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The Lasting Impact of the U.S.-Dakota War


June 20, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

The long-term impact of the U.S.-Dakota War stretches even today. For the Dakota, for Whites, and sociologically, the effects were significant.

After the war, few Dakota remained in Minnesota. The U.S. government re-established the Lower Sioux Reservation, greatly reduced in size, along the south side of the Minnesota River, near Morton. Today, the reservation is also known as the Mdewankanton Tribal Reservation and, after other area reductions since that time, is 2.705 square miles in area and had a population of 335 in 2000. Most of those who stayed had already converted to farming rather than their traditional hunting practices.

Some twenty years following the war, some of those in exile began to return to the state and purchased land near Redwood Falls that became the Lower Sioux Community. Returning Sisseton bands settled near Granite Falls in the late 1880s. In 1889, the U.S. government began to allot land to individual families rather than in-common to tribes/bands, which formed the basis for today’s reservation system.  Mdewakantons and Yanktons moved to the area in 1910 and the settlement was recognized as the Upper Sioux Community. The Upper Sioux Indian Reservation was re-established in 1930. Others settled near Prairie Island and Shakopee, becoming Federally recognized communities. There is a non-Federally recognized community near Mendota.

At the same time, Whites in Minnesota began to rebuild. Orphaned children crowded the communities of Mankato, St. Peter, and St. Paul. Widows and displaced heads of households began to file claims for losses (known as Depredation Claims) in which they listed their possessions, lands, and family members lost while describing the events that impacted them personally. Refugees built hasty camps and substandard housing which fostered disease. Many relied on charity with some writing “accounts” of the war to support themselves.

The St. Paul Daily Union reported, on December 22, 1862:

“There are in St. Paul at the present time, 23 widows whose husbands were killed by the Indians. They have in the aggregate 57 children, mostly small and many of them infants. There are also four children who lost both parents. . . . There are so many to be provided for, here and elsewhere, that it is impossible to prevent suffering.”

New Ulm, attacked twice during the war, was devasted. The community had been burned and its 2000 residents fled to other communities. Settlers from outlying areas had lost their land, livelihoods, and families. Many of the survivors had witnessed violence that was uncommon to the White culture and their experiences would foster hatred of the Sioux for generations. Those who had not personally lost would have their opinions shaped by what they heard and read in sensationalized newspaper accounts.

General Pope himself fostered such opinions by saying, in a letter to Henry Sibley prior to the beginning or the trials (September 28, 1862):  

“The horrible massacres of women and children and the outrageous abuse of female prisoners, still alive, call for punishment beyond human power to inflict.  There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith.  It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so and even if it requires a campaign lasting the whole of next year.  Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains, unless, as I suggest, you can capture them.  They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties or compromises can be made.” 

Though Dakota resettled in Minnesota, their lives were by no means easy. In the years just after the war, local White famers and missionaries vouched for those who had adopted White culture and objected to the war. Still, hatred against the Dakota culture was intense. The sensationalized accounts of the war had reached many and first-hand accounts became more gruesome as tales passed to others. Despite most Whites abandoning their lands in the Minnesota River Valley, the area was resettled by the mid-1870s, with the stories still being re-told in newspapers with each anniversary of the war.

Dakota language and culture were suppressed for generations. Assimilation policies forced Dakota children to attend boarding schools and made it illegal for them to speak their native languages. Today, there are an estimated eight remaining Dakota (of 4000) that are fluent in the language. Dakota communities continue to face poverty; sub-standard health care and housing; high rates of drop-out, suicide, alcoholism, and crime. In 2002, a non-profit organization (Dakota Wicoh’an) was formed to address revitalization of language and culture.

In Minnesota, the memory of the war was kept alive by construction of monuments and memorials, most dedicated to Whites who had died. These include the Camp Release State Monument, monuments and the Wood Lake Battlefield and Fort Ridgely, the Morton Pioneer Monuments Roadside Park, the Henderson Monument, the Randor Erle Monument, the Schwandt State Monument, the Redwood Ferry Monument, the Defenders’ State Monument, the Acton State Monument, the Guri Endreson-Rosseland State Monument, the White Family Monument, and the Lake Shetek Monument. A monument was also erected in Mankato to commemorate the place where the 38 Dakota were hung.

For over 100 years, these monuments, the anniversary newspaper accounts, and oral history kept the events of the war alive. For most of those years, the stories focused on the lives lost by settlers rather than the injustices suffered by the Dakota prior to the war. In the 1960s and 1970s, activists and historians finally began to call for more balanced accounting of the war as well as the Dakota dispossession of their lands and forced exile.

In 1971, the City of Mankato removed the four-ton monument commemorating the hanging; the monument disappeared from storage in the 1990s. In 1992, the land on which the hangings occurred was transformed into Reconciliation Park where an annual pow-wow now honors the executed men and works toward reconciling the Dakota and White cultures. An annual pow-wow is also held at Birch Coulee.

Governor Mark Dayton formally apologized in 2012, declaring August 17, 2012 to be a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.” The Minneapolis and St. Paul City Councils formally declared 2013, “The year of the Dakota” and employed the term “genocide” in their resolutions. 2012 was the 150th anniversary of the mass execution. That year, four events were held, films and documentaries released, and memorial ride was made by Dakota from Brule, South Dakota to Mankato (now an annual event).

Documentary films were also created to honor the Fool Soldiers involved in the release of the Shetek captives and the descendants of the Shetek families have honored descendants of the Fool Soldiers in a ceremony at Brule, South Dakota.

Still, the ways in which the Dakota remember the events of 1862 remain very different than the ways Whites remember them. An annual march is held (beginning in 2006) from the Lower Sioux Agency at Acton (where the first events of the war occurred) to Fort Snelling, where the Dakota prisoners were taken after the war. The week-long march, covering twenty miles daily, would honor one person who died each mile. The march is one of community, of family for those involved.

The Minnesota Historical Society has also revamped its exhibition at the Minnesota History Center (as have many other museums) to focus on events leading to the war and the impact on all involved. Both cultures suffered trauma and there is opportunity to learn from the mistakes made by failed governmental policies. Efforts were made to tell the stories cross-culturally, using not only text but song, dance, art, and oral stories to represent elements from both cultures. Care was taken to remove ceremonial items and personal items of those Dakota involved in respect to the Dakota culture. Many items (and some remains) were returned to families, where they could be traced. Repatriation efforts continue.

Fort Snelling, too, has changed. For the Dakota, the historical site is a constant reminder of the imprisonment of 1600 people and their suffering. For Whites, Fort Snelling tells the history of settlement, with the events of 1863 being one part of that. There was an active effort to “Take Down the Fort” among the Dakota with many saying the fort shouldn’t be preserved unless it represented history in its entirety. Dialogue continues on how to improve interpretation to reflect the cross-cultural impact.

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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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