Many years ago I had the privilege of working for a decade in a lovely college library situated on a Mankato hilltop overlooking the usually tranquil valley of the Minnesota River. Many times I thought about the view, the beauty and the fact that this was the site from which locals had once observed the travesty in which 38 Dakota Indians were hanged. If my memory lapsed all I had to do was go to the Blue Earth County Historical Museum to ponder the thoroughly disgusting depiction of this dark moment in Minnesota history. Though I thought about the horror every day, I did delve into the stories and the pain, probably because I didn’t want to deal with the reality of history. Times and I have changed.
This year’s Dakota 38 + 2 Memorial Ride has created a thirst to know more. At the same time, the parallel documentary, Dakota 38, inspires me to explore the story that has eluded me at the same time it has remained so painfully real to the Dakota people for nearly 150 years.
Recognition of reality inevitably leads to research. A simple google search disclosed the official updated site for the Dakota 38 Memorial Ride. The site describes well the Ride for Healing and Unity and offers a powerful incentive to explore both the tragedy and the powerful efforts to heal the wounds that have afflicted the Dakota people for generations. Some local media have covered this year’s ride.
One challenge faced by the media, historians and anyone who study the topic is the naming of the conflict. A recent TC Daily Planet series called it the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The dual – and dueling – narratives are evident in the language used to name the events of August and September 1862. Over the past half-century, their name has changed from the Sioux Massacre to the Sioux Uprising to the Dakota Conflict or Dakota War. In this series, we have chosen to call it the U.S.-Dakota War, a name that reflects the reality that two nations were involved.
The tragic fact we must face is that on December 26, 1862, in Mankato Minnesota, on the banks of the beautiful Minnesota River, 38 Dakota men were marched to a scaffold guarded by 1400 troops in full battle dress. There the local citizenry witnessed the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. While the Lakota Death Song was being sung, the “pull of a single lever ended the lives of 38 Dakota men.” The 38 executed men were among 300 Dakota condemned as participants in the 1862 Dakota Conflict; the other condemned men, saved by the intervention of President Abraham Lincoln, were eventually imprisoned near Davenport, Iowa.
In his thoughtful article on the Dakota Conflict Trials Douglas O. Linder, a Mankato native, observes that “the mass hanging was the concluding scene in the opening chapter of a story of the American-Sioux conflict that would not end until the Seventh Cavalry completed its massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890.” Linder’s clear recounting of the story deserves a careful read.
One sidebar is the story of Chaska, the Dakota man who was hanged in error. While there is much controversy about the circumstances, the New York Times recently reported his fate was to have been that of a man with a similar name (Chaskey-etay) who had been convicted of murder. Senator Al Franken has indicated that he intends to consider proposing legislation that would extend a posthumous pardon to Chaska. The true story of Chaska will probably remain forever in the uncertain world of conjecture.
At the end of the war, the surviving 1300 Dakota men, women and children were interned at Fort Snelling until May 1863. Those who survived the winter in what many now call a concentration camp were later transported down the Mississippi River and up the Missouri River to Crow Creek, South Dakota. Eventually the survivors scattered far and wide, from Saskatchewan to Nebraska and beyond. The pain and trauma of December 26 still travel with them in their hearts and memories.
Five years ago Vietnam veteran Jim Miller, descendent of the Dakotas, embraced a dream of reconciliation and of drawing attention to the impact of the Mankato tragedy. His vision was for riders from all of the Dakota tribes to ride horseback over 330 miles from Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota to the site of the mass hanging in Mankato. The first Reconciliation Ride set the tone in December 2008. Riders are making the 330 mile trek in December 2010. The trek, the event and the quest for reconciliation are now depicted in the documentary Dakota 38 which is garnering public attention to the ride and its message of memory and reconciliation.
The 150th anniversary of the war will be commemorated in 2012. The occasion presents Minnesotans with a choice – to re-kindle misconceptions and bitterness or to embrace the challenge of reconciliation. Blogger Audrey Kletscher Helbling cites efforts now underway to underscore the latter. She identifies a website for the commemoration which offers an opportunity for collaborative planning of a mix of activities including site tours, marker dedications, symposia, exhibits and more.
Sunday, December 26, will be a quiet day for many Minnesotans who are off work, warm, well fed, generously gifted, and shoveled out (for the moment at least.) It might be a good time to read and reflect on the tragedy and consequences of the 1862 tragedy in Mankato. December 2010 may be the right time to become informed and involved with plans for the Sesquicentennial of this sad chapter of Minnesota history.