In conversations with colleagues across the country at the American Society for Ethnohistory meeting in Tallahassee, one thing we all agreed on was that our students seem to be reading less, and reading less closely. Participation in class discussions had declined, as had attendance. I was disappointed in myself in that I had not succeeded in breaking through, in getting students to engage with the material and do the reading, but I was reassured, I guess, that I as not alone. Still, I had to try something new.
It went really, really well.
We were discussing some particularly brutal stories from the Plains Wars during the Civil War Years, beginning with the Dakota Uprising in Minnesota and closing with the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. They could read about both events in Native America, but I wanted them to go deeper into the material. I recently read a fantastic article by historian and artist Taylor Spence called “Rethinking the Colonial Encounter in the Age of Trauma.” He is a great historian. His essay appeared in a really useful volume entitled The Routledge Companion to Global Indigenous History. Both the article and the book are well-worth your time. Spence suggested to me a new way to teach this subject, a trauma-informed approach that could lead students to feel deeply the impact of the events they were reading about. Following Spence’s lead, I assigned them Waziyatawin’s “Grandmother to Granddaughter: Generations of Oral History in a Dakota Family,” which appeared in the American Indian Quarterly back in 1996. Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender Wilson) wrote a searing piece of family history. I suggest you try it in your courses.
Waziyatawin’s grandmother, Elsie Cavender, had received a story from her grandmother that she shared late in life. She told Waziyatawin of the family’s forced march after the Dakota Uprising, and how soldiers, in an act of irrational and senseless violence, murdered Elsie’s great-great-grandmother. It’s a brief essay, and Elsie Cavender’s account is roughly a page and a half. I asked my students to tell me what happened. They gave me a competent summary of the story. The Dakotas were marching towards imprisonment at Fort Snelling. They confronted white people in towns “where the people were real hostile to them.” They white people threw rocks, and poured scalding water on them. They camped at night, living on rotten provisions provided by the army. They marched onward. They moved too slowly. The soldiers grew angry, and stabbed Elsie’s Grandmother’s grandmother with a saber. She bled to death on a bridge. When her family returned later, the body was gone, but they saw dried blood on the wooden planks.
I told the students I wanted more. Go deeper. Summarizing what you read, after all, is no great achievement. Spence suggested that the students attempt to imagine deeply what it would have been like to be present when those soldiers murdered an elderly woman for no reason at all. So I told them to think of their senses. If they were on the bridge where the killing took place that day, what would they have seen, heard, smelled, tasted or felt?
My students jumped into the assignment. You would smell the rotten provisions the soldiers distributed, one student observed. The relentlessly irritating sound of the squeaky wagon wheel, another pointed out. They would have heard that. The dust, the sight and smell and sound of the cattle would have been difficult to miss. They were rolling now, but they were staying away from the violence. It took them a bit, but they got there. The soldiers’ profanities, their angry, barking orders in a language the Lakotas did not understand; the screams in response to unbelievable and senseless violence; the blood pouring from a mortal wound.
We had spoken early that day about the reliability of oral testimony as evidence. One student predictably and appropriately suggested that it might be like the old game of Telephone, as a story changes as it is passed from one hearer to another. But think of each of the sensory events you just identified, I told the students. I asked them to think of their earliest memories. What made those memories particularly powerful? Each of them, individually, affected the senses in a memorable fashion. Each was easily capable of etching itself into the minds of successive generations of storytellers. The events that Waziyatawin recalled for us, I suggested, were of the sort that would not be easily forgotten.
We are not supposed to teach history in a way that makes our students feel bad about who or what they are. We should not make them feel guilty or uncomfortable about the past. That is what lawmakers in a growing number of red states have demanded. They have proscribed the teaching of certain topics. They have singled out the 1619 Project, and the histories of slavery, and racism, as topics that should not be taught in ways that make white people feel uncomfortable. These right-wing politicians have said much less about Native American history, but clearly they would be bothered by things I teach in my classes: the Paxton Boys, for instance, or the massacre at Gnadenhutten. These politicians are calling for an education fit for sociopaths. They want students to feel nothing but love of country.
