This year marks the 150th anniversary of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. On Dec. 26, 1862, on the direct orders of President Abraham Lincoln, 38 eastern Dakota (Sioux) men were sent to the gallows in Mankato, Minn., the penultimate act in the six-week-long Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising. The final act was the expulsion of the Dakota from Minnesota and the termination of their reservations in the state.
Vernell and Ernest Wabasha with young relative
Now, direct descendants of those hanged that day want to establish a memorial to them in Reconciliation Park in Mankato. But the majority of the city council, after informally approving the memorial, retreated recently by tabling formal consideration. Calling up old language, one councilman spoke of the "hostility" in the words of a 1971 poem that supporters of the memorial want included on it. That poem, which the councilman called divisive and untrue had nothing to do with reconciliation, he said.
Like hundreds of conflicts in the Indian wars before and after, the 1862 Dakota resistance arose out of broken promises. Before the ink was dry on the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, Congress had stricken the crucial Article 3. This guaranteed a strip of land 70 miles long and 10 miles wide on each side of the Minnesota River for a reservation. Instead, Congress bought the land for 10 cents an acre and annuities.
Soon the Dakota were confined to the strip on the south side of the river. Payments of annuities were often late when they weren't diverted by greedy, unscrupulous Indian agents who had bribed their way into office. They stole from the Dakota by various means. By the late 1850s, deprived or their best hunting grounds, plagued by rough winters and failed crops, the starving Dakota became ever more dependent on government food distributions. These too were often late and, thanks to government contractors and agents, consisted of substandard goods when they arrived at all. The Dakota became increasingly incensed over land encroachments and the failure to enforce the treaty rights they had been forced to exchange for money and goods.
Jerome Big Eagle
The push into a smaller space was meant to force the Dakota to adopt a new way of life. Chief Big Eagle said many years later, “It seemed too sudden to make a change [...] If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted and it was the same with many Indians.”
Though accounts of his specific words vary, storekeeper Andrew J. Myrick inflamed passions in August 1862, by remarking at a meeting where Dakota representatives sought to buy food on credit, "If they are hungry, let them eat grass." Several days after the meeting, four hungry and enraged Rice Creek Dakotas took it out on five settlers near Acton, Minn. Those killings spurred Dakota chief Little Crow to call a council that chose to go to war. Soon after the fighting broke out, Myrick was found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth.
The conflict ultimately killed some 500 whites and an uncounted number of Dakotas, including the 38 who were hanged in December that year. At one point, thinking the uprising might be part of a Rebel conspiracy, President Lincoln pondered the option of freeing 10,000 Confederate POWs to fight the Dakota under Union commanders. Before that could happen, however, the war was over.
In late September, a five-member military commission was convened. On the first day, 10 Dakota were sentenced to death. So it went for six weeks, 393 cases, 323 convictions, 303 death sentences. Thanks to pleas from an episcopal bishop, Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 39, and one additional man was later granted a reprieve. The day after Christmas, chanting their death songs, they marched single file onto the gallows in Mankato and were hanged. Seven months later, Little Crow — who had escaped to Canada before the trial but returned to Minnesota — was killed by a white settler who shot him for a $500 bounty. Little Crow's scalp and skull were displayed in St. Paul and finally returned to his grandson in 1971.
Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich declared 1987, the 125th anniversary of the executions, a "Year of Reconciliation." Out of that came Reconciliation Park in Mankato, where today there is a plaque and two sculptures, one of a Dakota "Winter Warrior" and one of a bison, both victims of the Manifest Destiny that generated the 1862 uprising in the first place.
The proposed memorial
But those sculptures aren't enough for Vernal Wabasha (Dakota). She and others want a memorial in the park for those executed. “They have markers all along the road about our savage Indians attacking white people,” said Wabasha, who has been married to Ernest Wabasha, a hereditary Dakota chief, for 56 years. He is the sixth chief of that name. The third one was chief at the time of the executions. Said Vernell Wabasha: “These men fought for the Dakota way of life, trying to hang onto something, to hang onto this land for the future generations of their children and grandchildren. [...] They weren't savages like they've been depicted for so long,”
Designed by Linda Bernard and Martin Barnard (Dakota), the proposed memorial lists the 38 names on a 10-by-4-foot scroll. The phrase “forgive everyone everything” circles the monument, planned to be 20 feet in diameter. The names on one of the fiberglass scrolls will face south because the Dakota traditionally believe the spirits of the dead rise on the fourth day and travel south.
On the other scroll was to be a poem about executions written in 1971 by the state's former human rights commissioner, Conrad Balfour. But that 20-line verse is what prompted the city council to back off endorsing the memorial two weeks ago. Among the criticized lines:
The day before the countryside had mourned the
A few days after the council's action, a bland new poem was written by Katherine Hughes that is more to the liking of at least some councilmembers:
death of Christ the Jew
Then went to bed to rise again to crucify the
captured Sioux [...]
Then Captain Dooley cut the rope
38 was cleared of breath
Christmas day the children laughed and churches prayed the blessing set
In that town was 38 was blessed
Peace on earth good will to men
Remember the innocent dead,
While several councilmembers have said the new poem is acceptable, Vernell Wabasha is withholding judgment. Nothing is "chiseled in stone," she said.
Both Dakota and white,
Victims of events they could not control.
Remember the guilty dead,
Both white and Dakota,
Whom reason abandoned.
Regret the times and attitudes
That brought dishonor
To both cultures.
Respect the deeds and kindnesses
that brought honor
To both cultures
Hope for a future
When memories remain,
Balanced by forgiveness.
[Hughes's poem was the one finally accepted for the $110,000 memorial. A prayer by the late Dakota elder Eli Taylor is also included.]
The names of the 38 who were executed:
Ti-hdo-ni-ca (One Who Jealously Guards His Home)
Ptan Du-ta (Scarlet Otter)
Oyate Ta-wa (His People)
Hin-han-sun-ko-yag-ma-ni (One Who Walks Clothed In Owl Feathers)
Ma-za Bo-mdu (Iron Blower)
Wa-hpe Duta (Scarlet Leaf)
Wa-hi-na (I Came)
Sna Ma-ni (Tinkling Walker)
Hda In-yan-ka (Rattling Runner)
Do-wan-s-a (Sings A Lot)
He-pan (Second Born Male Child)
Sun-ka ska (White Dog)
Tun-kan I-ca-hda ma-ni (One Who Walks By His Grandfather)
I-te Du-ta (Scarlet Face)
Ka-mde-ca (Broken Into Pieces)
He pi-da (Third Born Male)
Ma-kpi-ya (Cut Nose)
Wa-kin-yan-na (Little Thunder)
Cas-ke-da (First Born)
Ta-te Ka-ga (Wind Maker)
He In-Kpa (The Tip Of The Horn)
Wa-kan Tanka (Great Spirit)
Tun-kan Ko-yag I-na-zin (One Who Stands Cloaked In Stone)
Ma-ka-ta I-na-zin (One Who Stands On The Earth)
Maza Kute-mani (One Who Shoots As He Walks)
Ta-te Hdi-da (Wind Comes Home)
Wa-si-cun (White Man)
A-i-ca-ga (To Grow Upon)
Ho-i-tan-in-ku (Returning Clear Voice)
Ce-tan Hu-nka (Elder Hawk)
Can ka-hda (Near The Woods)
Hda-hin-hde (Sudden Rattle)
Oyate A-ku (He Brings The People)
Ma-hu-we-hi (He Comes For Me)