Remembering the Dakota 38

Sixty Dakota Riders arrive in Mankato, Minnesota in December 2012.

Sixty Dakota Riders arrive in Mankato, Minnesota in December 2012.

Today is Monday, November 18, 2013.

Last year marked 150 years since 38 Dakota Sioux men were hanged all in one day in Mankato, Minnesota.  It was the largest mass execution in United States history.

On December 26, 1862, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising or the Dakota Uprising had just ended.  1,600 Dakota were being held at Fort Snelling.  A total of 303 men had been sentenced to be hanged for the “crime” of defending their homeland and trying to protect their loved ones.  President Abraham Lincoln was aware of irregularities in the men’s trials, and Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple had urged the president to show compassion.  The result was that Lincoln reviewed all the cases and wrote to Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, listing 39 who should be hanged.  One of the men was given reprieve; the other 38 were not so lucky.  The rest of the prisoners were sent out of the state, and settled in South Dakota and Nebraska.  The United States continued its conflict with the Sioux until the Seventh Cavalry completed its massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December   29, 1890.

What happened?

The United States had been following a policy of “Indian removal” since the 1830s.  Tens of thousands of Natives from many different tribes were told they could no longer live on their ancestral lands.  Tens of thousands of Natives made the long trek westward in what came to be called the Trail of Tears, because they were unable to fight against the superior weapons of the white settlers. The government also stopped making treaties with individual tribes, and willfully violated the treaties they had already signed.  Some tribes had been promised annuity payments in recompense for their land.

A decade before the uprising, the Minnesota Territory was still mostly Indian country.  The conifer forest and lakes of Northern Minnesota belonged to the Ojibwe, while the deciduous forests and prairie of southern Minnesota was shared by the Dakota and a much smaller number of Winnebago.  In 1851, the Dakota agreed to give up most of  southern Minnesota.  The terms of the treaty were that the land was ceded to the United States in return for two twenty-mile wide by seventy-mile long reservations along the Minnesota River, and annuity payments totaling $1.4 million dollars over a fifty-year period.  Seven years later, in exchange for increased annuity payments, the Dakota were persuaded to give up about half of that reservation land so that more whites could settle in the area.

Treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents caused hardship among the Dakota, who had no land on which to raise food.  The government was giving the annuity payments directly to the Indian agents, who were not all dealing fairly with the Natives, and the traders, meanwhile, were selling supplies to the Natives at 100 to 400% profit.  In mid-1862 the Dakota demanded the annuities directly from their agent, Thomas J. Galbraith. The traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit under those conditions, and negotiations reached an impasse.

On August 17, 1862, one young Dakota with a hunting party of three others killed five settlers.  That night a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley to try to drive whites out of the area. Although there has never been an official report on the number of settlers killed, the number is estimated at between 450 and 800 people, including 77 U.S. soldiers.  Native losses were approximately 190, including the 38 who were hanged at the end of the uprising.

Basically, a once proud people were being made to live in a smaller and smaller area, which made it hard for them to hunt buffalo in the traditional way or to grow their own food, since the lands they were given were not the best farmland.  Who wouldn’t be angry at being made to starve in the winter?  Who wouldn’t fight for food for their families?  Many Native Americans today believe that Lincoln was wrong to order any of the hangings and that several of the hanged men were innocent of any wrongdoing.

To honor the 38 men who were hanged in 1862, Natives have organized a Dakota 38 memorial ride that concludes in downtown Mankato, Minnesota, at Reconciliation Park.  Last year, 60 riders on horseback made a 16-day trek all the way from Lower Brule, South Dakota, and some Dakota runners came on foot from Fort Snelling, in the Twin Cities 65 miles away.  They were joined by about 500 others, who had gathered for the dedication of the “Dakota 38” memorial.

A few months earlier, in August, Gov. Mark Dayton issued a proclamation in August marking the start of the 1862 war, and ordering state flags lowered in honor of the victims of the war.  He asked Minnesotans to “remember the dark past,” but he failed to mention the treaty violations, the mistreatment of the Natives, or the mass hangings.

Although the governor did not address the issue directly, Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson read a proclamation declaring the ceremony, which he proclaimed as the year of “forgiveness and understanding.”

The names of the 38 executed warriors, displayed on a new memorial, were read aloud by Rev. Sidney Byrd, a Dakota spiritual leader and Presbyterian minister from Nebraska whose great-grandfather was one of the Dakota warriors imprisoned after the fighting.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux also spoke at the ceremony, saying, “Today, being here to witness a great gathering, we have peace in our hearts — a new beginning of healing.”

Izzy Zephier, an elder from Yankton who came to the ceremony dressed in full traditional Dakota regalia, including an eagle-feather war bonnet, summed it up best.  “First, we have to cry together,” he said. “Then we can pray together and then we can learn together, Then, finally, we can walk together and live together.”
Once again this year  a group of horseback riders plan to make the trek from Lower Brule, South Dakota.  They will gather on Monday, December 9, and head out on December 10.  They plan to stop at Ft. Thompson, Wessington Springs, Woonsocket,  Howard, Madison, and Flandreau, in South Dakota, before crossing into Minnesota and camping in Pipestone, Russell, Vesta, Morton, Ft. Ridgely, Courtland, and Mankato, where they will arrive on Christmas Day..  They will gather at the site of the hanging for prayers and a ceremony at 10 a.m. on December 26 to honor their ancestors, who were hanged for defending their homes and their families. :-/
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