In Native America I spend quite a bit of time writing about the Dakotas in Minnesota, and on a handful of occasions, Fort Snelling enters the narrative. It is an important place in Dakota history. In part that is why the Minnesota Historical Society, one of the finest in the country, chose to rename the historic site as “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote,” a nod to the location’s indigenous place name. It was a shift, an important change, in that the State Historical Society used its power to name to acknowledge the sites indigenous name. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, in turns out.
Conservatives in the state complained about the name change. They cried foul. “History was being erased,” they said. Hutchinson Republican state senator Scott Newman said “the controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history.” Newman said that he “did not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing,” because he believed “it to be revisionist history.” When asked what was wrong with specifically adding the Dakota name for the site to Fort Snelling’s signage, State Senator Mary Kiffmeyer, the chair of the committee that oversees the state budgets, said, according to TwinCities.com, “Yes, we can add some of those additional pieces of information, but Fort Snelling is about military history, and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that. It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans. It is our premiere entity for military history.” That is logic and grammar that is Trump-Like. In retaliation, Kiffmeyer and her party voted to slash the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget by nearly 20%, an action that would result in significant layoffs.
The power to name–whether we are speaking about battles or historic sites–belongs all too often to the victors. And Minnesota’s GOP state senators punished the MHS for, in essence, asking visitors to Fort Snelling to consider the region’s history anew. History often can be wielded to craft myths, to tell comforting tales, but also to justify the historic erasure of indigenous peoples as something without cause or moral responsibility. My grandmother who grew up not far from Fort Snelling, told me that she always had heard that German and Swedish settlers got along well with the Indians. It was a myth, something untrue, a comforting tale. If bad things happened, it wasn’t us. And by asking Minnesotans to consider that the state had a history before those settlers arrived, that lands within what became the state mattered to its native peoples, the Minnesota Historical Society has provoked a response that it is impossible to consider as anything other than racist.
Minnesota, historically, has done much to erase its native peoples, including the Dakotas, who welcomed the first emissaries who arrived from the United States. The Mdewakantons, for instance, one of a number of Dakota bands, provided the American explorer Zebulon Pike with one hundred thousand acres in exchange for a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of gifts, a deal which may well have appeared advantageous to them. Pike, after all, promised to establish a fort in their territory and to defend them from the attacks of their native enemies. “These posts,” he said, “are intended as a benefit to you.” He offered them military protection and a “to establish factories at those posts, in which the Indians may procure all their things at a cheaper and better rate than they do now, or that your traders can afford to sell them to you, as they are single men who come far in small boats.” The Americans could supply a greater quantity of trade goods for a lower price than could the British.
The Dakotas never played the role of pawn in the Anglo-British contest for control of the Great Lakes. They welcomed the Americans as trading partners and kin, and expected their new allies to live up to the promises made by Pike in 1805. When the Americans failed to provide the Santees with the goods they needed, some warriors joined with the British against the United States. They pursued a distinctly Sioux diplomacy, using the opportunities presented by the Anglo-American struggle in the early nineteenth century to pursue the interests of their communities. Though they freely shifted their allegiance from one power to another, however, the experience of these unsettling years made it abundantly clear that the Santees could survive only with great difficulty. They needed the weaponry that only Europeans could provide. They knew that regardless of the outcome of the war, they would have to live with the winners. As it became obvious to the Santees that the British would not prevail, they began to withdraw their support and make additional overtures towards the Americans.
The Dakotas welcomed Benjamin O’Fallon at the head of fifty American infantrymen because he promised American trade, his assistance in preventing intertribal warfare, and protection from the threat of starvation. Thus the establishment of Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1819, seen by the United States as a critical strategic move directed towards ousting the remaining British traders from American territory, preserving peace on the frontier by policing white settlers, and fostering the fur trade, the Dakotas viewed as a promise of assistance from the Americans. The United States would provide the Sioux with trade goods, and with the presents necessary to maintain and preserve kin connections. The Dakotas acquired supplies, food and trade goods from the fort, had their guns and tools repaired by the fort’s blacksmith, and received from the garrison at least some protection from the growing numbers of traders who entered their homeland. The establishment of Fort Snelling served both American and Santee interests.
