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The Trial of Chaska

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June 6, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

For nearly all the cases of the Dakota War Trials, the commission seemed to believe that ANY participation in battle was comparable to being guilty of murder and therefore, death by hanging. One by one, the defendants told their stories, careful to separate the killing of individuals from simply firing their guns or joining in a formal battle. The moment they said they fired a gun, they were implicated. The commission was following orders to convict those who had voluntarily participated in the war.

The commission was particularly locked into conviction of those who had raped women. Here, they relied almost entirely on testimony of witnesses (all called after the defendant’s opening statement). Only two defendants openly admitted to forced intercourse. All others were convicted on the testimony of others, problematic because of cultural misunderstandings, language barriers, societal pressures for women to avoid admitting any lack of struggle, the growing unrest of the public, and revenge. The commission was so focused on this that they actually pushed witnesses to testify accordingly, as they did with Sarah Wakefield in Case #3.  

Case 3 was that of Chaska/Caske/Wakinyatawa. Wakinyatawa was a Mdewanantunwan man who had converted to farming. He was typically called “Chaska/Caske” which is a nickname for “first-son”—a nickname common among the Dakota. He was accused of the murder of George Gleason and other crimes against whites. Chaska readily admitted to being present when Gleason was killed, having been forced at gunpoint to accompany Hapa. He testified that Hapa shot Gleason and that he fired above Gleason’s head and, when told to fire a kill-shot, his gun did not fire. Sarah Wakefield, wife of the doctor at Yellow Medicine, was in Gleason’s wagon and testified on behalf of Chaska, confirming his testimony and saying that he protected her and her children from being killed and took them captive. She said he protected them until they could be returned to White civilization. There were a few minor points where Chaska’s story was not as complete at Mrs. Wakefield’s. She seemed to be very aware of the nuances the commission might seize upon while he was straight forward: an example was that he said he shot his gun while she said he shot but the gun did not fire. There were also times when Chaska admitted to leaving Wakefield with his family and participating in battles but did not provide any explanation of taking a limited role as he’d told Mrs. Wakefield. These became problematic for him, along with the inferences made by the commission about his relationship with her. He was found guilty.

Sarah Wakefield, who later wrote about her captivity, was both adamant and passionate in her defense of Chaska during the Dakota Trials. She continued to speak to commissioners and to Colonel Sibley even after the trial, drawing a large amount of attention. In fact, she had begun her defense even before Chaska took her to Camp Release when he told her it was likely he would be arrested.

Wakefield’s captivity experience was much different than many other women, in part because she adapted, in part because her captors knew her and treated her as family. This fueled gossip that she had willingly become Chaska’s wife. At one point, Chaska told Hapa (who was husband to Chaska’s half-sister, in whose tepee Chaska, his mother, and Wakefield lived) that he’d made her his wife. Wakefield later maintained this was a ploy to protect her from being claimed by Hapa. No one knows the true nature of their relationship but the gossip was rampant and may have influenced the outcome of the trial.

At one point, after the trial, Wakefield was told that Chaska’s sentence would be reduced. In fact, this case (#3) was among those President Lincoln commuted. However, on the day those to be hung were called from their prison cells, a grave error was made. Three prisoners had similar names. One was Chaska-don or Chaska-etay (case #121) who had been convicted of “shooting and cutting open a woman who was with child.” This man had been convicted to hang and had not had his sentence commuted. When the soldiers called for the prisoner, they called for “Chaska” and prisoner #3 stepped forward. Prisoner #121 stayed silent.

After the Dakota Trials, Sarah Wakefield maintained that Chaska was hung because of the implication that they had been intimate. Because he was not hung immediately after being taken to the holding area, there was ample time (a day) for the error to be recognized by those involved in preparing the men for death. Those Whites involved in those tasks, including clergy, knew Chaska and knew the sentence had been reduced.

But they also knew about the rumors and were among those who believed them. As well, some were friends of her husband, who very much doubted his wife’s story and had come to hate Chaska. Chaska was hung with the others on December 26, likely because White society could not condone the implication that he and Wakefield might have been willingly involved with one another.

For more detailed reading, I recommend The Dakota Trials: The 1862-1864 Military Commission Trials: Including the Trial Transcripts and Commentary by John Isch. Carol Chomsky of the University of Minnesota Law School also wrote an excellent article which examines the trials, “The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice.” (https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1230&context=faculty_articles)

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As I count down to my January 2021 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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