Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

In the third week of Little House/Wounded Knee, the entire continent is in uproar as two totally separate wars go on in two totally different parts of the land. Sound interesting? Then let’s get started!

The Civil War — Emancipation & Gettysburg

This week I read a lot of history.

In fall of 1862, the Civil War had already been going on for over a year. In September, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that “on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”. Most folks (including myself) think of the Emancipation Proclamation and immediately think, “Oh, that’s when President Lincoln freed all the slaves!” But in rereading the actual text I was struck by a few things I didn’t remember from history class.

  • The Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery or free all slaves. You’ll note in the above-quoted snippet that only people held as slaves in states “in rebellion against the United States” are declared free. In fact, later in the Proclamation Lincoln specifically states that in parts of the U.S. that are not rebelling, that these “excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”
  • It ends with an “Uncle Abe wants YOU for the U.S. Army!” I remember learning that part of President Lincoln’s motivation to issue this Proclamation was to try to gain support, military and otherwise, from freed slaves, but as a content writer I was a little surprised with the straightforwardness of the call to action at the end.
  • Slaves magically change from property to “persons”! Maybe there are lots of historical examples of whites referring to slaves as “persons”, but for some reason that language of personhood just struck me here. Perhaps I just feel the elephant in the room of there being no mention of slavery having been morally wrong. It’s “fixed” sort of, but there’s no hint of repentance, reconciliation, or closure.

Those things said, definitely still a historically important document, paving the way for the full abolition of slavery vis-a-vis the 13th Amendment and turning the tide of the Civil War.

The following July, the Union soldiers won the Battle of Gettysburg, but there was great loss of life on both sides. Later that autumn, in November of 1863, President Lincoln gave one of the most famous (and shortest) American speeches ever at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is simply an impressive work of oratory — especially when you consider that it’s less than 300 words! — but I couldn’t help hearing those words with different ears this time. For example, I couldn’t read “our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation” without thinking about the nations those fathers steamrollered and deceived in order to establish their new nation. Everything sounds different when you try to read “facing east”.

My main sense, though, was how surreal it felt to read all this about the Civil War and have no sense at all that thousands of Indians were also fighting a war to preserve their nations. It’s almost like there were two totally separate parallel wars going on at this time — the Civil War between the Union/North and the Confederacy/South and the War for Survival between the Indians/West and the settlers/East. 

As the war between the Bluecoats and the Graycoats increasingly consumed national attention, federal distraction set the stage for the spark that would ignite the tinderbox of decades of frustration between the Eastern Dakota and Euro-settlers.

“Little Crow’s War”

In Chapter 3 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, we make the acquaintance of Little Crow (Ta-oya-te-duta) and the Santee Dakota. Just to clarify for all us non-native folks, there are multiple tribes that fall under the umbrella of “Sioux”, the main three being the Dakota (east), the Nakota (central) and the Lakota (west). All of these three larger tribes also have sub-groups (e.g. the Mdewakanton Dakota). The Santee Dakota are the easterly, forest-dwelling members of the Sioux relations. (Or they were before they were relocated. But I get ahead of myself.)

This particular chapter and story really hits home with me, because these are the people whose land I’m sitting on right now, as I write this. The state of Minnesota was created from land “acquired” by deceptive Euro-American traders whose false treaties tricked the Santee into signing away 90% of their ancestral land to whites. I’ll sum up the whirlwind of events that followed, because I want to have time to unpack it all.

  • In the 10 years before the Civil War, Little Crow (a Mdewakanton Dakota chief) was tricked into signing treaties that allowed whites to take land and confine the Santee to smaller and smaller reservations, living on a paltry monetary allowance from the U.S. government.
  • In 1862, because of funds being occupied fighting the Civil War, the Santees’ payment from the government was delayed, leaving them starving and angry. A couple rash young men got in an argument about who was too coward to kill a white man and ended up shooting five white settlers.
  • When they told their chief and Little Crow, it was decided that the tribes should band together to pre-empt the settlers’ revenge attack. Little Crow gave a masterful speech about the feeling of inevitability surrounding this conflict: “…Braves, you are little children — you are fools. You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon of January. Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you.”
  • While initially successful at taking several hundred white and mixed-race prisoners, the group of Dakota warriors was unable to fully defeat either the settlers at New Ulm or the soldiers at Fort Ridgely.
  • When Little Crow refused to surrender his warriors or the prisoners, another of the chiefs in the group sent a secret message to the white commander saying that he and his followers would surrender themselves and the prisoners.
  • At this point, the Santee Dakota split: Little Crow and his followers fled west to join up with the prairie Dakota, while the rest surrendered themselves and their prisoners into the hands of Commander Henry Sibley, who assured them that they would be treated as friends. He immediately sent all of them to a camp where they were prisoners.
  • 330 Santee men were “tried” in a kangaroo court. 303 were sentenced to hang. With a goal “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other,” President Lincoln insisted the cases be examined by lawyers and approved 39, then 38 of the executions. On the day after Christmas, 1862, these 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato, MN. It is the largest mass execution in American history to this day.
  • The remaining Dakota were then transported to a tiny, barren reservation at Crow Creek where over 300 of the 1,300 brought there didn’t survive the winter.

Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past

spirit car - diane wilsonI made a slight addition to my reading plans and read chapters 1-4 of Spirit Car, in which Diane Wilson imagines a fictional (but historically based) scene of the events of the Dakota War based on the life of her great-great-grandmother, who was married to a French-Canadian man and was able to hide with him and their children inside Fort Ridgely. (A big thanks to Pastor Jim Bear Jacobs for this great addition to my list!) I won’t retell the whole sequence of events. What really got me about this book is how caught between two worlds Rosalie (the great-great-grandmother) and the other mixed-race folks were. She laments that her eldest son, who enlisted in the army to fight “the Graycoats” but is called back to quell the fighting between the Santee and whites, will have to choose which family members to shoot at, his French-Canadian and mixed-race relatives or his Dakota ones. These multicultural families really got caught in the middle of things. It’s an interesting perspective to add.

The most powerful point in this reading for me, though, was this passage that occurs right after the remaining Santee were marched to the camp at Fort Snelling:

They [the Dakotas] were told to surrender their medicine bundles and sacred objects, all of which were burned in a large fire. Missionaries… immediately began the work of converting the vulnerable prisoners to Christianity. (p.42)

When I read this, my stomach sank. I feel so gross seeing my faith used as an excuse to strip an already beaten-down people of their last remaining ties to their culture. The simple brute force of single-minded destruction in this story is mind-boggling. Not only did the settlers cheat the Santee out of their land, not only did they imprison and hang their men, not only did they treat them as less than human for decades, but then on top of that they took what few sacred objects the Santees had left to cling to and threw them into the fire. And then, with no time for grief or processing, picked up with the imperialist push of white Christianity.

So much for the “friendly reception” promised to those who surrendered peacefully.

Spirit Car also notes that missionaries were able to baptize most of the 38 who were hanged. As a Christian, I’m used to baptism being cause for celebration, so my younger self would have been totally thrilled at this fact. But now that I’ve read the whole story, and seen so much questionable power usage and advantage-taking going on here, I feel totally conflicted. I want to feel happy that baptism happened… but I don’t. Do you?

The single-mindedness with which the Minnesota government pursued the destruction of the Dakota is horrifically thorough.  Then-Governor Ramsay of Minnesota publicly stated that all the Santee Dakota needed to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of our state”. Then he declared a $200 bounty for Dakota scalps. A few years later, Little Crow was shot dead while picking berries with his son. His skull and scalp were collected and displayed in a museum. Even the Dakota who fled were reachable targets for vengeful settlers.

Dakota land mapThe Santee Dakota: Where Are They Now?

Today the Santee Dakota reservation is located in Knox County, Nebraska, where it was moved in 1863. The passage of the Homestead Act, which provided land to non-Indian settlers for $1.25 per acre, caused the reservation land to be cut by half. You can see on the map at right the difference between the original ancestral land of all the Sioux (in green) and the land they occupy today in the form of reservations (in orange).  The total tribal enrollment of the Santee Dakota today is around 2,600, about 900 of whom live on the Nebraska reservation. You can learn more about the Santee Dakota here.

To learn more about the executions in Mankato, watch the excellent documentary Dakota 38. You can watch/download it for free here.


So basically… during the Civil War there were TWO separate and parallel wars. With the story of the Dakota, you can really see encapsulated the single-minded, no-mercy destruction with which many settlers pursued the Indians. Also, we get another perspective from the mixed-race white/Indians, who were caught between worlds as their two sides faced off.

Tune in next week for Wounded Knee Ch. 4 & 5 and I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly.