Still, they found themselves living in an ever-tightening circle. Gary Clayton Anderson in his work has described this process in great and moving detail. The establishment of the American posts meant that traders occupied Dakota territory year round, and they sought to transform the fur trade into an economic rather than a kinship relationship. They placed pressure on hunters to bring them their best pelts, rewarding the hunters’ efforts through gifts and presents. Traders began to influence village politics, as hunters looked to the traders who controlled the supply of goods more directly than they did to village chiefs. Though much of their culture remained unchanged, and they still lived most of the year on buffalo, there was no masking the growing influence of outsiders on the conduct of Santee public life.
By the 1820s, the surviving evidence suggests that the Dakotas found it increasingly difficult to find adequate supplies of game. To feed their families, Dakota hunters entered into those borderlands that lay between their homeland and those of their enemies. Increased intertribal warfare resulted, as market forces pushed the Dakotas, in the words of Wanmdisapa, “into the jaws of our enemies.” Traders’ account books show that the hunters returned each year with less deer, muskrat and beaver. Unable to pay for the supplies they purchased on credit, Dakota hunters found themselves indebted to the traders.
Federal officials recognized that they needed peace in the west, and they undertook efforts to persuade the Dakotas to live on less land and to begin farming more intensively on a European-American model. But none of this could be accomplished while the Dakotas remained at war. In 1825 three hundred Dakotas attended the intertribal council sponsored by the United States at Prairie du Chien, yet another gathering that from the Dakotas’ perspective promised to benefit them and the Americans. In order to promote peace between the Sioux and their neighbors—the Ojibwe, Sacs and Foxes, Menominees, Iowas, Winnebagos, Ottawas and Potawatomis—and “to establish boundaries among them and the other tribes . . . and thereby to remove all causes of future difficulty,” the assembled tribal delegates agreed to “a firm and perpetual peace.”
The peace was neither firm nor lasting, and the Dakotas faced repeated calls to cede their lands. As the number of settlers encroaching upon their homeland steadily increased, the amount of game correspondingly declined. The Dakotas’ federal agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, called upon them to sell their remaining village on the east side of the Mississippi, and told them that the annuities the tribe received for the sale would ensure their survival.
The Dakotas trusted Taliaferro. He had used his own resources to purchase food and clothing for them in the past, and they believed his promises to care for them. He had acted as an ally, as kin. They understood that a much larger annuity could provide them with the means to acquire the material goods and support that they needed. Dakota leaders thus willingly accompanied Taliaferro to Washington to negotiate a treaty. There they ceded all of their lands east of the Mississippi, receiving in return an annuity in goods worth $25,000 for twenty years, and an annuity in cash based on the interest accruing from a permanent trust fund of $300,000. The government allocated an additional sum of money to erase the debts Santees owed to individual American traders.
The annuities helped in the short term. The payments reinforced the bonds of kinship between them and the government, and the agents who distributed thousands of dollars worth of supplies the Santees viewed as friends and allies. The population of the villages increased slightly, a fact that can be explained in part by the increased quantity of food available. The kin-based relationship the Santees sought with their ally seemed to be working. But the relief provided by the annuities only masked for a time the Santees’ dependence. As the supply of game continued to decline, the price for trade goods increased. The Dakotas found it increasingly difficult to remain free from indebtedness. Each year, more of their annuity funds went directly to the traders. By the end of the 1840s, most Santees were destitute. The number of white settlers in Minnesota, which became a territory in 1849, continued to increase. Hard-pressed and impoverished, the Dakotas, under the leadership of Little Crow, signed treaties in 1851 at Mendota and Traverse des Sioux in which they gave up their claims to all their lands in Minnesota save for reservations along both sides of the Minnesota River north of New Ulm, and extending upriver for 140 miles.
