The US-Dakota War of 1862: Ethnic Strife or the Political Economy of War?

Ta-Oyate-Duta (His Red Nation) or Little Crow as he is more widely known, reluctant leader of the 1862 Dakota-US War

As Dakota people, 1862 may be our most important origin story today. Throughout Dakota country, we refer daily to 1862 whether at family gatherings, at community events, anywhere we gather and talk. It is always there even when we are silent.

Certainly, “traditional” creation stories that set out values for living, narrate our common history, cohere us as a people with a common moral framework, and tie us to a sacred landbase are important. But the tragic events and narrative of 1862 are for many of us arguably more crucial today. We Dakota people got to where we are in the early 21st century because of what has been known in mainstream historiography as “the Dakota Conflict of 1862.” A full-blown war from the perspective of Dakota historians and community members, 1862 re-circumscribed present-day Dakota geography, political economy, family relations, governance, and identity. It was the moment when our ancestors’ dispossession from our ancestral lands—from the life-giving rivers in what is today southern Minnesota—was crystallized. Pushing back violently against the greed of traders and violation of treaties, starvation, forced marches, prison camps, and a mass execution ensued for Dakota people. This marked a bloody re-mapping of Dakota life.

And when I say that 1862 figures prominently in how we understand what it is to be Dakota, I need to emphasize that we Dakota do not acquire our understanding of who we are in relation to 1862 by reading the necessarily narrow works of mainstream historians. The various Dakota communities throughout the upper Midwest and parts of Canada since 1862 have lived a history largely untreated in the scholarly literature. My understanding of this event came only later from published histories. My foundational knowledge came from narratives handed down from my late great-grandfather, Felix Heminger. His great-grandfather was Ta-oyate-duta, the reluctant 1862 leader. Today, my mother, my aunts and uncles, and many other extended family members on both the Flandreau and Lake Traverse Reservations in South Dakota and in Minnesota Dakota communities continue to keep the stories. More recently, Dakota historian Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and her relative Wahpetunwin Carolynn Schommer published what I would call a Dakota standpoint treatment of this history: Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). When I tell my daughter and others about 1862, it is Dakota thinkers that I cite first, both published and traditional community historians. I keep in mind that non-Dakota historians’ accounts of this event are not unimportant. They are crucial, but they tell stories that leave much out and which take for granted the inevitability of the U.S., and of Minnesota. They conflate the land with those polities. We Dakota do not make such a conflation.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the war and the hanging of the 38 Dakota warriors (they are simply “the 38” to us) in Mankato, the day after Christmas 1862. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is doing a 6 part series (today is day 3) on the 1862 War. The Tribune’s very description of this series as being about “war” and not “conflict” reflects how our Dakota standpoints seem to be changing dominant terminology and concepts. But only so much. The series is also tagged as being about the “darkest chapter in Minnesota’s past.” For Dakota people fighting to defend their land and peoples, the new state of Minnesota could be seen as an invader in the same way that greedy traders and government bureaucrats who peddled soon-to-be violated treaties were seen as intruders. The State of Minnesota like the United States is not forever, was not inevitable, is not synonymous with the land. These are relatively new sets of institutions, laws, and cultural practices that “settled,” “invaded,” “colonized” (which is your term of preference?) a place in which the institutions, laws, and cultural practices of other peoples were already established.

I’ve only watched Part I of the Star Tribune series thus far, and I am not sure what I think yet. I see the first video as portraying the war too much as the result of ethnic strife that happened equally on both sides, a sort of narrative in which the liberal multi-culturalism we supposedly enjoy today had not yet emerged. I worry that such a telling leaves the door open for the politically and intellectually limp conclusion that our embrace of multi-culturalism can save the day. But I will watch the entire series with the hope that a serious accounting is taken of the violation of treaties, and the theft and plunder of an already settled, and not empty land.

At our annual Oak Lake Writers’ Society retreat week before last, fellow member Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate citizen, poet, and artist) called for 1862 to be analyzed from a perspective of the political economy of war. Dakota and European descendents, she reminded us, were already heavily entangled through marriage and family at the time of the War. It wasn’t about Indians and whites who were friendly to one another and those who were hostile, but people were already family. Family helps family. That would explain why there were many complicated relations between whites and Indians “on the ground” during those violent days. Gabrielle’s point is not that there was no racism as we term it today, but that a too-strong lens of ethnic or racial strife blocks our ability to see who was really gaining from the 1862 War. For example, what were the interests of the big capitalists in the Twin Cities? What did they gain? Gabrielle ties the politics of the 1862 War to the political economy of war more broadly. She makes 1862 highly relevant to our analyses today of the perpetual wars that the U.S. wages all over the world as it attempts to grow (or stop the collapse of) its empire with corporations at the heart of that.