My students felt badly about the history they read that day. Again, some of them had tears in their eyes. When they read Silas Soule’s account of Sand Creek, in which he describes the mutilation of dead Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children, well, they felt this as well.
But here’s the thing. They felt badly, to be sure, but they did not feel ashamed of their race. They did not feel guilty or responsible for the crimes of the past. This is what the Republican dingbats miss. My students felt connected to people very different from them who lived a century and a half ago. They understood the meaning a past event at a much deeper level than they may have done previously, and the emotions were heavy indeed. They grieved. They had, I would argue, learned a lot. I sent a message to Dr. Spence to tell him how well his class exercise went, how much my students learned, and how thankful I was for his good work.
Let’s say you are walking down a crowded city street. Your foot catches a person walking in front of you, and they trip and almost fall. Without thinking, if you are a decent person, you apologize. You are not debasing yourself when you do this. You worried that you might have hurt somebody, that they could have fallen and been injured. It’s not about you. You apologize because you are not a dick, because you care about other people, because you worry that your actions could have caused for someone pain or sorrow. You say you are sorry because you felt sorrow.
I have thought about this a lot when I teach. Why do we say sorry? I want my students to appreciate the past on its own terms, to feel a connection to the people they read about. The students in my class obviously could not undo the past. They could not apologize or express their sorrow to the Dakota woman murdered on that bridge. But they did understand something at a deeper level than they might otherwise have done, and that made them wiser and more capable of understanding other people. They felt empathy. And they cared about this particular piece of the past more deeply that they would have done if I had merely told them about the Dakota Uprising and Sand Creek. They may not remember much of my class a couple of years from now but I am confident that they will remember this.
last week in December forces those of us who study history to remember two
particularly gloomy, and revealing, episodes in the Native American past. On December 29th, 1890, American
soldiers massacred Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, an atrocity for which the
United States government awarded a number of medals of honor. Congress is considering legislation to revoke those awards. And on the
26th of December, 1862, American military officials executed at
Mankato, Minnesota, thirty-eight Dakotas identified as “ring-leaders” in their
war against the forces of American colonialism. I have been thinking about both
of them over the course of the past two weeks.
There was a fair amount of
commentary on these horrific events on and around their anniversaries. In reading about the execution of the
Dakotas, I learned that after the execution, William W. Mayo, who later founded
the world-famous Mayo Clinic, dug up at least one of the recently buried bodies
of the condemned, dissected it in front of his physician colleagues, and kept
the bones around his house as a child’s play thing.
I had never heard this before. I
read about it in a tweet. I asked the
person who posted it about the evidence.
This was a stunning story, revealing in what it says about Minnesotans’
attitudes toward their native neighbors.
But I could not share it with my students until I knew for sure that it
was true. The person who posted
suggested I visit Google; he was merely repeating something he had heard. I poked around, on Google and elsewhere, and
found some news stories that demonstrated that this tale of grave-robbing and
desecration was indeed true.
In September of 2018, the Mayo
Clinic apologized for desecrating the grave and body
of Marpiya Okinajin, known to the Americans as Cut Nose. His remains stayed at
the Mayo Clinic until 2000, when they were repatriated and reburied. Jeffrey Bolton, a Mayo Clinic administrator,
flew from Rochester, Minnesota, to the Santee reservation in Nebraska. The Mayo Clinic was establishing an endowed
scholarship for Native Americans who aspired to work in medicine, and Bolton
wanted to apologize formally for the Mayo Clinic’s hurtful act in person on the
Bolton’s apology was widely covered
in Nebraska and Minnesota news media, but I missed the story when it came
out. The coverage was kind to the Mayo
Clinic, generally pointing out that after the passage of a century and a half,
it was trying to set things right.
Stories of white apologies for the past are sometimes covered like this,
it seems. Reporters and columnists
celebrate the courage of those who apologize, recognize their bravery and their
contrition, but they too often do so without delving into the violence and
dispossession that provided the vital context for the particular act in
question. That really bothers me.
We’re all apologies, but only for the fouls we commit in a game that you must know was rigged from the very beginning.
The execution of the Dakota 38 was
an atrocity, no question. But it was not the only one committed before, during,
and immediately after the Dakota “Uprising.”
