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«Contents Introduction Historiography Historical Information Causes of the Dakota Conflict of 1862 Traditional Customs of the Dakota Indians ...»

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Historical Information

Causes of the Dakota Conflict of 1862

Traditional Customs of the Dakota Indians

Perceptions of the Dakota Indians


In August and September 1862, Minnesota was the home of one of the bloodiest wars

between Dakota Indians and Anglo-Americans. Before the Dakota Conflict of 1862 ended, it

affected 23 counties and left hundreds homeless or dead. The war had a profound effect on the region. Not only did hundreds of settlers die during the conflict, but some survivors left the region never to return.

In many historical accounts of the Dakota Conflict written by settlers, the authors described the Dakota Indians with negative adjectives. Most of the settlers saw the Dakota Indians as inferior beings who were not worthy of respect. The settlers failed to take responsibility for causing the Dakota Conflict. When historians began to write about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, they too placed the blame strictly on the Indians without regard for the part the settlers played in causing the war. In this paper, is it not my intent to blame one group or the other for starting the uprising. Instead, I hope to provide a balanced understanding of the Dakota Conflict. There were extensive differences between Dakota and settler culture. Neither group made an effort to understand the other, and as a result, a cultural misunderstanding developed. In addition, the growing influence of the settlers caused the Dakota Indians to divide into traditional Indians and farmer Indians. The cultural differences between the settlers, the traditional Indians and the farmer Indians and the resulting misunderstanding of these cultural differences was a primary element in the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

Historiography Throughout the study of the Dakota Conflict, scholars attributed long term and immediate causes to the Dakota Conflict of 1862. The first book written on the subject was published in

1864. Written by Harriet E. Bishop McConkey,1 the book asserted the Dakota Indians were savage people and waited for the opportune moment to strike the settlers. The next work that

1. Harriet E. Bishop McConkey, Dakota War Whoop, ed. Dale L. Morgan (Illinois: The Lakeside Press, 1965).

examined the Dakota Conflict was published approximately 90 later. Louis H. Roddis wrote about the wars with the Dakota Indians from 1857 to 1898, and devoted a large portion of his book to the numerous battles of the Dakota Conflict of 1862. He argued the loss of land had a negative impact on the lives of the Dakota Indians. Two prominent Minnesota historians, William Watts Folwell2 and Theodore C. Blegen3 published histories of Minnesota 1924 and 1962, respectively; and they agreed that the United States Indian policies were poor and the government took advantage of the Dakota Indians. Kenneth Carley4 asserted the Dakota Indians were angry with the white men for taking their traditional hunting and gathering land. These historians argued that the gradual loss of land was the main long-term cause of the Dakota Conflict. Blegen and Carley argued that the crop failure in 1861 and the harsh winter in 1861caused starvation among a large portion of the Dakota Indians. The severe lack of food on the reservation was the primary immediate cause of the Dakota Conflict.

Until the late 1970s, the scholarship surrounding the Dakota Conflict of 1862 was one sided. Scholars mainly examined the Dakota Conflict from the perspectives of the AngloAmericans. While there was a willingness to acknowledge that the Anglo-American presence in the Minnesota River valley contributed to some of the problems faced by the Dakota Indians, scholars failed to place any blame on the white population. Many scholars, especially Harriet E.

Bishop McConkey, argued the Dakota Indians were naturally savage. The scholarship lacked an understanding of the Dakota Conflict from the perspective of the Dakota Indians.

2. William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, vol. 2 (Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1961).

