A Remembrance of the Dakota of Minnesota

From an investigation by John Biewen, American journalist and documentarian, a native of Mankato, Minnesota, who knew nothing of the stories of his place until he became an adult.


Broadcast first on National Public Radio’s This American Life in November 2012.  The 150th anniversary of the US-Dakota War.





As is known, the United States has lifted a very large number of its people out of poverty in its 400-year history. Not just out of poverty but into affluence.  



For which reason – and for others also –  the popularity and widespread celebration in the country of the Thanksgiving which is today.



Among those who have paid a very high price for this history:  American Indians.



The myths

of a vast and empty continent waiting for those who had the energy and the drive to be all that they could be and



Young America, 1950, egg tempera on gessoed board. 

Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009, American. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia



of the noble savages of an indigenous people appear to have served to build the nation and divert the conscience.



The Hunter, 1906, oil on canvas; cover illustration for ‘Indian in His Solitude’ in the Outing Magazine, June 1907. 

N.C. Wyeth, 1882-1945, American.  Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania




The story below is a fragment of history.


Now that I know this, I don’t want to know this.


But there it is:  a story profoundly connected with Thanksgiving.




Thanksgiving 2003, oil on canvas. 

John Currin, American born 1962.  Tate Gallery, London from whose website this photo.

A representation of an insatiability and of a certain behavioural incoherence wrapped  in a triple portrait of the artist’s wife, Rachel Feinstein.


 The figure on the left is feeding an empty spoon to the open mouth of the central figure.  The figure on the right is staring in befuddlement at the cavity of the turkey, one blueberry in hand.

  The unhappy roses on the table have been flown in from somewhere because roses do not bloom in November in most of the territorial US. 

The luxe depicted is the old European luxe to which have aspired a goodly number of North Americans.






The Dakota (called the Sioux by white Americans) had lived in Minnesota for one thousand or more years before the arrival of white American settlers in the early-mid-1800s.   Minnesota is a Dakota word meaning waters so clear that the clouds are reflected in them.


Thomas Jefferson developed a plan to ‘acquire’ land from Indians.


The tactic he used was to have the Federal Government buy the debt owed by American Indians to the traders who sold them goods useful to them:  guns, food, kettles, blankets, horses.


American Indians would cede land to the Federal Government in exchange for this payment of their debt.




Custer’s Last Stand, #1, 1973, acrylic on canvas. 

Peter Saul, American born 1934.   Loaned by KAWS to the New Museum in 2020

This battle – the Battle of Little Bighorn – against the white American power was won by combined American Indian forces of Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota in south eastern Montana in June, 1876.



Reservations on a portion of American Indian land would be set aside under treaty between Government and Indians.




Detail of Custer’s Last Stand, #1, 1973, acrylic on canvas. 



Over the course of a few decades, the Dakota traded away 35 million acres for the equivalent of $3 million.


In the midst of the vast Minnesotan territory, the Dakota were left with a thin strip on either side of the Minnesota River stretching for 150 miles.



The Traverse de Sioux Treaty


The man who became the first governor of Minnesota, Henry Sibley, a fur trader, was instrumental in the negotiation of this treaty.  He was very familiar with the Dakota and they with him.  He spoke their language and had a Dakota child.


His fur trading business was in deep debt.


The treaty he negotiated between the Federal Government and the Dakota betrayed the Dakota.


By a ruse involving a second treaty, all but $60,000 of the negotiated $305,000 of Government money went to the traders. Henry Sibley took $66,000 and paid off his debts.



Nor did the Dakota receive what was left them in one sum as they had expected.  What they received was the money in an annuity.


Subsequently, the Government cut the Dakota reservation in half and took half.




Detail of Custer’s Last Stand, #1, 1973, acrylic on canvas.  



In 1850, the Dakota outnumbered white Americans in Minnesota by 5 to 1.



In 1858, Minnesota became a state.


In 1860, white Americans outnumbered the Dakota in Minnesota by 5 to 1.



The influx of white settlers also saw an attempt by many Dakota to give up hunting, settle down and farm.  There was, by this time, insufficient land on which to hunt.


In 1862, the annuity of gold, the essence of the Traverse de Sioux Treaty had not arrived by July.   The Federal agent refused to distribute the food, stored in government warehouses, until the gold arrived.  The harvest in the year prior had been bad.  Hunting was thin. 


