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Research & WritingUS-Dakota War of 1862

Looking Back on My Minnesota Research Swing : Part I

By June 13, 2013February 24th, 2018No Comments

Caption: While walking the trails around the Lower Agency, the site of the first planned attack by the Dakota in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, I found my way blocked by a massive fallen tree. To continue down the path, I first had to crawl through that split. Somehow it seemed a metaphor for what I must do as a writer of this novel: pass through the split between peoples, the fracture of cultures, the place where competing truths have a rough “fit” but refuse neatly to come together. Maybe they can’t be joined, and something other than joining is necessary?

Last week I went on a whirlwind research swing in support of a project I’ve been digging into for the past year or so: a historical novel related to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Up to this point, I’ve not spoken about this project with many people beyond my friendship circle, because the project lacked sufficient focus, and perhaps more to the point, I lacked sufficient courage. You see, I’ve never tried to write a historical novel before—in fact, I’ve never finished any of the few novels I’ve started—so I’m both learning on the fly and fighting my own doubts that I can see this manuscript through to the end.

Acknowledging this project to you now is really an act of happy confession to myself. It’s a confession, first of all, that this project is actually starting to take shape, is beginning to feel real and doable. Second, it’s a confession that my confidence is growing, especially as “help” seems to appear at unexpected places and times. The project seems to be taking on a life of its own, and by naming it out loud—by introducing it to you in at least preliminary fashion—I feel that I’m opening the way wider for this story to get made.

And that’s what this is about: the making of story. Partly for the sake of telling a good one (otherwise, who would ever pick it up to read, and keep reading?), and partly in the hope that questions arising from the telling might somehow be grappled with, by someone, with some seriousness. “Grappled with,” that is to say, with some heart as well as mind.

The need for serious grappling seems all the more stark after my whirlwind trip of last week—but then, I’m running ahead of myself. Before saying any more about my trip, let me provide a little background, because if you’re like me (a transplant to the upper plains and not very knowledgeable about its history), you may never have heard of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. That war has also been called the Sioux (or Dakota) Uprising, the Sioux Outbreak of 1862, Little Crow’s War….

Reconstructed warehouse, Lower Sioux Agency.

According to non-native historians, “the Conflict” erupted suddenly in southwestern Minnesota on August 17, 1862 (photo at left is the main warehouse at the Lower Sioux Agency, Morton, MN, the first official target of Dakota warriors). Precipitating causes were complex, but the hostilities, though terrible, were brief, lasting only around six weeks, the Dakota cause having been doomed from the start.

On December 26, Minnesotans had some of their post-war blood lust satisfied, witnessing the mass hanging in Mankato of 38 Dakota men convicted by hasty military tribunals of various crimes against whites. This execution, ordered by President Lincoln, remains the largest single-day mass execution in the history of the United States.

That, then, is a thumbnail sketch of the dominant non-native view of the U.S.-Dakota War, which has been very much overshadowed in history by the Civil War, raging at the same time. But according to some Dakota people I’ve talked to, this “Conflict” began not in 1862 but years before, when the U.S. government began making and breaking sacred treaty agreements with native people, and the War has never really ended. To paraphrase one Dakota elder with whom I spoke recently, it will never end until there is real apology by the government, and real changes in attitude, if not also reparations, on the part of whites.

I can see why this elder holds that belief. Let me offer just one reason: During last week’s trip, I heard espoused by non-native volunteer staffers at a county historical society the same view that many whites had held before the tragic events of 1862: roughly, “Why can’t Indians just blend into society like other immigrants?” And then, after the events of 1862: “The best thing for the Indians would be if they just disappeared—and it’s only a matter of time until they do.”

Hmmm. Do we really need to point out to volunteer staffers in a historical society that Indians aren’t immigrants, unless we’re perhaps debating prehistoric history? Do we really need to tell them that it’s not the place of non-natives to assume we know what’s best for Indians and are entitled to decide (even hypothetically) their fate? Do we really need to suggest to them that to look forward with satisfaction to the cultural (or actual) extinction of our neighbors (native or otherwise) can in no way be justified, on any grounds?

It takes no imagination at all to surmise that what was really meant but hadn’t been said by these volunteers was, “The best thing for whites would be if Indians just disappeared”—for that has been, in fact, the most widely held view toward Indians since before the founding of this country. And the U.S. has a butcherous history to prove it.

Of course, in late 1862 whites were even more crass than these 21st-century citizens, because they (like the Dakota and many “mixed-bloods”) had been deeply wounded by the tragic events of the war. Before the war the prevailing white (and overwhelmingly Christian) view of native people, pretty much enshrined in government policy, had been that Indians should “assimilate or die.” After the war, the choice (and policy) for any Dakota who still remained in Minnesota was pretty much “exile (by force), or die.” Congress passed a bill, signed into law by President Lincoln, expelling from the state all but around 200 Dakota “friendlies”; most of the “hostiles” who hadn’t already fled Minnesota ended up either imprisoned in Iowa or forced onto the desolate Crow Creek reservation in central South Dakota, where they perished by the hundreds. That federal law of expulsion, though no longer enforced, remains on our nation’s books to this day, with its promised bounty of $25 for a Dakota scalp.

War not over, indeed.

(Part II to come.)

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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