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James Calvin Schaap


The Dakota War of 1862

Part 2: The use of memory.

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I want to speak to you now of what is in my own heart. Give me all these white captives. I will deliver them up to their friends. You Dakotas are numerous—you can afford to give these captives to me, and I will go with them to the white people. Then, if you want to fight, when you see the white soldiers coming to fight, fight with them, but don't fight with women and children. Or stop fighting.

So said Little Paul, Paul Mazakutemani, a Christian Indian from the Sioux of the Upper Agency, to Little Crow and his warriors, a couple thousand of them, plus hundreds of white prisoners. Having suffered defeat, Little Crow had headed northwest to the Upper Agency to draft the Native people from other bands into the cause, by force if necessary. The only way to win, he'd determined, was by increasing his manpower.

But the Upper Sioux Agency Dakota wanted no part of the war, nor had they from the beginning. When they saw the hundreds of white women and children, as well as mixed bloods, held captive—and saw for themselves those captives' wretched condition—they were appalled.

"The Americans are a great people," Little Paul told the warriors from Little Crow's encampment. "They have much lead, powder, guns, and provisions. Stop fighting, and now gather up all the captives and give them to me. No one who fights with the white people ever becomes rich, or remains two days in one place, but is always fleeing and starving."

When Little Crow's people turned around and went back east, the Dakota from Upper Sioux painted their bodies and readied themselves for war—not against the whites, but against their fellow Dakota. For a time, a war between the Indians seemed imminent.

Then Little Paul fearlessly lined up his warriors in the middle of Little Crow's camp and made an incredible offer. "I will go over to the white people. If they wish it, they may kill me," he said. "If they don't wish to kill me, I shall live. So all of you who do not want to fight with the white people, come over to me. I have now one hundred men. We are going over to the white people. Deliver up to me the captives. And as many of you as don't wish to fight with the whites, gather yourselves together today and come with me."

Some of the bloodied warriors did cross over and join with the Upper Sioux farmers, but Little Crow swore to fight on. He told those who sided with Little Paul that, should the whites capture him, they would surely put him in a cage like an animal. He wasn't wrong about that. He much preferred death.

Little Paul and his Christian Indians were peacemakers, but they were also pragmatic. After all, they'd long ago thrown in their lot with the very palefaces who'd robbed the Sioux of their land, their heritage, and their culture. To Little Crow and his warriors, they were already traitors.

To the whites in 1862 Minnesota, Little Paul's "Christian Indians" were ministers of peace. To Little Crow, they were not driven by their being Dakota, but by expediency, by compromise, by giving in and giving up. They'd cut their hair and worn shirts and pants as if they were white men.

No one saved more human beings during the Dakota War than the Christian Indians.

On a hill above Morton, Minnesota, a pair of huge monuments stand, but you'll be lucky to find them. They are not well-marked. On a trip through the country a few years ago, I asked a retired man who was working in the local museum where they were. He didn't appear to know what I was talking about. One of those huge monuments is dedicated to Little Paul and the other "faithful Indians."

In calling those Indians "faithful," the monument is, today, painfully politically incorrect. Some, I'm sure—white and Dakota alike—would rather have those monuments lost forever. They'd rather no one ever saw them. Those monuments, placed there in 1899, weren't hard to erect for the children of the white settlers who'd suffered so horribly. But today, their presence likely irritates the children of at least some of the Dakota.

Perhaps no one should talk about what happened 150 years ago, just up the road from where I live. Maybe the whole story is too full of sin in every beating heart, no matter what the color of the chest.

The Battle of Birch Coulee

Major Joseph R. Brown had a personal stake in entering hostile area because his own wife and children had been taken captive. He'd been sent on a burial detail to the river crossing where so many soldiers had died, but ever since leaving General Henry Sibley's command, he and his men hadn't seen an Indian anywhere. All day long they'd been burying rotting corpses.

Joseph Coursolle, a member of the mixed-blood community at the Redwood Agency, a man whose father was French-Canadian, whose mother was Sioux, and whose wife was white, remembered that burial detail well:

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