Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Theology at Sunday dinner


I finish with opening prayer at a Sunday dinner not long ago, and Pieter, our first-grade grandson, promiscuous with oddly bedeviling utterances, suddenly asks, “Does Ian know God?”

Ian is his little brother, maybe eight months old. He babbles divinely, or so his grandpa thinks; but he hasn’t come anywhere near to delivering a decipherable word. Does Ian know God?

My first reaction is take second place here—or third. After all, I’m only a grandpa, not a parent. They’re the ones who should answer, right? Besides, I really don’t know.

So I’m wondering what they’re going to say—Mom and Dad. Me?—I’m thinking probably yes, because Ian was there last, of any of us oldsters around the table. Not that long ago he was closer to infinity than any of us. “Sure,” I think, “sure he knows God” Besides, he’s still several months away from knowing anything about sin—maybe more. But then, I’m prejudice on that score too, and I don’t change his too often stinky diapers.

But later I ask myself whether any of us really knows God? It’s a kind of spellbinding question really, and all sorts of good, sweet Christians would thunder out the joy of own intimate proximity, I’m sure. But just a day or so ago, I ran across this stunning line: “The traditions of theology that speak to me undercut the assumption that the nature of divine reality is readily definable.” Woah! Me too. More and more I’m thinking we’re on really shaky ground when we think we know it all. Maybe I read too much O’Connor.

“Well, Pieter,” I could have said, “I suppose little Ian knows God just about as well as any of us do.” He’d have looked up at me as if his grandpa was nuts. But I wouldn’t have liked to parse that out for him just then, not with the burgers getting cold; and just dropping that idea out there in front of his questioning eyes would have been a form of child abuse, even if it is, in a way, true.

Here’s another stunner, same source: “Augustine put it best, cautioning that anything that one understands is not God.” Double woah. I got to admit I like that, but it wouldn’t have made good family table conversation either, methinks.

I guess the answer is that God is both imminent—he’s here and Ian probably knows him—and he’s transcendent—he’s way, way beyond Ian, and way beyond you, Pieter, and way beyond your grandfather the blogger, and your great-great-great grandfather the erudite seminary professor. He’s beyond everyone of us.

But for right now, I suppose—lest we forget this is Sunday dinner—the very best answer to Pieter’s perplexing question is probably the one Karl Barth offered when the learned theologian was asked by some aspiring preacher, "Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?"

The story goes like this—Barth said, "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!"

Does Ian know God, Pieter? Hmmmm. Don’t know if he does. But then, I don’t know that I do either.

What I do know is this: God sure as anything, knows Ian. And you, Pieter. And me too. Isn’t that a hoot?

Let’s eat.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Morning Thanks--Worldly Wisdom I


As childhoods go, mine was right up there with the idyllic best, methinks. No abuse to speak of. Two older sisters who largely left me alone. Parents who loved each other and us sumptuously. Small town--bicycles, sandlot baseball, just an occasional Fourth-of-July Black Cat firecracker.

And Sunday School, which was hardly abusive. But sometimes I think it's taken me a lifetime to unlearn some things Sunday School simplicity left imprinted somewhere within me. Once upon a time my mother-in-law visited her father who was in a Sioux City hospital for a couple of weeks. She was eighth grader. Once visiting hours had ended, she said she'd take off running to the hotel where they were staying because, well, it was the city, and who knows, exactly, what kind of evil might be lurking in those furtive shadows. To a Sunday School farm girl, Sioux City, Iowa, was "the world."

That's in me too. "The world," was a place to run from, a Vanity Fair peddling licentious liberties. "The world" had ogres whose horrid, twisted values arose from the darkness, a snake pit of heathen follies into which too many righteous had already fallen. "The world" was peopled with evil men and women.

Oddly enough, "the world" was also what God so loved that he gave his only begotten son. . .

Go figure.

All of that as intro. Perhaps Sunday School is the villain here, but the phrase "worldly wisdom" is not something I can utter without feeling somehow comprimised, even a little dirty. But on we go because here's a bit of worldly wisdom from Zanzibar:

"When two elephants tussle, it's the grass that suffers."

Proverbs delight us, at least in part, by their visual immediacy. This bit of worldly wisdom has to be worth a t-shirt at least, because you can see its succient truth in a moment. Think of a thousand applications, when you see that beat up grass: think of divorce; think of the U. S. Congress; think of the American Civil War.

"When two elephants tussle, it's the grass that suffers." Amen, brother.

