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.”

The U.S.-Dakota War Remembered by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part II)

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church at its October 7, 2012, worship service remembered the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.[1] This post will review the central part of this very moving service–Listening for the Word.[2]

The Scripture reading for the day was Numbers 15: 37-41 from the Hebrew Bible:

  • “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.”

This reading was followed by a solo rendition of a traditional Ojibwe “Song of Love” honoring the gift of love among all people.

REv. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor, presented the first sermon –“What Is the Role of the Church: To Remember.” This sermon started with the previous Biblical text. Hart-Andersen said:

  • “The Hebrew people were born of memory. Each generation was taught the stories of those who had gone before. Parents told children how their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt, how Moses led them out of bondage, how God saved them. Over the ages they told their stories – and they remembered themselves into being. As we learn in the text from Numbers this morning the fringe that men wear even today serves as a reminder of their past, lest the people forget. Judaism clings to its stories because they are the lifeblood of the people.”
  • “The Christian Church is not all that different. The Church is the place where the Jesus story is told, where we hear the story of God’s people. That story can be full of light and hope, of goodness and grace, but sometimes it’s hard to hear, sometimes full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if it will ever come out right.”
  • “The church ceases to be the church when it loses its memory. That may be one of the problems facing the church in America today. We don’t remember why we need God, why we need redemption, why we need each other. We have fed ourselves so long on the myth of self-sufficiency that we no longer need the power of religious tradition to sustain us. The story doesn’t matter much anymore.”
  • “Today we remember the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It started when the U.S. reneged on yet another treaty promise, leaving the native people destitute. A group of Dakota warriors killed several white settlers, leading to a declaration of war by Chief Little Crow. After six weeks the Dakota were defeated. Thousands were held in disease-riddled camps, including women and children; over 300 warriors were sentenced to die – some in trials lasting a mere five minutes. President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences, but in December, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place in Mankato, when 38 Dakota men were hung. The Dakota were expelled from Minnesota and hundreds more died on the march to reservations in the west.”
  • “Presbyterian missionaries played a key role in 19th century Minnesota. The first Christian congregation in the Territory was established by Presbyterian brothers Gideon and Samuel Pond on the shores of Lake Calhoun. They put the Lord’s Prayer into Dakota . . . . Presbyterian missionary Stephen Riggs wrote the first Dakota dictionary. Presbyterian doctor Thomas Williamson oversaw the first translation of the Bible into Dakota. Presbyterian missionaries went with the Dakota when they were banished from their homes.”
  • “But however enlightened our forebears in the church may have been, they – and that means we – were part of ending the Dakota way of life.”
  • “In the 1840’s the native congregation in Lac Qui Parle wrote the Dakota hymn, Many and Great, O God, Are Thy Things, No. 271 in our hymnal. The 38 Dakota men – Presbyterians, many of them – sang the hymn as they mounted the gallows in Mankato on December 26, 1862. We will close our worship this morning singing that same hymn. Listen, especially, to the words of the last verse and imagine the Dakota preparing to die.”
  • “The church is in the memory business. We’re a community formed by the story of God and the stories of God’s people. Sometimes the memories are hard to hear, the stories painful to share. Sometimes they seem unresolved.”
  • “Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man born in 1863, described the people of the earth as being a ‘hoop,’ an unbroken circle bound together in a sacred way. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk said, ‘The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.’ (Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt, ed. [Albany: SUNY Press, 2008], p. 218)”[3]
  • “Our call as the church is to repair the hoop, to join the work of God in making whole the peoples of the earth, and it starts right here at home.”
Jim Bear Jacobs

The second of the day’s sermons was delivered by Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. The following are excerpts from his sermon:

  • “It is good for us to speak today about memory. For today we have much to remember. It is with memory that we can recall the stories that are released into any given space. You see memory is integral to the art of storytelling. And my friends today we are surrounded by story.”
  • “It ought not escape our attention that tomorrow [October 8th] many all over this nation of ours will celebrate Columbus Day. This is part of the story that is released upon this land. . . . [This] year let us commit to active engagement with the story that has disseminated its way down into every aspect of American Indian life. When words like ‘discovery’ and ‘new world’ are thoughtlessly used, it is a reminder that the epicenter for knowledge has been and is still White Euro-America. And every year [when] we again celebrate Columbus the discoverer we reinforce in the spirit of American Indian children that unless a white man knows that you exist, you in fact do not yet exist.”
  • “This year in the State of Minnesota we engage the story of the US-Dakota war. 150 years ago in 1862 on the brink of starvation a small group of Dakota warriors had reached a devastating breaking point. Given the choice between fighting for the stores of food that were literally rotting away in the warehouse of the reservation agent, or watching their loved ones slowly decline into death, they made what they thought was the more honorable choice. What followed was six weeks of violent fighting that left around 800 dead and decimated the towns of western Minnesota.”
  • “After the fighting what followed for the Dakota were forced marches, concentration camps, bounties and mass executions. The Dakota creation narrative is centered around the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers [near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport], and in 1863 with one stroke of a pen in Washington D.C. it became illegal to be Dakota in the State of Minnesota. As a result of that legislation, there are now far more Dakota living in exile outside of Minnesota than live within the borders of their homeland.”
  • “Likewise as we move toward the season of Thanksgiving, we are surrounded by the story of American colonization and settlement. The history books of our childhood tell us of the amicable relationship between the tribal nations of the east coast and the newly arrived seekers of religious freedom. If only it were that simple. You see, for the American Indians this small struggling group of new neighbors signaled the beginning of a wave of change that would sweep over this entire country and leave a devastating scar upon this land and her people. And it pains me to have to admit that because the church was swept up in the power and imperialism of the day, a lion’s share of the culpability lies at our doorstep.”
  • “This morning I greeted you not in the Mohican language but in the Lenape language. So why does a proud Mohican greet you in Lenape and not Mohican. It is because in the wake of Christian missionary work the Mohican language lies dormant in the graveyard of a Lutheran boarding school. We as members of Christ’s body inherit a generational history that is blemished with devastating atrocities committed in the name of our beloved Savior.”
  • “We have all heard it said that time heals all wounds. If this were true for the Native American we would not have the highest suicide rate, the highest high-school dropout rate, or the highest substance abuse rate. In the western way of thinking time may heal wounds if the wound is superficial. But these wounds are not superficial, they are deep, they are fresh and they bleed anew every time a bottle is picked up, or one of our own seeing no hope for a better future puts an end to his or her own life. Because these stories affect every American Indian, the resulting wounds also affect every American Indian. Time cannot heal these wounds because American Indians have little concern for time. For us these stories do not exist in time, they exist in space. As long as we walk upon this land and in this space our chronological distance from these events and stories is irrelevant. It is a heavy burden that every American Indian carries. We must forgive that which is unforgiveable in order to heal and ensure our own survival.”
  • “This morning we gather in another space and engage in a different story. Today we gather around the Lord’s Table and partake in the story of His sacrificial death. In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul warns us against abuses of the Lord’s Table. Within the context that we, the church, are the body of Christ, he tells [us] that when we come together to partake, we are to discern the body lest we drink judgment upon ourselves.”
  • “The “Lord’s Table is a universal table, and we eat and drink as one part of a global body. Today we partake with affluent aristocracy, and we partake with sweatshop laborers. This morning we partake with presidents and kings, and we partake with a small group of Dakota ministers. . . . I said earlier that the American Indian carries the heavy burden of having to forgive the unforgiveable. Likewise the church also carries a heavy burden. Lest we drink judgment upon ourselves, we must discern what is justice for the entirety of this body.”
  • “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states that before one is to bring any offering before God, he must go to his brother and be reconciled. With this statement Jesus establishes reconciliation as the first step in the act of worship. Without reconciliation there can be no legitimate worship. Reconciliation is a difficult word for the American Indian. It seems to imply that there is a point in history when there was conciliation. That point in American or church history simply does not exist. So if we as a church speak of reconciliation, let us do so in the context that we desire to go back to the way [the] Creator intended humanity to live. And let us commit to come together and forge new stories that will also be released into this space so that future generations when speaking of reconciliation can remember well the good works that began here.”

[1] Prior posts set forth a summary of the War, a contemporary white settler’s comments on the War and this year’s commemoration of the War.

[2]. A prior post reviewed the initial part of the service–Preparing for the Word. A subsequent post will discuss the last part of that service– Responding to the Word. The following materials about this service are available online: a video, the bulletin and the texts of the sermons. The theological underpinnings for Westminster’s order of worship were reviewed in a prior post.

[3] Earlier that day in an adult education class, Jim Bear Jacobs said that in Indian culture life is lived in a circle or a Sacred Hoop and that death is seen as a return to the Creator/Spirit.

Commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

August 17, 2012, marked the sesquicentennial of the incident that started the U.S.-Dakota War in southwestern Minnesota in 1862. This dark side of U.S. and Minnesota history has been commemorated in various ways in Minnesota this year.

Governor Mark Dayton’s Proclamation

Governor Mark Dayton

Our current Governor, Mark Dayton, proclaimed August 17th a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in the State.

The Governor said that on August 17, 1862, the “first victims of the ‘U.S.-Dakota War of 1862’ lost their lives . . . . The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people. Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.”[1]

Moreover, he said, the “events leading to those atrocities actually began before 1862. The United States Government, through its agents in the new State of Minnesota,  . . . persuaded, deceived, or forced the state’s long-time inhabitants from Dakota and Ojibwe Indian tribes to give up their lands for promises of money, food, and supplies. Many of the government’s promises were repeatedly broken.”