The Dakotas’ experiences on their Minnesota reservations also showed early on that significant problems existed with the concentration policy. The Santees signed a treaty in 1851 after accepting federal assurances that the cession would benefit them. They trusted their white father. The sale would provide them with the annuities they needed to purchase the necessities for survival.
Federal officials viewed the treaty differently. They hoped to civilize and Christianize the Santees, to teach them the value of private property, and transform them into farmers on the white model. By reducing the amount of land they owned, and opening the ceded lands to white settlement, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea noted that the Dakotas would now “be surrounded by a cordon of auspicious influences to render labor respectable, to enlighten their ignorance, to conquer their prejudices.” Reservation life would bring preservation to the Dakotas.
The government established two federal agencies to oversee the civilization program, the Lower Sioux Agency at Redwood, and the Upper Sioux or Yellow River Agency. Some Dakotas accepted the changes proposed by their agents. Leaders like Wabasha, Wakute and Mankato cut their hair. Others encouraged their followers to begin farming and living and dressing like their growing numbers of white neighbors. Yet these changes generated divisions. According to Big Eagle, those who “took a sensible course and began to live like white men” received special treatment from the agents. “The government built them houses, furnished them tools . . . and taught them to farm.” The “Blanket Indians,” or the “Long-Hairs” who rejected the benefits of American civilization, resented this special treatment. They objected to the pushiness and cultural arrogance of the agents and missionaries. As Big Eagle observed, “the whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men
. . . and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway.” Too much change, Big Eagle said, called for in too short a period of time. Big Eagle and many other Dakotas resented the racism of white men who “always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I am much better than you,’” and he did not like that “some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them.”
Some warriors assaulted the farming Indians. Some may have shot at and poisoned Christian converts. Those who accepted the government program seemed to ignore many of their obligations to their neighbors. The houses built for farmer Indians had their own cellars that encouraged the hoarding, rather than the sharing, of food. The acceptance of Christianity signaled in part the abandonment of the teaching of Dakota shamans. The refusal to join warriors at the agent’s request signaled the declining authority of traditional leaders. The civilization program threatened in fundamental ways Dakota culture and community, and their world was out of balance.
Other sources of tension gripped the Dakotas. The white population of Minnesota continued to grow as large numbers of Germans and Scandinavians settled near the two agencies. Many Dakotas learned to hate the emigrants, who not only took their land and ran off their game, but refused to share what they had with hungry Indians. The Dakotas viewed them as intruders.
The settlers did not want Dakota hunters trooping across land that they felt was theirs, but the conduct of federal authorities at the agencies left them with little choice. Agents and other employees used their positions all too often for personal enrichment. They overcharged the government for goods and services that they provided to the Dakotas, and they claimed for themselves a share of the Dakotas’ annuities. They held much of the rest of the annuity money for payment of debts to traders. What’s more, in an effort to encourage Dakotas to embrace the civilization program, the agents withheld annuity payments to traditional Dakotas. Without food and money, the discontented left to search for game. They viewed the farmers and traders and agents as fundamental threats to their existence. They were very hungry. When Little Crow complained about the behavior of the traders, Andrew Myrick, one of their number, announced that “so far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” Astute observers recognized how dangerous the situation had become. The Episcopal Bishop for Minnesota, Henry B. Whipple, solemnly warned that “a nation which sowed robbery would reap a harvest of blood.” Nobody paid him much heed.
By the summer of 1862, the annuities still had not been paid. Four Dakotas rummaging for food killed several white settlers who confronted them near Acton, Minnesota. Rather than surrender the four warriors, the traditional Indians at the Redwood Agency resolved upon war. Before they struck, however, they sought the advice of Little Crow. He had participated in the government’s civilization program. He told the warriors that “the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten,” he said, “as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them.” However many you kill, ten times more will come to kill you. “Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.”
