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.
(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.)