That's worldly wisdom that could just as easily found a place in the Bible's own scrapbook, the book of Proverbs.

Worldly wisdom ain't all bad, and this morning I'm thankful for its delightful moral leading.

"When two elephants tussle, it's the grass that suffers."

Take that one home with you. God loves Zanzibar. And Sioux City.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Morning Thanks--passions and hope


This morning's Writer's Almanac quotes the poet Linda Pastan, who talks about her insane passion to write. "I often write poems in my head to distract myself during hard times," she wrote somewhere. "Years ago, after a car crash, while I lay waiting for the ambulance, I actually finished a poem I had been working on, determined not to die before I had it right."

Now that's insane, I think. But then again,it's not yet five in the morning, and while there are no flashing lights that I know of on their way to the basement here, most the world would say, I'm sure, that I'm just as crazy.

Last night I finished reading the manuscript of an ex-student, who decided, long after taking my class (where he did not necessarily distinguish himself), that he wanted to write a novel. I took up the job reluctantly--I've read enough student fiction in the last six months, as a matter of fact--but once I started, I had his novel finished in just two nights.

The truth is, it has more than its share of errors, but simply to read it was a blessing to me because I know only too well what kind of commitment it takes to sit down and write a 200-page novel, for better or for worse, and what kind of hope just doing it requires.

"People without hope don't write novels," Flannery O'Connor once famously wrote, and she's right. But then people without hope don't put on roofs or do root canals either. In a way, that line feels a bit presumptuous because people without hope don't plant tomatoes either or put out fires or even sweep the front porch.

I may be myopic about all of this, given the fact that I'm here and there isn't a bit of light yet outside my basement window, but I believe her nonetheless because I know Pastan's lunatic impulse--it's something about trying to make meaning, trying to make sense. That's what O'Connor is testifying, and it's why I'm here now.

This ex-student's first-draft novel has a brightly engaging plot line; it brings into question important issues, it's set securely in time and place, and it has memorable characters. But what thrills me as much as anything about holding it in my hands is just holding it in my hands. What he's trying to do is nothing more or less than make sense of what seems sometimes senseless.

Getting novels published is nearly an impossible task these days, and the mere fact that he wrote this whole story out is wonderful. Honestly, there are many reasons to love the work, but the real story of the novel, to me at least, is that he did it at all--and that's the great gift, the blessing of the manuscript that sits here beside me.

May he continue to work, to try to make sense, in the light of the Caribbean sun, where he lives, or in the early morning darkness, even in the fervent anticipation of flashing lights.

This morning I'm thankful for his gifts.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Revelation on the Plains


You have to hunt to find it, but it's worth the trip. Woolaroc--which is, I'm told something called a portmanteau of the words woods, lakes, rocks--is a museum of sorts, tucked away in the rolling Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. It may well bill itself as a tribute to America's historic West, the festive cowboy and the Native people the white settlers rapaciously displaced, but it's also a testimony to American excess.

Frank Phillips--think Phillips 66--is the American Dream made flesh. His parents left Nebraska in 1874, when he was just a year old, chased by clouds of grasshoppers back east to Creston, in southwest Iowa, where at age 14, Phillips apprenticed out to a barber and, in ten years, owned all three barber shops in town. He was on his way.

A missionary brought him to southeast Oklahoma at a time when oil was just being discovered, and, within a year, he had a gusher himself. Phillips knew how to invest and where to, and, soon enough, Phillips Petroleum was begun in Bartlesville, where you can still visit the Phillips mansion.

Woolaroc was his home-away-from home, a rangy log house/vacation lodge where, in the roaring Twenties, Phillips regularly entertained other millionaires and billionaires from throughout America. Sometimes he'd line up crooks to hold up his guests on the long ride in, create a drama where there was none, just to entertain.

Woolaroc is really unbelievable. Phillips both bought Western art and was given countless pieces, thousands of them, portraits and sculptures, vast canvases and stunning portraits. I have never seen so much Native American art--most of it done by white folks--in one space in my life. One enters the place almost as if it were a prison, then walks into one spacious room after another and another and another. What began as a building created to house an airplane (a Phillips-sponsored single-engine craft that won a race to Hawaii) has become a monument to the American west--but also a monument to Frank Phillips. You leave slack-jawed. It is absolutely amazing what this man collected in his life.