He doubted that the Dakotas could prevail, but he reluctantly joined in the assaults. He feared the consequences of the earlier attack on the settlers, and he knew the demands for vengeance would be great. Best to take a stand now. On 18 August, 1862, the Dakotas fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen agents and traders. The attacks thereafter became more general. Nearly four hundred settlers died in the first few days of fighting. The Dakotas then attacked Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. The settlers drove back both attacks and from late August the Dakotas went on defense. Some called for opening negotiations with the federal authorities for peace. Light Face, a Sisseton, said that “he lived only by the white man and, for that reason, did not want to be an enemy of the white man; that he did not want the treaties that had been made to be destroyed.” Meanwhile, the federal forces converged on the Dakotas. Led by Colonel Henry Sibley, the American troops defeated a Dakota attack at Wood Lake in September.
Many of the Dakotas fled. Sibley convened a military tribunal to collect evidence against those who participated in the uprising. By November, he had condemned over three hundred to death. As the condemned marched downriver, they faced the insults and anger of the frontier population. White settlers pelted the prisoners as they moved towards the place of execution. A white woman, one observer noted, rushed “up to one of the wagons and snatched a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and dashed it violently upon the ground.” The child died several hours later. President Lincoln pardoned most of the condemned, many of whom, along with their families, had converted to Christianity while imprisoned. They had found some hope in the new religion. The President ordered them incarcerated at Davenport, Iowa. Thirty-eight others, Lincoln concluded, did deserve to die. On the day after Christmas, they went to the gallows. As they waited for the trap to open, they sang their war songs and said their farewells to their families. It was the largest mass execution in American history. Little Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled west, but returned later to the Minnesota valley. On July 3rd, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he picked berries near Hutchinson, Minnesota. His scalp was placed on display.
The rest of the Santees faced the wrath of Minnesotans who no longer would tolerate an Indian presence within the state. In response to calls for the removal of the Santees, Congress appropriated funds for their relocation. No treaty, no opportunity for the Indians to offer their consent. After their defeat, the United States interned the surrendered Indians at Fort Snelling. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, hundreds of them died there from disease and exposure. From Fort Snelling, the survivors boarded steamboats and barges. Thirteen hundred in all, they headed towards Crow Creek, a location along the Missouri in South Dakota. Dry and desolate, lacking in timber and quality soil, the federal agent at Crow Creek said the entire region was “one wilderness of dry prairie for hundreds of miles around.” Food was in short supply and of poor quality, a product of federal corruption and incompetence. A congressional investigator, examining conditions at Crow Creek in 1865, found that “for six weeks after they arrived . . . they died at the average of three or four a day.” Over 80% of the Dakotas who moved to Crow Creek were women and children. The men had died in the uprising or sat in prison. The commander of Nebraska’s Second Volunteer Cavalry, Robert W. Fornas, described the Dakota women as “filthy hags whose ugliness was only equaled by their want of anything like modesty or virtue,” but his men raped those women and the trauma of the experience continues to haunt their ancestors. More than 250 had died by the end of 1864 when federal officials began moving the Dakotas to a new reservation, Santee, along the Niobrara River in Nebraska. On the newly-established Santee Reservation, the exiles suffered continuing population decline as infant mortality remained high and diseases periodically swept the reservation.
Still, they attempted to adjust. They grew wheat, built houses, made use of wagons and plows, and tended livestock. A class of Santee craftsmen trained on the reservation emerged at the Agency. By 1880, the residents of the Santee reservation had purchased ten reapers and ten fanning mills, and began to produce more crops each year.