I am praying for a Dakota graduate student to come along and write that dissertation.

—–Kim TallBear


(Postscript: On August 18, the day Ta-oyate-duta declared war, Oak Lake Writers’ Society members will submit pieces of writing to this Web site for an on-line treatment of that event or contemporary manifestations of that history. Keep an eye out for forthcoming posts.)

3 thoughts on “The US-Dakota War of 1862: Ethnic Strife or the Political Economy of War?”

  1. Your insights are an interesting companion to the Star-Tribune’s series. I recommend you keep reading the Star-Trib series (don’t just view the videos). I am interested in both your journalistic and Dakota-legacy’s reaction.

  2. blog Legacy of Survival, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, August 15-17, 2012
    August 18, 1862, has been recognized as the start of the United States-Dakota War. The Legacy of Survival at Flandreau,”Commemorating 150 Years of Dakota Exile from Minnesota” (from the flyer), was organized to help Dakota people better understand the past and to “Welcome Home” those who had ancestors who had been forced to flee for their lives during that war. This six-week war had many contributors and factors years before the actual confrontations and killings. Greatly greedy and morally corrupt men, in charge of the United States federal treaty obligations to the sovereign nation of the Dakota, vastly overstepped their designated duties in their avaricious and illegal accumulation of money, appointments in which they procured illegal funds, goods, and land. These men, most notoriously, Galbraith, Myrick, Dole, Sibley, and Ramsey, operated on the “Good Ole Boy” system and ensured that whistleblowers, such as Pearson, Whipple, and Hinman, did not bring forth their corruptive ways to the press or to President Lincoln.
    A presenter at the Legacy of Survival, Sheldon Wolfchild, showed a video in which David A. Nichols, author of “Lincoln and the Indians” (1978) outlined from treaty documents, letters, personal journals, distribution lists, and other sources, the cold-blooded calculations employed by Galbraith, et al, when their greed ran unchecked and eventually culminated in the Dakota people starving and driven to violence to achieve what they needed–food for their families. President Lincoln’s correspondence showed that he had given then Governor Ramsey the power to do whatever with the Dakota people in a letter in which the phrase, “…Necessity knows no law…” seemingly gave Ramsey carte blanche and unchecked power. Ramsey then declared on September 9, 1862 that “…the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state…” leading to the forced removal and banishment of the Dakota people who surrendered and to government-sanctioned bounties award on the scalps of fleeing or resisting Dakota people. The thirty-eight Dakota men hung in Mankato in December of that year (the largest mass execution in US history) had all been convicted in sham trials as were the others who had been ordered to prison and not to be hung. (The Minnesota law about exterminating Dakota people and offering bounties for scalps is still on the books and has been repudiated by now Governor Mark Dayton, “Startribune”, August 17, 2012, page 1.)
    Another presenter, Craig Blacksmith from Manitoba, Canada, showed by the use of archival maps the areas of Dakota land and how it had once stretched from pre-colonial days from the southern Atlantic coast to the upper reaches of what is now Canada. He then stressed that the Dakota living in Canada were not all exiles from Minnesota, that many had been living there before the US-Dakota War of 1862, that the Dakota people in Canada have never signed a treaty with the Canadian government, and that the Doctrine of Discovery was used by explorers and countries because the aborigines were not considered to be human as put forth in that document. As long as there were no “humans”, then the land was uninhabited and available for whomever claimed it. In 1967 the Australian government finally recognized the Aborigines as being human. The Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery has since been renounced and calls for it to be rescinded have been sent to the Queen of England. Further information is on the internet and the Episcopal Church has been a leader in the revocation of this doctrine.
    See .
    The “Welcome Home Dakota Exiles Walk to Pipestone” was led by horseback riders and followed by grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, and many young people, all who had walked from the west back to the east. They were met by Dakota and non-Dakota people. Songs and prayers were offered and many handshakes were exchanged. “Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Pipestone County Sheriff Dan Delaney and state Rep. Dean Urdahl were among those lining the two-lane highway to greet the riders and those who walked behind them. “This is long overdue,” the sheriff said.” (StarTribune. August 17, 2012) The entourage then went to the Pipestone Quarry where songs, prayers, and words of encouragement were offered. People later returned to Flandreau for a final feast and words.
    I learned many things, met many interesting people, and am reminded of several speakers asking the question as to what is to be done now and for the future. Many language and culture classes, the sundances, the powwows, and the seeking of old ways and stories are occurring more and more. Perhaps that is the answer; perhaps that is the hope.
    –Deanna Stands, Ihanktonwan na Isanyati

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