By the end of the 1840s, most Dakota Sioux 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 signed the 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 in a tightening circle. But 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
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
August 18, 1862, the Dakotas fell upon the Redwood Agency, killing two dozen
agents and traders. The attacks thereafter became more general. Nearly 400
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
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 300 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 toward
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. His decision was unpopular in
Minnesota. An editorial in the Winona Daily Republican thought that all 300
“It would be amusing, were the circumstances too solemn to be turned into a subject for ridicule, to point out the subtle distinctions which are thus made in the cases of these murderous barbarians—how one Indian is to be hanged by the neck until dead, because he fired the fatal shot which sent a defenceless white settler suddenly into eternity—how another is to be pardoned because he stood by approvingly until the shot had been sent on its mission of death, and then indulged his savage instincts by scalping the victim and horribly mutilating his dead body. The barbarian ravishers of women and the butcherers of infants are to be divided into two classes, guilty and innocent, upon the principle of nice metaphysical distinctions which turns over to execution one assassin where it directly applauds the conduct of ten others by pronouncing them worthy of again entering into society and running at large as the independent lords of a land laid desolate by their devilish deeds of outrage and blood.”
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. And it clearly wasn’t enough
for many Minnesotans. The St. Cloud Democrat resented the in depth
coverage of the executions, and the treatment received by the condemned. “The soldiers, reporters, officers and
preachers, who shook hands with those demons, should each and every one wear
his paw in a sling during the term of his natural life, or dip it into boiling
lye and skin it.” The paper’s editorial
“It makes one sick to think of the cunning, cowardly brutes thus lionized in sight and hearing of many of their surviving victims and in close neighborhood to the unburied bones of others, as they bleach in the wintry winds. Uncle Samuel’s soldiers are so busy feeding Indians, guarding Indians and shaking hands with Indians, that they have not had time to bury the neglected remains of their victims.”
White settlers killed by “miscreants,” “pigs,” and “wild beasts.” They were animals, and should be disposed of like the menace they were. If Minnesotans “do not shoot, or hang, or drown, or poison with wolf-bait, these erring misguided, unfortunate, wronged injured Siox [sic] hyenas they will deserve and receive the contempt of the civilized world.” White people in Minnesota “should kill them as they would crocodiles.” They were not worthy of the sympathy reporters showed them. “The sights and sounds of horror, the tales of death partings and hideous tortures brought into St. Paul by hundreds of survivors of the massacre of fifteen hundred whites has not occupied half the space in the St. Paul dailies which is consumed in the farewell grunts, dying hypocracies, and obscenities of thirty-eight of these demon-brute murderers.”
Little Crow escaped, but only for a time. He fled
west, but returned later to the Minnesota
valley. On July 3, 1863, a settler gunned him down as he picked berries near
Hutchinson, Minnesota. His scalp was placed on display. The Dakota Sioux were driven out of
Minnesota. Any Indian presence was too
much for white Minnesotans in the aftermath of race war.
The New York Times 1619 Project has been in the news a good bit lately. Older historians, some of whom have not done much work at all in the history of slavery and the enslaved, have dismissed the enterprise. That older historians dismiss the work of their younger colleagues is nothing new, of course. It is the way that hey dismissed this important work that is troubling. They question the centrality of slavery in the formation of the American state and society. They see the institution of slavery as standing in contradiction to the nation’s founding principles.
As a scholar who studies Native American history, the
opposition of these old-timers at elite institutions to their younger
colleagues is baffling. They may still
have power and influence, but no longer much by way of respect. Not any more.
I look at the past and see a continent taken from native peoples, built
on stolen lands, with labor seized from enslaved Africans and
African-Americans. Dispossession and
slavery, colonialism and racism: they rest at the black heart of the American
story, from the arrival of Columbus to its Trumpian apocalypse. The founders,
who too many people still revere as demi-gods, knew what they were doing and
were open about it. True, they spoke occasionally of civilizing and
assimilating native peoples, but that effort cannot be separated from the
larger effort o acquire Indian lands and erase their culture. The Mayo Clinic has taken significant steps
to address this repugnant part of its past, of its own history. This country has barely even started.
A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History