Like other reservation communities, the Santees made changes to their political system to help them adjust to their new reality. In 1876, the Indians submitted a petition asking that the reservation be divided into four districts represented by two councilors serving for terms of two years. Leaders chosen for their ability to interact with white society came to the fore. They also accepted changes in how they held their lands. Some Indians supported allotment so strongly that they left the reservation, establishing homesteads in the vicinity of Flandreau, South Dakota. To prevent others from leaving, their agents, the Quakers Samuel and Asa Janney, called for the allotment of the Santee Reservation. By 1871, the Santees had constructed nearly eighty houses, with the allotted lands held in trust for the tribe by the federal government. In 1885, President Chester A. Arthur opened the unallotted lands, those not distributed to Santee heads of households, to white settlement, a move popular in Nebraska. The Santees controlled more than 71,000 acres, along with 1300 reserved for the agency. Arthur’s order opened up more than 42,000 acres to white settlement, a large chunk of the reservation.
While some of the Dakotas ended up at the Santee Reservation, others avoided the initial relocation to Crow Creek. They had lived a nomadic existence in the aftermath of the uprising, ultimately returning to Minnesota and settling at the Coteau des Prairies. Delegates from the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands traveled to Washington in 1867 and signed a treaty establishing two reservations. Government officials recognized Gabriel Renville, a committed farmer but also a traditionalist who opposed conversion to Christianity, as the leader of the Sisseton Reservation.
The history of the Sisseton Reservation parallels that of Santee in important ways. Government agents instructed the Indians on how to become economically self-sufficient, an effort hampered by the sorts of natural disasters with which Midwestern farmers contended in the late nineteenth century—drought and grasshoppers. Allotment came to Sisseton as a result of the 1867 treaty. By 1889, 1971 allotments had been made. Of the original 900,000 acres on the Sisseton Reservation, allottees received a third, while a much smaller parcel was reserved for the agency buildings. The remaining two-thirds of the reservation was made available to white settlers, at the bargain-basement price of $2.50 per acre. The settlers did not want Indian neighbors, but they sure wanted their lands, and the reservation, like Santee, took on a checkerboard appearance with white homesteads interspersed in a crazy-quilt pattern with Indian allotments.
The 1867 Washington Treaty also led to the creation of the Devil’s Lake Reservation in North Dakota (It was subsequently renamed Spirit Lake). The Sisston and Wahpetons settled there made, one observer wrote, “comparatively rapid progress, evincing considerable capacity in taking on the habits and customs of civilized man.” Catholic missionaries ministered to those Dakotas who settled there. But allotment at Devil’s Lake resulted in the same degree of dispossession that occurred at Santee and Sisseton. By the late 1890s they were impoverished, and they had “nothing from which they can obtain any revenue, and they cannot depend upon the bounty of the government.”
Revisionist History. It is a phrase we hear a lot in the history business. Good historical work, we believe, should challenge old assumptions, ask new questions, explore new avenues of research. Occasionally this good work forces us to revise earlier interpretations. There is nothing dangerous, threatening, or necessarily political about “revisionist history.” We always are revising our understanding of the past.
But our understanding is not shared with conservatives who believe themselves experts in history. For them, “revisionist” is pejorative: revisionist historians, they say, are going out of their way to “erase the past” and produce “political correctness.” These arguments are, quite simply, the chicken-shit expressions of partisans, racists, and fools. What they won’t tell you is the truth: that they oppose a history that is more representative of a complex past, that explores the past from many different angles and from any different perspectives, and that challenges the comforting myths they cherish that assure them that if anything bad happened in the past, there is no need any longer to talk about it now.
That these people wield their political power like a cudgel, mewling about a lack of freedom of speech because of “political correctness” while they enact legislation designed to silence dissenting opinions and free inquiry is as dangerous as it is worthy of our strongest contempt. We are historians. And conservatives like Senators Newman and Kiffmeyer must be challenges and they must be confronted. Racism is an ideology for cowards, after all, even the sneaky and petulant sort practiced by the Minnesota GOP. Call them out. And hold them responsible.