilty of heinous crimes that had no place in war. There are no easy answers to this, no clear heroes and villains.
Chief Little Crow, who counseled his Mdewakanton Dakota people against the war but then led his men into battle, may be the best symbol of this tragic event.
Thaóyate Dúta — his real name — had tried to adapt. He wore Western clothing, worshiped in the Episcopalian Church, farmed and even visited Washington, D.C., where he met with President James Buchanan in 1858.
But by 1862, the Dakota people were starving, and the food and money promised them in exchange for their land was not being delivered. The once-abundant wild game in the area was greatly diminished, too.
Trader Andrew Jackson Myrick angered the Indians when he ignored their requests for food.
“So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung,” he was quoted as saying.
Myrick was among the first killed when the war broke out. He was scalped, and his mouth was stuffed full of grass. Despite early success that caused panics in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota, Little Crow knew the Indians could not win in a war against millions of Americans.
“Kill one, two, 10 — and 10 times 10 will come to kill you,” he famously said. “You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon. Thaóyate Dúta is not a coward: he will die with you.”
Indeed he would, but not in the war, nor was he among the men hanged. He left Minnesota for a year, but in 1863, he was shot and killed by a farmer and his son while he and his son picked berries. His body was horribly abused and retained by the Minnesota Historical Society until 1971, when he was interred near Flandreau, S.D.
The headstone inscription is “TAOYA TE DUTA, Known as Chief Little Crow of the Mde Wakantons. Born 1818 — Died July 3, 1863. Buried Sept. 27, 1971.” It also has the words “Tosa Nice Mate Kte,” which is translated on the stone as “Therefore I’ll Die With You.”
Every year, the memorial riders stop at his grave to pay homage. Then they head east, on the road to reconciliation.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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