Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

When I moved to Minnesota at age 30 in 1970, I had no knowledge of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or the execution by hanging of some of the Indian leaders of that war. I had not grown up in the State and had not been exposed to its history, and although I had majored in history in college and had studied U.S. history, the War was not covered.

BannerUS-Dakotawar

By the time I went to church on October 7, 2012, I was aware that during the U.S. Civil War there had been a short war with the Indians in Minnesota and that subsequently some of the Indian leaders were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. That was the sum total of my knowledge of these events.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

The moving worship service that day at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was devoted to remembering that War and its aftermath, especially its impact on the Dakota people. The beautiful Indian music and the sermons by Westminster’s Senior Minister, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and by Jim Bear Jacobs made me realize that the War and the executions of the Indian leaders were important events that had lasting effects to this day at least upon the Dakota people and Native Americans more generally.

I immediately wanted to share this moving and beautiful worship service with others by writing a blog post about it. I soon realized that there was so much to say about the service itself that I would have to break it up into three posts. I also realized that I needed to know more about the War and about the commemoration this year of the 150th anniversary of the War. This lead to my researching and writing separate posts on these subjects and another about the contemporaneous reaction to the War by my second great-grandfather, Rev. Charles E. Brown.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey
General John Pope
General John Pope

The additional research turned up the September 1862 exhortation by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey for “extermination” of the Dakota Indians. The same disgusting clamor also was made that year by U.S. General John Pope, who was in charge of ending the uprising. Pope said his purpose was “to utterly exterminate the Sioux [Dakota]. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.” The next year the federal government offered a bounty of $25 per scalp for every Dakota Indian found in Minnesota.

The evident anger and fear of the white settlers perhaps are akin to that experienced by the American people after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, as noted in a prior post, these public incitements, if made today, would constitute one form of the crime of genocide under international law.

The impact of the War on Native Americans is only one of the many ways in which what has become the dominant culture of the U.S. has denigrated Native Americans. The result is high incidences of public school drop-outs, alcoholism and suicide among Native Americans. All of this reminded me of the testimony in the Minneapolis school desegregation case by a Native American educator who said he was a “well-balanced schizophrenic,” i.e., he had one foot in Native culture and the other in the dominant culture.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

RoundHouseAnother insight into Native culture was provided by my recent reading of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which was awarded the 2012 National Book Prize for fiction. One of the central events in the novel is the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime.

In an Afterword, Erdrich, who lives in Minneapolis not far from my home, cites a 2009 Amnesty International report that points out that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, that 86% of such rapes and sexual assaults are by non-Native men and that few are ever prosecuted.

The novel also discusses something I never learned in law school or in 35 years of practicing law. In Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, stated that radical title to U.S. land was obtained by European powers upon their “discovery” of the land and that the U.S. government inherited such title upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this context, “tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages.”

Two other U.S. Supreme Court cases were also mentioned in the novel as bearing on the jurisdictional issue presented by the fictional rape. In Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832), Chief Justice John Marshall for the Court decided that the federal government had the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America. Nearly 1.5 centuries later the Supreme Court in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), determined that Indian tribal courts did not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.

This research, thinking and writing prompted further reflection on the subject of memory and the October 7th Scripture—Numbers 15: 37-41:

  • “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

God understands that we humans are forgetful and that individuals and especially groups of people need reminders of important things. Indeed, constant, physical reminders like fringes on the corners of your garments are useful because of our forgetfulness and our sinfulness. Similarly many Christians wear necklaces and pins with crosses for the same reason and to proclaim that they are Christians.

Such practices and the re-telling of important stories also help educate the omnipresent newcomers to the faith or the history. They help to keep the faith or history alive. That certainly happened at the October 7th worship service and at the Minnesota History Center’s exhibit about the War and the other events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War.

For the same reasons the various ways in which Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered are important. So too the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C. and around the world help us remember the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

At the same time, my reaction to the October 7th Westminster worship service suggests another phenomenon. Memory can be asymmetrical. Most white Anglo-Saxons like myself have or had no memory or understanding of the U.S.-Dakota War. For the Dakota people and Native Americans generally, on the other hand, the War and the executions of the Dakota 38 is an ever-present, painful memory. Thus, this worship service and the events commemorating the War are especially important ways of trying to break through the ignorance of the dominant culture.[1]

My reactions to this worship service also help me understand that the third-part of the Westminster worship service—Responding to the Word—does not end when you leave the sanctuary after the service. It should continue in how you live your life and how you continue to think about and probe the meaning of the Word that day. My contemplation of this worship service and the Word will continue beyond this posting.


[1] A recent article discussed this asymmetrical phenomenon in the context of an individual’s new love for another person. It said that human beings are prone to “hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes” and that “[h]edonic adaptation is most likely when positive experiences  are  involved . . . . We’re inclined–psychologically and physiologically–to take positive experiences for granted.”

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

5 thoughts on “Personal Reflections on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”

  1. Thanks, Duane, for these perceptive and moving posts on the October 7, 2012, worship service at Westminster. Tim

    Sent from my iPhone

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