Hunger was widespread among the Dakota.


Let them eat grass if they are hungry, said Andrew Marks, the Federal agent, or their own dung.


Tensions mounted.




Detail of Custer’s Last Stand, #1, 1973, acrylic on canvas.  




August 17, 1862 


5 white American settlers, 3 men and 2 women, were killed by 4 Dakota hunters in a surprise action in Acton, Minnesota.


The Dakota returned to their camp 40 miles away on the Minnesota River. 


They reported to the chief what they had done.  The war and peace factions among the Dakota bands argued and argued about what to do through the summer. Some did not want to fight.  Others did. 


The Dakota chiefs in council decided to wage an all-out war against the white American power.  



August – September, 1862: US-Dakota War


On August 18, 1862, several hundred Dakota under the leadership of a band chief called Little Crow attacked the Federal Agency building on their land.  They took food from the warehouse.


They killed about 20 white Americans.


They killed the Federal agent, Andrew Marks:  his body was found stuck with arrows, grass stuffed in his mouth.


The Dakota warriors fanned out down the Minnesota River valley. They went from homestead to homestead.  Some Dakota killed everyone.  Others killed only men, taking women. and children hostage.  Some did not kill white Americans they knew.


Between 400 and 1000 white Americans died in the 36 days the fighting continued.  About 50 Dakota died.


Little Crow and a number of the most militant Dakota fled west out of Minnesota.


Henry Sibley was sent with troops to put the rebellion down.


1700 of the Dakota, mostly women and children and old men, came to meet Henry Sibley under a flag of truce.  He promised them protection so long as they had not killed anyone.


He marched them 150 miles downriver.  They were attacked along the way.  Some died.


A week later, they reached a concentration camp at Fort Snelling near St. Paul and were kept there until the spring of 1863.  Hundreds died there of disease.


Thence to a reservation, Crow Creek, in South Dakota, up the Mississippi  and down the Missouri on boats.  Crow Creek: described as hell on earth.


Hundreds more died. Those who lived lost everything.




Detail of Custer’s Last Stand, #1, 1973, acrylic on canvas




In Montana, Henry Sibley set up a kangaroo court -five soldiers – to judge the 400 captured and surrendered Dakota warriors who gave themselves up on his promise of fair treatment. 


They were held at a site in Mankato, then called Camp Lincoln and now called Sibley Park.


The ‘court’ condemned 303 of the Dakota.  The plan was to hang all of them.  Abraham Lincoln in Washington, in the midst of civil war with the South, demurred.


His decision was that only those found to have raped should be hanged.  Only 2 were found to have been guilty of this.  Lincoln was told that hanging 2 would not be seen as justice.


He wrote out a list of 39 Dakota names, trimmed afterwards to 38.  I do not know the basis of his choice.



They were hanged.  The men, hooded, held each other’s hands and sang prayers.  4000 white Americans came to watch this hanging.

The largest number executed at one time in the US.


Little Crow was shot six months later.  His skull, scalp and wrist bones were exhibited at the Minnesota Historical Society for decades.


In 1863, Congress passed a law banishing all Dakota from Minnesota.


President Lincoln signed it.  The Dakota were dispersed to Canada, North and South Dakota and to Montana.





Remnant of the Tribe Leaving the Hunting Ground of their Fathers, c. 1845, oil on canvas. 

Alvan Fisher, 1792-1893, American.  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington






Today, 4 small reservations,exist in southern Minnesota, descendants of ‘friendly’ Dakota allowed back by the US Congress starting in the early 1870s.



Detail of Remnant of the Tribe Leaving the Hunting Ground of their Fathers


The US-Dakota War is now covered in the Minnesotan school syllabus:  one week, sixth grade.


Every year American Indians petition for redress on a variety of issues of their immense loss in one part of the United States or another.





Detail of Remnant of the Tribe Leaving the Hunting Ground of their Fathers

The governor of  Minnesota, Mark Dayton (2011-2019),   repudiated the cruelty and deception perpetrated against the Dakota by Henry Sibley


whose efforts to hide this history extended to the seal which he designed for the state of Minnesota.  An Indian rides into the sunset while a white American tills the soil with no evidence of conflict.











One thought on “A Remembrance of the Dakota of Minnesota

  1. A timely reminder that Thanksgiving might be preceded by repentance. Thanks for sharing all your painstaking research.

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