3. Theodore C. Blegen, Minnesota: A History of the State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961).

4. Kenneth Carley, The Sioux Uprising of 1862 (Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976).

In recent years, historians began understanding the Dakota Conflict from the Dakota Indian viewpoint. In his book Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux,5 Gary Clayton Anderson explained the settlement of the Minnesota River valley affected the Dakota Indians in a negative way because it caused many divisions among the Indians. Anderson contended the Dakota Indians had to accommodate the demands of the white men while trying to defend their traditional religion and culture. Bruce M. White furthered an understanding of Dakota culture in his article, “Indian Visits: Stereotypes of Minnesota’s Native People” when he argued that many stories of Dakota Indians in the early 1860s are based on the settlers’ negative stereotypes of the Dakota rather than on actual events.6 Although more work needs to be done to reverse the negative image of the Dakota Indians during the Dakota Conflict of 1862, scholars are gaining a more balanced understanding of the war. I will be adding to the recent scholarship that examines the Dakota Conflict of 1862 from the perspective of the Dakota Indians. In an effort to provide a balanced understanding of the causes of the Dakota Conflict, this paper will attempt to offer an understanding of the war from the Native American viewpoint. The paper will examine the causes of the Dakota Conflict as articulated by Dakota Indians and settlers who participated and lived through the event. I will assert that there were numerous short-term and long-term causes of the Conflict and a balanced understanding of them is necessary for understanding the war. I will also explore the perceptions the settlers had of the Dakota Indians. The paper will argue that the misperceptions held by Anglo-Americans about the Dakota have negatively influenced the way the Indians are perceived in history by Americans.

5. Gary Clayton Anderson, Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux (Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986).

6. Bruce M. White, “Indian Visits: Stereotypes of Minnesota’s Native People,” Minnesota History 53, no. 3 (1992):


Historical Information Before one can fully understand the Dakota Conflict, it is essential that one be familiar with the background of the Dakota Indians. There are two important elements to the historical information. The first part is the terms used to describe the Dakota Indians. Since scholars used numerous terms to describe the same group of people, it is important to understand their meanings. The second element of the historical information is the treaties. The treaties the Dakota Indians signed with the United States government profoundly affected the lives of the Indians, and they played a vital role in causing the war. Although the Dakota Indians signed the treaties before 1862, they are an important part of the story.

A confusion of terms often accompanies the Dakota Conflict. Historically, scholars have used the terms “Dakota,” “Sioux,” and “Santee” interchangeably. Using these three terms without a distinction between their meanings, however, is incorrect. The name “Sioux” is a shortened version of the word Naduwessioux. French traders used the plural form of the Chippewa word Naduwessi, which means “snakes” or “enemies,” to describe the Dakotas during the expeditions from 1654 to 1659.7 The word “Sioux” describes many tribes that speak a common language.8 The term “Dakota” describes Indians who speak the dialect of the Siouan linguistic family, and is taken from the Santee and Teton words meaning “friend” or “an alliance of friends.”9 The word “Dakota” is used describe the eastern branch of the “Sioux” Indians.10 The term “Santee” also describes the eastern division of the “Dakota” Indians.

7. Michael Clodfelter, The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865 (Jefferson:

McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998), 18.

8. Doane Robinson, A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians (Minneapolis: Ross & Haines, Inc., 1904), 15.

9. Clodfelter, The Dakota War, 17.

10. Robinson, A History of the Dakota or Sioux Indians, 15.

The four bands that made up the Dakota or Santee Indians are the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton and Sisseton.11 The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands are sometimes called the Lower Sioux because of their location on the reservation. The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands lived south of the junction where the Yellow Medicine River drains into the Minnesota River. The Wahpeton and Sisseton bands, on the other hand, are often called the Upper Sioux because they lived above the Yellow Medicine River.12 For the sake of clarification in this paper, I will use the term “Dakota” to describe the Indians involved in the Dakota Conflict of 1862. When necessary, I will differentiate between the four bands.

When one studies the Dakota Conflict of 1862, it is important to be familiar with the treaties the Dakota Indians signed with the United States government. The Treaty of 1851 and the Treaty of 1858 are of utmost importance when studying the Dakota Conflict of 1862. By the

11. Clodfelter, The Dakota War, 18.

12. See Clodfelter, The Dakota War, 38 and Jerry Keenan, The Great Sioux Uprising: Rebellion on the Plains August-September 1862 (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2003), 19.

