August 15, 2020 by Pamela Nowak
As I continued my study of the oral histories left by the members of the Fool Soldiers, I was struck by several consistent themes and their lessons.
First, all of the accounts were consistent in their reference to the beginning of the events that led to the formation of the Fool Soldiers. All referred to President Lincoln “ending the treaties.” It is easy, in a White ethno-centric historical view, to disregard this as untrue since Lincoln did not order treaties null until after the U.S. Dakota War. It’s also easy to justify the different interpretation as a timeline issue or misremembrance. Plummer even suggested it might relate to how reservation schools taught.
However, in seeing this reference again and again and with Plummer noting the insistence that this was the order of things by those he interviewed, it bears more consideration as a cultural point of reference.
Lincoln was elected in November 1860 with southern secessions beginning the following month. The Confederate States of America formed in January of 1861, Lincoln was inaugurated in March and the attack on Fort Sumpter launched the Civil War in April. As the war intensified, funding and priorities were shifted to the war effort by Congress and annuity payments and supplies to Native American tribes were delayed for months. There is no record that Lincoln or Congress dissolved treaties during this time but the fact remains that treaty terms were not honored.
Yet, in the oral histories among the members of the Two Kettles Band, all claimed the root of the problem with that Lincoln ended the treaties. To fully understand this, and the implications of how it was viewed among the Sioux, we have to adjust our cultural mind-set.
During the treaty era, Native Americans were told about the “Great White Father” with no explanation of Congress. White treaty negotiators largely didn’t bother or failed to understand that most decisions in Native American culture were accomplished by a “council” and that tribal officials would have readily understood that concept. These officials failed to comprehend the culture of the tribes they dealt with. Their unnecessary simplification of the U.S. political process in effect complicated relations more and caused tribes to hold presidents responsible for all actions taken by Congress.
We also need to look at how the annuity delays were understood by native cultures. For Congress, it was a delay but for tribes, the delay was a violation of the treaty terms which therefore nullified the treaty. In 1862, the delay was even more excessive and may have signaled and “end” of the treaties, since it would have applied to all annuity payments rather than just one. This is a vital key to understanding motivations for the conflict.
If Native cultures saw the delay in annuities as the United States “ending all treaties,” it would impact how they reacted. A unilateral end to all treaties without the U.S. forfeiting the lands related to the treaties would have been seen as a cause for war. In White terms, it was a breach of contract. Tribes would have felt justified in pursuing war to regain those lands. If we interpret the actions of the Santee in that light, it shifts their actions from “hostile and savage aggression.” In fact, the U.S. itself was fighting to maintain a contract between the states.
Looking at the roots of the U.S.-Dakota War in from this viewpoint changes our understanding of motivations. Not only were the Sioux frustrated and hungry, oral history accounts indicate many believed the U.S. government had revoked treaties without returning the lands included under the treaty.