There is a long and studied pan at the end of Orson Welles's classic film Citizen Kane, a kind of visual obituary to the sad emptiness of the life of Charles Foster Kane, a man who died with everything a man could want and yet nothing at all, an American Ozymandias. That incredible shot is what I thought of in the endless displays of art pieces--many worth thousands of dollars, I'm sure--that are the heart of Woolaroc.

I have no reason to believe that Frank Phillips and his wife of more than 50 years died anything but happy (their ashes are in a family mausoleum on the estate), but I couldn't help think of Charles Foster Kane because it's impossible for me to understand how a man could really appreciate any of the individual pieces of art when he owns tens of thousands. There's another ambition at work in a collection of that magnitude, and it seems to me, a Calvinist, that that ambition is a kissing cousin to hoarding.

But my prejudices are showing, and the people of northeastern Oklahoma, I'm sure, are proud of their most famous oilman/entrepreneur. They have reason to be. Woolaroc is a can't miss, if you're in the region.

But so is economic decline and even ruin. We looked for Immaculate Conception, a Roman Catholic church in the town of Pawhuska, right there in Osage Hills, because the church has, we were told, marvelous stained glass windows that incorporate Native themes and characters. I wanted to see them, but the church was locked.

But the town itself was a revelation. Oil, it seems, largely created it and has now just about destroyed it. The eerie downtown, on a Sunday afternoon, looks itself like a museum, an empty canvas on which one can only imagine what once was. Downtown businesses are boarded up and long gone, creating a Twilight Zone. Boom is still written all over the place in huge buildings for a town that size, but what's left is little more than skeletal. What's left is the death of what was.

The entire region is haunted. Yates Center, Woodson County, Kansas, is another dying oil town, struggling to survive, a place whose storied past is achingly visible in the cadaver-like buildings all around. I'm sure it's different for its natives, but when you're traveling through, those towns seem eerily akin to mausoleums.

Woolaroc is a tribute to the billions that oil created in the region, but towns like Yates Center and Pawhuska testify just as clearly to deadly American excesses.

Years ago, I read a book by Daniel Bell, a study of American society titled The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which argued, among other things, that capitalism was a dynamic force that continued to attract immigrants to America because, quite frankly, its promise is real and true--people like Frank Phillips and many hundreds of others made and continue to make money, big money. But when it does work, Bell argues, it consumes itself by destroying the very ethic of hard work that created it.

Cotton Mather's indictment of the third generation of Puritan America wasn't far off, in a way--piety created prosperity, and child devoured the mother, he said.

Two images stick with me after a visit to a small corner of the vast Kansas and Oklahoma Plains--an incredible, unending museum of Western art and lore, and the devastation left behind when boom goes bust.

All part of the same story.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The snake in the garden


Calvin says that the Word of God acts like a pair of reading glasses. Those who wear those glasses see the world he created, the world he loves, in a whole different exposure than those who don't have those glasses on their noses.

Maybe. The older I get, the more clear it is to me, however, that those glasses don't guarantee 20/20 vision.

No matter. I'm here to say that occasionally having those glasses on my nose is a trial, even a burden. Like last week, when we went for a walk in a county park with our grandkids. Now my granddaughter can be a real scardy cat, so she was a little apprehensive as we started down the wooded path, even though she had wanted to go. The sweet child worries about things—like bears, for instance, even though there hasn't been one in Sioux County since the old black bear imprisoned in the park died of obesity.

Anyway, we’d just started out when she spotted some wildflowers and picked one. Then, a few minutes later, she saw some other variety just off the path. Lacking the courage to step off herself, she asked her grandpa to grab one for her, which I did; and immediately she high-tailed it, screaming, to her Grandma up ahead. Lo and behold, right there—at the only spot she’d asked me to step off the path—this unpleasant fellow uncoiled and came down toward her feet.


Honestly, I didn't even know what happened. She flew into sheer horror, and finally I looked down at this narrow fellow in the grass who actually rattled back at me. The thing was marvelously disguised in the leaves and undergrowth, and it waren't no garter.

I have a colleague whose greatest goal in life, it seems, is to find a rattler in Oak Grove park. He believes there were some at one time; but no one thinks there are any now. But this yuuch beast actually rattled at me. I took a picture or two, and was determined to figure out whether or not any of us should have wet our pants.

It turns out that the little devil was a fox snake, a species that has learned, smartly, to rattle in a fashion that makes intruders in his life believe he could be the deadly demon my granddaughter thought he was (and why is it I can't call that snake a she?). Such sweet deception keeps hungry admirers away, I guess. It did me anyway.