13. Carley, The Sioux Uprising of 1862, 4.

early 1850s, the territory14 of Minnesota felt the pressures of a population boom and needed to open up land for settlement.15 In 1851, the United States government signed two treaties with the Dakota Indians in Minnesota. On 23 July 1851, the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands singed a treaty with the United States government. This treaty, commonly called the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, stated “The said See-see-toan [sic] and Wah-pay-toan [sic] bands of the Dakota or Sioux Indians, agree to cede, and do hereby cede, sell, and relinquish to the United States, all their lands in the State of Iowa; and, also all their lands in the Territory of Minnesota, lying east of the following line...”16 Two months later on 5 August 1851, the Mdewakanton band and the Wahpekute band signed a treaty at Mendota with the United States government. Article 2 of the treaty forced the Dakota Indians to give up all land claims in Minnesota territory and Iowa.17 In Article 3 of both treaties, the United States government agreed to “hereby set apart for the future occupancy and home of the Dakota Indians, parties to this treaty, to be held by them as Indian lands are held, a tract of country of the average width of ten miles on either side of the Minnesota River, and bounded on the west by the Tchaytam-bay and Yellow Medicine Rivers.”18 Many Dakota Indians had to pack their few belongings and move with their tribe to the newly created reservation.

The land allotted to the Dakota Indians in 1851, however, was cut in half in 1858 when the chiefs of the tribes of the Mdewakanton and the Wahpekute bands signed another treaty. The treaty, signed on 19 June 1858, forced the Dakota Indians to cede all lands on the north bank of

14. President Buchanan did not sign the bill creating the state of Minnesota until 11 May 1858. See Blegen, Minnesota, 229.

15. Blegen, Minnesota, 165.

16. Thomas Hughes, The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (Saint Peter: Herald Publishing Company, 1929), 175.

17. Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, Treaty with the Sioux Mdewakanton and Wahpakoota Bands, 1851, 2005, http://www.mendotadakota.org/treaties/T1851.htm.

18. Ibid.

the Minnesota River.19 Although the treaty gave the Dakota bands “full force and effect over and within the limits of the same [the reservation lands],” the treaty also stipulated that “The United States shall have the right to establish... military posts, agencies, schools, mills, shops, roads, and agricultural or mechanical improvements, as may be deemed necessary.”20 The reservation land was supposed to belong to the Dakota Indians, but the government took advantage of the Indians when it included Article 5 in the treaty. In return for relinquishing a claim to the land, the United States paid the Dakota Indians thirty cents per acre21 for land that was worth at least five dollars per acre. It was, however, two years before the United States Senate appropriated the funds for the sale. When the funds arrived, the Dakota Indians saw very little, if any, of the money owed to them. Before the Indian Agent paid the Dakota Indians, the traders collected the debt owed to them by the Indians.22 The Indians received the remaining money. The land and most of the money would never again “belong” to the Dakota Indians.

In the treaties of 1851 and 1858, the Dakota Indians lost a majority of their native lands to the United States government. The loss of land had a profound effect on the lives of the Indians, which will be discussed later in the paper. Losing their native land was only the beginning of a downward cycle for Dakota Indians.

Causes of the Dakota Conflict of 1862 Scholars cannot point to one thing and say it was the cause of the Dakota Conflict. Some of the causes of the war were immediate while other causes were long-term. Some of the causes were articulated while other causes were implicit. The settlers and the Dakota Indians expressed

19. Folwell, A History of Minnesota, 218.

20. Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties: Treaty with the Sioux, 1858, 1904, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Kappler/vol2/treaties/sio0781.htm.

21. Congress appropriated the money on 2 March 1861. The Lower Sioux were to receive $96,000 for 320,000 acres of land while the Upper Sioux were to receive $170,880 for 569,600 acres. See Folwell, A History of Minnesota, 218 and Blegen, Minnesota, 264.

22. Folwell, A History of Minnesota, 218.

many of the same causes, but they offered a different explanation for them. The explanation that accompanied the causes depended on the cultural lens of the author. Whether the causes were from settlers or Indians, immediate or gradual, articulated or implicit ― a combination of them started the Dakota Conflict.

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