Dakota memories of 1862


Some hard feelings don’t soften that much with time – even after 150 years. The dispossession of the Dakota people from their homeland, in what became the State of Minnesota, is one example of unresolved historical pain.

Cora Jones, the tribal secretary of the Santee Sioux Nation, recently met me for a chat at the Wolves Den, the caf? in the Minneapolis American Indian Center. She is retired from a career that included work as a medical lab technician and with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Now she is active with a small committee of Santees that is trying to provide input into the upcoming events that will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War that raged in southwestern Minnesota. This tragic chapter in the history of the nascent North Star State involved much bloodshed between European settlers and the native Dakota people. The warfare culminated in the cruel internment of Dakota men, women and children below Ft. Snelling, and the hanging of 38 Dakotas in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862 – the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

On this last point, Jones commented that her great-grandfather was “No. 39” on the list of condemned Dakotas, which was approved by Pres. Abraham Lincoln. He narrowly escaped the hangman’s scaffold.

“I came a hair’s breadth from not being,” she said.

In the run-up to the sesquicentennial commemoration of the tragic warfare, Jones and the Santees say that their input is not being accepted by the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), which is planning an exhibition and a host of activities – four books, online presentations, school curricula, artwork and community outreach.

The Santee Dakotas issued a statement that lists a number of grievances regarding the MHS role in the commemorative events. They say that the Dakota people “have not had access” to the society’s “records or resources to compile our own history.”

“We wonder why Dakota people have not been hired to coordinate the 150[th] commemoration of the war,” the Santee statement adds. “The fact is that the popular version of the story of the war is a lie. The Dakota uprising did not start simply because we were starving and angry. That is only a very small piece of the story.”

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.

Jones said that the Santees would like to be welcomed back; she said a federal law still on the books bans their return to Minnesota. As for the MHS, Jones and her associates would like the agency to publish new writings by Dakotas, which “will tell a full picture of the uprising and its aftermath.”

She said that “part of the sadness at Santee” is that the kids think that they are part of Nebraska, and don’t know of their history in Minnesota.

The MHS “recognizes that the story [of the 1862 war] goes beyond Minnesota’s borders,” said Andrea Hart-Kajer, the MHS deputy director for external relations. “We are interested in their input,” she told me, when apprised of the grievances expressed by the Santees.

One problem, according to Hart-Kajer, is that sales tax money earmarked for the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund cannot be used to hire Santees in Nebraska, or anyone based in another state. She said that MHS staff members drove out to the Crow Creek, Flandreau and Santee reservations last year; and Franky Jackson, a Santee and the tribal historic preservation officer at Flandreau, is advising the society on the 1862 project.

In any case, Jones and other Santees feel that their cultural heritage is being locked away in the big historical center in St. Paul.

“In order to tell the story, we have to be involved,” Jones said.