The whole incident colored her Sabbath walk, of course, as the pic above amply illustrates (no smile). But we were blessed (note the language there) that this perilous confrontation happened early on, because she did, slowly, get over it.

I’m sure, like Eve, she has no wish to ever see the slimy deceiver again, but at least she lived through it—which is its own blessing.

So this old Calvinist is perplexed because I’ve been wondering ever since why on earth the Lord, in his infinite wisdom, just happened to have one of what must be VERY few fox snakes in Oak Grove park at a certain place on a long winding path through the woods, a spot where my granddaughter--not my grandson either, but my granddaugter--had to fall victim to this beast's horrid snake-y slithering. Good night!--the likelihood of that ever happening again is nil, really. I’ve walked that path dozens and dozens of times and never seen any snake; and here, just a step off at a place where she’s fortuitously chosen, this wily biblical deceiver is sitting, hoping himself not to be disturbed.

I don't get it. Is that providence, serendipity, or just plain bad luck?

Don't know. But lest you see me coiled up myself in life's eternal mysteries, I hope you know that throughout the entire ordeal, I smiled. What's more, I had to tell her little brother to step back from the dang thing. I think he'd have liked to take it home.

Ain't we got fun?

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 15


The facts don't tell the whole story, but they certainly make vividly clear what happened to the Dakota people who were incarcerated after the fighting ceased. Of the 300 or so who were not hung--reprieved by President Lincoln--120 died in the next three years, when most of them were imprisoned at Camp McClellan, in Iowa. Of the 1600 men, women, and children, locked up at Ft. Snelling in Minnesota, many of them guilty of no crime, 300 were dead by spring, 1863. To say that conditions were deplorable is to baldly understate the suffering.

The hate which had arisen since the August attacks was as poisonous as it was overwhelming. When contrary voices were heard--largely the voices of clergymen--about the horrid conditions, those voices were roundly criticized. Preachers were actually accosted. Revs. Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson and Bishop Whipple (who had intervened personally with President Lincoln) regularly kept religious services with the imprisoned Native people, and were scorched by newspaper editorials. "Holiest rites of the church given to red-handed murderers," one journalist wrote. "God was mocked."

Basically, the war created such venomous hate that the white settlers of Minnesota wanted nothing less than to be rid of all its first residents--if not by death, then banishment; and that included other Native peoples from tribes and bands who weren't even involved in the war.

Hundreds were crammed aboard steamboats for a long trip down the Mississippi River to St. Louis, the, brought across the state to St. Joseph to be jammed into yet another boat that took them up the Missouri, all the way to Crow Creek, in the Dakota Territories. Rev. Williamson protested: "When 1300 Indians were crowded on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed on musty hardtack and briny pork, which had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made fearful havoc."

When they finally reached the Crow Creek Reservation, an arid place that looked nothing at all like their Minnesota homeland, they were so weakened by starvation and disease that 150 died in just a few weeks, 300 by the end of the summer.

That's justice--some white folks said. The only solution, said others. For what they did, vengeance maintained, many hundreds had to die. And they did. An eye for an eye, a life for a life.

Let me repeat what's been said a thousand times--most of this story begs not to be recounted.

And how does a Christian assess all of this? How do I read it? Where might one begin to bring to bear a moral reading of the entire horrible tale?

The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs found some hope in the incredible spiritual turnabout he witnessed by way of his own persistence in ministering to the needs of the Native people throughout their horrifying tribulation after the war. When the attacks began at the Lower Sioux Agency back in August, Riggs had to be convinced to abandon the mission station he'd built himself a quarter century earlier among the Dakota. It was Riggs who admitted, in his memoir, that looking back that day on everything God himself had built among the Dakota, he couldn't help but wonder whether all of that work had been in vain.

But when he ministered to people who were imprisoned that winter, he was shocked by how many Native people were suddenly hungry to hear about this man Jesus Christ. "Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard the Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred--just how many could not afterward be ascertained--stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a 'nation born in a day.' The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit."

That phenomenal procession to grace was, to Riggs, an answer to prayer--and the answer to the riddle so many of us face so often in life--why all the suffering if God is in control?

"This first communion in the prison made a deep impression upon myself," he wrote in his memoir. "It began to throw light upon the perplexing questions that had started in my own mind, as to the moral meaning of the outbreak. God's thought of it was not my thought. As the heavens were higher than the earth, so his thoughts were higher than mine. I accepted the present interpretation of the events, and thanked God and took courage. The Indians had not meant it so. In their thought and determination, the outbreak was the culmination of their hatred of Christianity. But God, who sits on the throne, had made it result in their submission to him. This was marvelous in our eyes."

I'm not so sure as he is of God's specific plans--for the Dakota or the settlers--although it is impossible to doubt the salvation of those, like the theif of the cross, who truly sought the Lord.

I wish I could be so confident as he was, or seems to be. Riggs was a fine man, a courageous Christian, someone who didn't abandon his people--the Dakota--when almost every other white person did. Maybe he deserves the joy he took from so many decisions for God. Without a doubt he needed some vast outpouring of grace himself amid all the hellish suffering.

But 150 years later, I'm not as blessed as he was by the mass conversions he witnessed, not that I doubt that someday the new heavens and new earth will be populated by the hundreds who came to Jesus in their despicable horror and depravation.

I choose to let the Reverend Riggs alone in his solace. It's probably just as easy to make light of his comfort as to share it with him. Who knows what God wanted for him, His humble servant?
But what do I think of this awful story? How does it affect my heart, my soul?

I am humbled by the arrogance of human will, the sin that resides in all of us. There are, in this story, as many heroes as horrors, as many bloody savages among the Dakota as among the white settlers. We all have sinned. We all have gone astray.

I've tried to live in the story as best as anyone can from the distance of time and cultural character. I've tried to tell it as best I could. I've tried to be fair. Several times, I've wondered if, in fact, we would all be better off simply to forget.

What I know, however, is that going as far as I could into a terrifying chapter of American history has done this at least--it has humbled me, because I can feel in my bones the anger of the starving, penned-up Dakota at countless broken treaties, empty promises, and hateful agents. But I know too how I could come to hate the red man for the atrocities, the horrific murders of babies yet to be born, of children, of women and men. I can feel all of that emotion in me, rising, rising. And with that, my soul weeps.

And this I know too from the emptiness in me--Lord knows, I need a savior.
____________________
The photo above is the grave marker of Rev. Thomas Williamson, in an abandoned cemetary not far from St. Peter, Minnesota.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 14


"They must be exterminated," wrote one newspaper editorial, "and now is a good time to commence doing it."

Once the dust settled over southwest Minnesota, once most of the worst of the Dakota thugs had left north to Canada or west to the Dakota Territories, once four hundred Dakota men were rounded up and their wives and children brought into camp, the war-like drum beat from white folks still bleeding from too many horrific attacks began. No longer could white settlers live in any kind of peace with savages who'd often simply walked up to their doors and killed their loved ones. There were only two possible answers to the problem, white folks maintained, banishment and--even better--extermination.

Throughout the Dakota war, stories of heroism, of courage and immense human strength abound; but those are individual stories of men and women who somehow found within themselves the will to do what few others could or would, stories of selflessness and grace. The big story, the story I'm trying to tell here--the Dakota War of 1862--is simply awful, beginning to end. The end of all the shooting, all the killing did not mean the end of suffering.

The Dakota had every right to believe that they would be treated as enemy soldiers--many were told, in fact, that in exchange for their surrender under a flag of truce, they'd be treated as prisoners of war. They were not. White Minnesotans were in no mood for conciliation or reconciliation; retribution--vengeance--stormed through the Minnesota River valley and throughout the state.

"There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith," wrote Gen. John Pope, the military commander appointed by President Lincoln to quell the uprising. "It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux, if I have the power to do so. . . .Destroy everything belonging to them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts."

Almost immediately, military trials began, one after another, for Dakota men. The pastor, Stephen R. Riggs, was appointed a kind of grand jury, since his knowledge of the Dakota language enabled him to talk to and with the Sioux. He was the one who brought charges, once he'd determined, rightly or wrongly, what had gone on, who had done what, who had been where, and what degree of culpability each enemy combatant had in the war.

The political atmosphere was thick with bleeding vengeance, and Gen. Sibley, who appointed the men who conducted the hearings, understood that prolonged inaction (he'd been blamed for not acting fast enough ever since he'd been appointed to run the war) would only further inflame more hate--for everyone, including him.

Sometimes hearings for individual Dakota warriors lasted no more than five minutes. Sometimes if a warrior said he was at the battle of New Ulm or Ft. Ridgely or Birch Coulee, his mere presence there was sufficient grounds for a death sentence. Starting at the Upper Sioux Agency, then moving to the Lower, the hearings eventually sentenced 307 Native Minnesotans to death by hanging, 16 more to jail, and officially exonerated 69 others.

Anywhere other than Minnesota and the surrounding areas, the mere idea of hanging 307 human beings was impossible to comprehend. In Washington, pressure arose for President Lincoln to intervene somehow; so the administration asked for, and received, a full listing of those condemned to death, as well as what paper existed to prove their guilt.

Meanwhile, 4000 Dakota men, women, and children were marched east, through the very killing fields where people had been murdered and property burned, through New Ulm, whose residents had beaten off two full-blown attacks, through settlements where fear and hatred supercharged the citizenry. In several places, the cavalry had to draw swords and affix bayonets to keep white folks from willful murder among the phalanx that spread out four miles long. What had happened to the settlers was evil, horrible. By surrendering, the Dakota were getting their due, according to the white citizenry. Hundreds of whites were murdered, hundreds of Dakota would hang--there was, to some white folks, a kind of justice to that equation.
But President Lincoln listened to the pressures from afar and commuted the sentences of all but 39 of those Dakota prisoners. In a three-page letter that he wrote in his own hand, Lincoln condemned those who he believed to be plainly guilty of rape and murder, sentencing the others to prison terms.

One of those sentenced was later commuted, but on December 26, the day after Christmas, 1862, on a specially built scaffold created just for the occasion in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota men refused the hoods that traditionally accompanied hanging, choosing instead to have their faces visible, sang their death songs, and then were hung, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

William R. Duley was among the very first white settlers in Murray County, Minnesota, one of a group of pioneers who built cabins around Lake Shetek. Even though they were miles and miles away from the Lower Sioux Agency when the killing began, Duley and the other settlers became its victims nonetheless, when 200 Dakota made their way south and west to the white settlement, where they began to kill settlers.

When others heard about the deaths of some of their friends, they got together in an effort to fend off more death. Deception followed, and soon they left that cabin bound for New Ulm, far more than a day's travel away. When the Dakota attacked them, they took refuge in a slough, still to this day called Slaughter Slough, where, sadly, many of them were killed, several of those shot in the back while begging for mercy. Among the dead were two of William Duley's children, ages 6 and 10. Mrs. Duley reportedly had gotten down on her knees to beg for her children's lives. The Dakota promised her that her children would not be hurt, then simply murdered William, Jr., who was ten, right before her eyes.

Her husband, shot in the wrist, lived through the attack by escaping the slough in another direction. It was that man, William R. Duley, who played executioner and pulled the single rope connected to 38 gallows that awful day in Mankato, Minnesota, a man who'd lost a wife and two children in the uprising.

But somehow the whole story is even further darkened by a memory written in old history of the area, an explanation that goes like this: "Duley was a little inclined to boast of his prowess but the people that knew him thought very little of him after his leaving the slough where the women and children were."

In 2012, those Minnesotans who know anything at all about the story will know that 150 years have passed since the Dakota War of 1862. Whether or not anyone should talk about it, much less commemorate it, is a good question. There are heroes galore, really, in the story, but nothing in the tale itself is heroic.

Today, in downtown Mankato, a sculpted buffalo stands just across the street from the city library in a park that's called "Reconciliation Park." Almost everyone passing by--residents or travelers--will miss it. It is an indistinguishable street corner, and is itself an icon of an immensely sad story in the history of the region, the state, and the country, a story we would all rather forget.

There's more to say. I'm just not sure it's over.
So much about it simply begs to be forgotten.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 13


When General Henry Sibley came into the Indian village at the Upper Sioux Agency, he marched his troops in formally, as if in parade. He was aware that most of the "hostile" chiefs and their people were gone, but he wanted to make a statement: he wanted to swagger a little, wanted to show off the U.S. Army's rigid discipline and plain old might. He wanted to make a statement--not only to the Dakota people, but to his own troops.

He may not have had to show off at all. The Battle of Wood Lake could well have gone in another direction had not some hungry troops decided to raid Dakota gardens early in the morning. Had Little Crow's plan for a dawn raid gone off as planned, Sibley's troops could have suffered a major defeat. However, when that wagon just about ran over Dakota warriors who were edging along on their bellies in the prairie grass, the whole Dakota plan--and Sibley was totally unaware at the time--became almost a keystone cop-type failure.

What did happen, however, was more important in the story of the war. While the mess at Wood Lake was occuring, those Indians (some Sisseton, some Wahpeton, and some mixed bloods) simply took over guardianship the prisoners, which meant that their release was likely imminent.

The prisoners--almost all women and children--were a significant story themselves during the war. Little Crow thought of them as gold, the worthiest bargaining chip he had. It's important to remember that Little Crow honestly never thought the Dakota could win a war with the whites anyway; he determined that the white folks wanted the prisoners even more than they wanted the death of the Dakotas.

But Little Crow didn't have fulsome loyalty from the rest of the warriors, of course, and some of them, almost suicidal, were adamant about the prisoners--there were more than 200--suffering in exactly the same way they were going to suffer. Starvation, extermination--didn't matter a bit. Some chiefs had no thought for giving them back.

Life among the prisoners was sometimes horrific and sometimes not. Dakota women sometime treated them with kid gloves, protecting them from harm. Many, of course, had been friends, even good friends. But most prisoners, most of the time, suffered--and suffered badly. Many were not fed properly, and almost all were stripped of their clothes and dressed out as if they were Dakota themselves. In the earliest days of the war, after frontier raids that netted them horses and guns and food and more prisoners, some Dakota warriors drank far too much booty booze and unspeakable things happened.

They weren't without their news sources, of course, so when it became clear to the prisoners that some sort of release was possible, spirits soared. Then, when "the friendlies" took over their care, they were hesitant but hopeful that the worst was behind them. Sibley stayed at Wood Lake for a few days before continuing his march toward the Upper Agency, so freedom remained only a dream; but eventually he and his troops marched into the village in military splendor and the captives at what became known as Camp Release, were freed.

Nancy McClure was born in 1836 to a Dakota mother; her father was a white soldier. In 1851, she married David Fairbault, and together they farmed on the south bank of the Minnesota River, just a couple miles from the Lower Sioux Agency. When the war began, she and her husband--also mixed blood--and their son were all captured, their farm burned. Here's just a snippet of what she remembers as a prisoner of the Dakota:

"I cannot tell all the scenes I saw while I was a captive. Some were very painful. I knew many of the white prisoners I was with, but now I only remember the names of Mrs. Crothers, Mrs. White and her daughter and Miss Williams. Some of the women came to me at times and asked me to let them stay with me. It was hard to refuse them, but I thought it best. I saw many women, some of them French women, that I had met the winter before at the country dances and other parties I have spoken of.

"The night before the troops came to Camp Release, twenty or thrity Indians came in with a young white girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was nearly heartbroken, and quite in despair. When the half-breed men saw her they determined to rescue her, and we women encouraged them. Joe Laframboise and nine other mixed bloods went boldly up and took the girl from her brutal captors. The Indians threatened to shoot her if she was taken from them; but Joe was very brave, and said, 'We are going to have her if we have to fight for her; and if you harm her it will be the worse for you. Remember, we are not your prisoners any more." So they took her, and she was rescued at Camp Release."

The stories abound--some of them true, some probably not, some deftly spun. After all, there were reasons for everyone, really, to lie, once peace came.

If it ever has.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 12


The Dakota did not simply lay down their arms after the battle at Birch Coulee. Throughout the region, they mounted occasional attacks, but none that resulted in major battles or significant losses on either side.

After the carnage throughout the region, the government's attitude toward the rebel Sioux was simple: get rid of them. Chase them out of the state forever, or, if that couldn't be done, simply kill them all. Extermination. Ethnic cleansing. Mass murder.

In late August and early September, the commander of the government forces, Gen. Sibley, was roundly criticized by Minnesotans for his seemingly sluggish pursuit of the Dakota. Sibley, however, was unwilling to throw his own untested recruits (several of whom simply walked away daily) into a battle with Little Crow's men--he knew both Little Crow and the Native people of the region very well.

When he finally determined to move up to the Upper Agency, his troops had grown to almost 1700 strong. He'd received what he considered to be enough ammunition to move on, and the 90 horses who died at Birch Coulee had replaced. It was September 19 before he left Ft. Ridgely for the Upper Sioux Agency in pursuit of the Dakota, a month after those first deaths on a farm near Acton.

Sibley learned that Little Crow's army was not all of one mind. He'd left a note for Little Crow on the battlefield at Birch Coulee, suggesting that if the Dakota chief wanted to talk, he'd listen: "If Little Crow has any proposition to make to me, let him send a half-breed to me, and he shall be protected in and out of camp."