As a result, the “displaced Dakota and Chippewa tribes watched newly arrived settlers claim the lands that had been theirs. They were denied their treaty payments of money and food, which resulted in starvation for many of their children and elderly. Often, when annuity payments did finally arrive, they were immediately plundered by some dishonest officials and traders.”

The war ended, Governor Dayton said, “but the attacks against innocent Indian children, women, and elderly continued. They were even encouraged by Alexander Ramsey, then the Governor of Minnesota, who on September 9, 1862, proclaimed: “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . . They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”

Governor Dayton said he was “appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them.” [2]

Therefore, Governor Dayton asked everyone on August 17, 2012, “to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.” Everyone, he urged, should “practice not only remembrance, but also reconciliation.”

Governor Dayton also offered his “deepest condolences” to “everyone who lost family members during that time” and ordered that state flags to be flown at half-staff on that day.

Other Commemorations

This Fall the Saint Paul Interfaith Network presented Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan  (Remembering and Honoring), a series of conversations about the War to witness and hear the personal stories and experiences of Dakota descendants; to engage in structured and facilitated dialogue about what was heard and what is experienced today; and to deepen understanding between American Indians and non-American Indians; creating a climate of respect and possibilities for new stories, acts of justice and healing.

One of the leaders of this series of conversations was Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Mohican people, one of 564 federally recognized tribes. A Christian with degrees in Pastoral Studies and Christian Theology, Jacobs believes that Christian faith and American Indian spirituality are complementary. The latter teaches us, he says, that it is inappropriate to hear a story and not give something back; the spirit gives us courage to hear voices long silenced; and it is our responsibility to recreate our spiritual vision in community.

On October 7th Jacobs and other Native Americans helped lead the World Communion Sunday worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which will be covered in subsequent posts.

This October the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul held a Symposium on “The Law and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.” Various speakers discussed (i) Military Tribunals, Executions & Pardons; (ii) Genocide, Human Rights, and the Need for Reconciliation; (iii) Reflections on my Ancestors: Artemas Ehnamani and the U.S.-Dakota War; (iv) Rethinking the Effect of the Abrogation of the Dakota Treaties and the Removal of the Dakota People from their Homeland; (v) A Program of Extermination: Governor Ramsey, the Minnesota Adjutant General, and Dakota Bounties; and (vi) Modern Communities: Court Systems of the Minnesota Dakota. The papers at this Symposium will be published in a future issue of the William Mitchell Law Review.

Minnesota History Center

A special exhibit about the War is being presented through September 8, 2013, at the Minnesota History Center, 345 West Kellogg Street St. Paul, Minnesota. The exhibit includes many, often conflicting, interpretations of events relating to the War. Visitors are encouraged to make up their own minds about what happened and why, to discuss what they are seeing and learning, and to leave comments. The History Center also has created a very useful website about the War.

James J. Hill House

There is an exhibit of works by 20 Native American artists created in response to the War–“Ded Unk’unpi—We Are Here.” The exhibit is open through January 13, 2013, at the James J. Hill House Gallery, 240 Summit Avenue in St. Paul.[3]

Fort Snelling

From November 7 through 13, a commemorative march from the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site on Highway 2 near Morton, Minnesota to Fort Snelling (near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport) will take place to honor the 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders who were forced to march 150 miles to a stockade at that Fort soon after the end of the U.S.-Dakota War. Along the way, they were assaulted by angry townspeople and soldiers, and an unknown number of Dakota were killed. Those who managed to complete the march were then held under brutal conditions at a concentration camp below Fort Snelling, where approximately 300 died during the winter of 1862-1863. In the spring of 1863, the survivors were exiled from the state. On the commemorative march this November the walkers at  approximately each mile will stop and place in the ground a prayer flag with the names of two of the families from the forced march. The names will be read aloud, and participants will offer prayers and tobacco.

Finally Dakota spiritual leader Jim Miller several years ago had a dream that ended up at a river bank where he saw his 38 ancestors hanged in Mankato on December 26, 1862. Afterwards Miller organized a ride on horseback tracing the journey of his dream, all in the interest of bringing healing among Native Americans and within the broader community. This ride is the subject of a documentary film, Dakota 38, that can be seen on YouTube.


[1] Prior posts gave a short summary of the U.S.-Dakota War and the contemporaneous account of the War by a white settler in nearby Iowa.

[2] Today Governor Ramsey’s statement would be a crime under international law. Under Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention of 1948, it is a crime to make “[d]irect and public incitement to commit genocide,” which is defined, in part, in Article II (a) of that treaty as “killing members of [an ethnical or racial] group” with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, [the group].”

[3] James J. Hill, 1838-1916, who was known as “The Empire Builder,” was the chief executive officer of a group of railroad lines headed by the Great Northern Railway that served the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. His mansion in St. Paul today is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.