4 thoughts on “Little House / Wounded Knee: Week 3, Cardinal Directions

  1. Beware: Long post ahead! You got me talking theology, and I don’t do that enough nowadays…

    I read about some of this doing research for a MN Native Americans research paper last semester, but I now see how much there is that I missed. I didn’t know that the 38 Dakota who were hanged had actually surrendered. Wow. And as heartbreaking as all of this is, the story of the mixed-race families really drives home what a terrible, broken situation this was.

    I agree with you that those baptisms don’t make me happy. First of all, like you said, it’s so cruel to not only take away a people’s land and possessions but also to attempt to destroy their religion. Cultural identity is so crucial to a person’s sense of self and belonging, and religious beliefs are a huge part of culture. This is what Christian imperialists/missionaries didn’t realize when they went around trying to convert the native peoples of every land they colonized. The Christian faith has always been assimilated into the various cultures of which it has been a part, and it has absorbed artifacts from all of those cultures and traditions. If missionaries spread the core of their faith without all those cultural trappings, that’s a different story, and one I support. Christianity is not a monolithic, homogenous belief system; it can have many different versions within the many different cultures in which it exists. They thought they were “saving” these people from eternal damnation–never mind the earthly hell that the colonizers put these people through. I hate when people think that religion is all about life after death and not about life during life. Both are important, and totally destroying people’s cultural identity, health, and happiness is not excusable, even if the process of doing so saves those people’s eternal souls. (Which I don’t personally believe it does, but that’s a whole different conversation.)
    Secondly, the sacrament of baptism has been misunderstood and abused a lot over the centuries since Christianity began. While I do support infant baptism, I don’t see it as a sort of “get out of hell free” card the way it has been seen by many people in history. Baptism is about God’s promise to claim us as God’s own beloved children no matter what comes. However, I believe that God sees all people as God’s children, whether or not they’re baptized. The baptism itself is a symbol for us to recognize God’s work in our lives while also serving as an initiation into the Christian community/family. It has to do with being identified as part of this family, whether it’s the choice made by the person being baptized or the choice/wishes of the parents when it’s an infant or young child. It sounds to me like baptism was being used in the case of these Dakota warriors as a way to assuage the consciences of the executioners. They would feel guilty killing these men knowing that they’d go to hell for eternity. But if they could get them baptized first, then they could even think of themselves as doing these men a favor. But, surprise surprise, baptism is NOT an excuse to kill someone! Especially when the persons being baptized in this case are extremely vulnerable and have absolutely no power in what is happening. It’s the same idea as a teacher/pastor/authority figure using their authority to manipulate people into unhealthy/abusive relationships. The guards in this situation have all the power, and because the prisoners are totally powerless, they really have no ability to give true consent even if they wanted to. While it’s definitely possible that some of these warriors truly felt Jesus’ presence and wanted baptism, the situation was so stacked against them and full of other complications that I have a hard time thinking of it as a true conversion. I’m guessing that at least some of them just agreed to baptism to get the people to stop badgering them, which mean that they died having effectively renounced the religion and culture of their people. So sad.


    1. CarissaLick  Finally responding!
      What I keep coming back to with those baptisms is just the verse about “all who BELIEVE AND are baptized will be saved.” Did those missionaries, like, skip the first part? We can have a whole separate thing about infant baptism, blah blah blah — but these were adults. I have a hard time believing that there was sufficient time and good communication to ascertain that the men actually wanted to be baptized as an outward sign of their inward beliefs. I just continue to feel kinda icky about the whole thing.
      Also, your point about Christianity absorbing MANY cultural practices wherever it goes is a good one. At our church we’ve been talking about how Western Christians should “remove the plank from our own eye” before we call, for example, Latin-American Christians syncretistic, because Western Christianity has taken on a strong dose of Platonism — which is totally not in the Bible. But when we do it, it’s “theology” and when they do it it’s “syncretism”. Hmm…


      1. RebekahSchulzJackson CarissaLickYES. It was a real watershed moment for me in one of my theology classes at seminary when I finally realized how much Greek and other European syncretism is totally embedded in Western Christianity. Because it’s what we’re used to and what’s been practiced for a long time, we mistakenly think it’s “pure” Christianity. We think that white people write “theology,” while black people write “black theology,” Latinos write “Latino theology,” and Asians write “Asian theology,” etc. But that’s just not true. There’s just as much cultural baggage in our version of Christianity as there is in any other. And that’s great, because our God is a God who comes to us IN our contexts. The Incarnation is the ultimate example of that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s