Jan 27, 2013

Dakota 'Trail of Tears' march in Minnesota: setting the historical record straight

Marchers in Minnesota remember those exiled on 'trail of tears'

In November of last year in Minnesota native Americans and supporters took part in a trek known as the Dakota Commemorative March - the 10th year it has been reenacted. Minnesota's 'Trail of Tears' pays tribute to some 1,700 Dakota captives, mostly women and children, who were force marched 150-miles from the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton to Fort Snelling in 1862 - the year of the Dakota War, also known as the Sioux Uprising.

They were held captive in a prison camp familiar to soldiers as the "squaw camp." Conditions were abysmal. Overcrowding was so bad that when an epidemic broke out it claimed many lives. A number of estimates put the dead in the hundreds.

Wife of chief Little Crow was held at prison camp with her children
Wife and children of chief Little Crow 
at Fort Snelling camp

During the same period some exiles from Minnesota migrated north and entered Canada. There are nine Dakota bands in Canada - four in Saskatchewan and five in Manitoba.

The Idle No More movement has helped raise awareness about indigenous issues. Awareness also needs to be raised about the spin in historical accounts that plays down or even whitewashes injustices committed against First Peoples.

The view that both sides involved in the Dakota War were at fault attempts to apportion blame more or less equally across the board. A review of the historical record leading up to the war paints a different picture. The Dakota were victimized by a corrupt system and reduced to a state of near starvation prior to the uprising. In the US at the time, treaties were far from dependable - the terms could be broken at any time by Congress. Land acquisition by way of treaty was accompanied by a catalog of betrayal.

The Dakota War came about in part because of treaty violations by the US government, in particular the failure to deliver on promised cash and trade goods. Some of this was due to a Bureau of Indian Affairs that was rife with corruption. The Dakota were driven to the wall and did what any people would likely do in similar circumstances - they fought back - and paid a horrendous price.

Despite being under pressure Mdewakanton Dakota chief, Little Crow, went to war with a degree of reservation. His apprehensions were justified. In the year following the war Congress seized reserve lands and removed the treaties from the record. Plans were drawn up to expel the Dakota from Minnesota - this included offering $25 per scalp for any Dakota discovered within the state's boundaries.

The call for what amounted to genocide in Minnesota doesn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the poisonous sentiments that were being stated openly in public. Editor of the St Cloud Democrat, Jane Grey Swisshelm, a supporter of abolition and an early advocate of women's rights, didn't extend the same egalitarian sympathies to the Dakota. She wrote:

“Every Sioux found on our soil should get a permanent homestead, 6 feet by 2... Shoot the hyenas … exterminate the wild beasts, and make peace with the devil and all his host sooner than with these red-jawed tigers whose fangs are dripping with the blood of innocents.”

General John Pope who was appointed to quell the uprising, spoke of the need to  “... utterly exterminate the Sioux…. They are to be treated as maniacs and wild beasts.”

The price the Dakota paid for resistance was high. The great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, signed off on the largest mass execution in US history. Thirty eight Dakota men were hung on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota.

NYT Opinionator:

The Sioux who surrendered were promised safety. But once the hostilities were over, hundreds of Sioux – some of whom had had nothing to do with the uprising – were arrested and summarily tried by a five-man military commission. The trials were perfunctory affairs, some lasting less than five minutes. More than 40 cases were adjudicated in one day alone. Due process played no part; most of the defendants hadn’t a clue what was happening.

The damage that flowed from the 1862 war has been hard to heal in part because Minnesota hasn't fully acknowledged its past.

A press release for the 2009 Dakota Nation "We Are One" Free Conference  states in part:

"Native people in Minnesota continue to suffer from the devastating effects of 1862... Yet, very little is taught in our schools about what led to the war, or how it resulted in tremendous and ongoing inequities between Native and non-Native people in Minnesota..."

In a Star Tribune column, Nick Coleman talks about the difficulty some have in getting to grips with the historical truth of what Fort Snelling represented - "the true and troubling significance of the fort." It's time to set the historical record straight.

In the video descendants talk about the "Trail of Tears" and remember those who suffered: