|Site of the mass hanging after the War, Mankato, MN.|
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 hasn’t been taught much over the years in history classes, even in Minnesota, where it took place. This is likely due to a number of factors, of which I’ll mention only three. First, this regional conflict, though devastating at the time for thousands of people and profound in its implications for generations since, has been almost entirely overshadowed by the tragic history of the Civil War. Second, its significance for relations between native and non-native peoples, especially here in the Great Plains, has not been adequately appreciated. And third, its legacy for both native and non-native peoples in and far beyond Minnesota remains to this day very complex, and for many, terribly painful. This war, which lasted less than two months, is still hard for many people to discuss 150 years later; hard to wrestle with, hard to wring truth from, hard to make peace with. There are additional factors I could cite, but these three are primary, I believe, in why the subject of the U.S.-Dakota War has often been either neglected or avoided outright.
When I was growing up in northwest Ohio, native cultures, histories and present-day concerns were incredibly remote from my daily life. The U.S. government had long before forcibly removed native peoples like the Wyandot from their traditional lands in the area around my home. Until I left home for college, my “experience” of native peoples pretty much consisted of my scavenging their arrowheads and stone tools from riverbanks and plowed fields; of my staring with fascination at their beadwork and skeletons displayed in glass cases at local historical museums; and of my observing with no little confusion as my brothers and other (non-native) Boy Scouts were inducted through a pseudo-native “tapping out”” ceremony into the Order of the Arrow, an honorary society reserved for only the most accomplished. At a night-time ceremony held by bonfire and torchlight, with “Indian” drums echoing through the woods, the Scouts to be admitted to the Order were chosen by a “tap-out team” of “Indians” wearing face-paint, headdresses and breechcloths. The tapping-out was followed by a “vision quest” and “ordeal” whereby each inductee’s worthiness was tested. As a teenager I sensed the strangeness of this appropriation by white males of “native identity” for their own initiation rites, and was intrigued as "headmen" led my brothers into the dark woods to undergo their secret “ordeals,” but I wasn’t equipped to think intelligently about it all. I was incredibly ignorant about the original inhabitants of the land where I lived and thoroughly enmeshed in the white culture of my upbringing.
It is only since moving here to Brookings, South Dakota, that my cultural literacy in relation to native peoples has begun to develop. It had to develop. My husband Jihong and I moved here from Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, when he became a professor at South Dakota State University. When we flew up to South Dakota one weekend to look for a house, the non-native realtor with whom we first toured potential homes was making ethnic slurs against Native Americans within an hour of our meeting. Apparently she thought us “safe,” and assumed that her words would give no offense; indeed, perhaps she hoped her words would somehow score her some points with us, encourage our business. Her behavior was my first sign that Jihong and I were entering a very different world from where we’d been living back East. Relations between native and non-native peoples would be central here, I realized, and not altogether pretty.
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 finally came to my attention a few years ago when I watched an award-winning documentary called Dakota 38 (you can watch it for free at this link). The film chronicles a remarkable annual commemorative ride by native horsemen, begun in 2008. Their journey on horseback traces a 330-mile route from Lower Brule, SD, to Mankato, MN, where on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged simultaneously on the order of President Lincoln for their alleged participation in the U.S.-Dakota War. The film is powerful, to say the least, and thought-provoking. I have since screened the film several more times, have once had the opportunity to help feed the riders as they passed through the area in December, and have several times talked privately with some of their spokesmen. Their descriptions of what the ride means to them individually, and their hopes for the healing it might help bring to natives and non-natives alike, have dug deeply into my spirit and taken up residence there, along with the still-living reality of the War.
Since my first viewing of Dakota 38, the War just hasn’t let me go. It has risen up again and again in my life and in my consciousness. This was especially true last year, when Minnesota (just a half-hour drive from our South Dakota home) marked the War’s 150th anniversary. Finally, last summer, I felt enough in its grip that I decided to try to write a historical novel related to it. I had no idea how I was going to do that, exactly; no idea what the novel’s focus would be, or what angle I would take. I just knew that I needed somehow to pick up the work that had itself picked me.
So pick it up I did, starting with books. I read, and read, and read. Some of what I read was old, old stuff, dating from the War’s immediate aftermath: Dakota testimonies, settler narratives, military reports, government documents, missionary correspondence, newspaper articles. The interlibrary loan librarians at our local public and university libraries became my indispensable friends. As I write this, I’m still waiting for a few more books to come in, but after nearly a year, my reading seems mostly done. On-site visits of historical sites and research of oral tradition are now dominating my work. Oral tradition is exceptionally difficult to access, but deeply significant. Its value can’t be underestimated. More on that at a later time, perhaps.
But back to my reading: In the midst of all those books and documents, there soon appeared a figure who gradually came to dominate my attention, and therefore my research. Her name was Sarah Wakefield, a compelling woman with a fascinating story. Sarah Wakefield was why I went to Minnesota on my research swing. She has become my chosen vehicle for exploring the U.S. Dakota War--and so much more. More than I could have ever imagined, back when I first started following the thread of her journey.
Who is this Sarah Wakefield? Well, stay tuned. In my next installment, I’ll introduce you.