Little Crow's response was to explain why the Dakota had begun the war in the first place and to suggest that he was inclined to more talk about the many prisoners they'd taken. For a time, the communication between Sibley and Little Crow was invested in the brotherhood that had, oddly enough, existed between the two men before the war, when they'd been not only friends but hunting partners.

Two factors worked against any kind of peaceful settlement, however. First, Sibley himself was confident that the only manner of disposition now was to rid the territory of its first peoples. Second, Little Crow himself was not in full control of the warriors--the "soldier's lodge"--that had been most responsible for the murder and pillaging that went on in those early days was simply not about to be tamed into submission.

Submission, of course, to a warrior culture like the Dakota, is worse than death. What both Little Crow and his most fierce warriors hated worse than anything was any possibility of their being treated as if they were anything else than men, than fighting men. And while Little Crow made it clear to many that he would not be taken alive--he would prefer instead to die as a man than live as a captive--his vehemence was not as deliberate and strong as was some of the others who supposedly served under his leadership. His army hadn't been disciplined in that first bloody week of the war; time made the dissension only worse.

The missionary Stephen R. Riggs, who was traveling with the cavalry, got news of breakdown of discipline in the Dakota camp when the half-breed messengers who parleyed notes back and forth told him that not all of the people in Little Crow's camp listened to their chief. When Sibley heard that, it was clear to him that the kind of discussions he might have liked to have with his old friend about getting the prisoners back and ending the war simply weren't going to happen.

The last battle of the war was a ragtag affair that occured when Sibley camped in a place not all that far from the Dakota warriors, who he'd assumed, incorrectly, were miles away. They weren't, and on the morning of September 20, a party of hungry soldiers decided on their own to steal some potatoes from the garden at the Upper Agency. When they left on the sly, they were attacked by Dakota warriors who'd been sneaking up close to the larger encampment, getting into place to begin a more formidable attack.

What started when the undisciplined soldiers ran their wagon right through the advancing warriors ended two hours later, when the Dakota simply withdrew. When they did, fourteen Indian bodies were left in the prairie grass, some of which were scalped by the cavalry.

"The bodies of the dead," Sibley pronounced after hearing what happened, "even of a savage enemy shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized & christian men."

The Battle of Wood Lake wasn't much more than a skirmish--and it actually wasn't near Wood Lake. For the most part, however, it was the end of Dakota War of 1862--at least the end of military conflict.

The story, however, goes on.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 11



In retrospect, Major Joseph R. Brown should have known better than to camp where he and his men did on the night of September 1. After all, he'd been an Indian agent for some time, knew the Dakota, knew the area, in fact.

Maybe he was distracted by his own problems. He had a personal stake in the assignment because his own wife and children had been taken captive. He must have been desperate to find them. Once more, ever since leaving Sibley's command, he and his men hadn't seen an Indian anywhere. All day long they'd been burying rotting corpses.

In his memoir of the war, 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, remembers that burial detail well. "The things we saw that day were too terrible to describe. Scattered along the road and at burned cabins we found the bodies of settlers, mostly men and boys. Fifty we buried before reaching the ferry. There the most gruesome sight of all awaited us. One the road lay the bodies of 33 young men, most of them in two files where they fell when the Sioux Fired from almost point-blank range--killed in their tracks without returning a shot. All had been scalped and the uniforms had been stripped from their bodies. We dug at a furious pace in our haste to conceal the fearful sight."

Coursolle claims he was worried about Dakota being in the neighborhood, and he told Brown as much. He'd seen small piles of stripped kinnickinick in the trees, and he knew the Dakota used the bark to wad their guns. Amazing at it seems, he and the others in the Brown party must have traversed much the same ground all day long as considerable numbers of Sioux--but not encountered a one. When, at the end of the day, the Dakota spotted half the group up on the top of the river bluffs, they tailed them until the troops circled up the camp. The Dakota determined simply to take them, a group they thought was no bigger than a few dozen troops. Brown must have assumed that Little Crow's warriors, having suffered defeat at both Ft. Ridgely and New Ulm, had high-tailed for the empty spaces of the Dakota Territory, straight west.

He was wrong. They hadn't left. At least not all of them. The site he chose for the camp that night that was high up and out in the open, exceedingly vulnerable to attack from every side--from trees and draws on the east and south, and the slightly rolling prairie on the north and west.

Birch Coulee looks much the same today as it did 150 years ago--a field of prairie grass surrounded on two sides by wooded ravines. It's so ordinary and peaceful that it's hard to believe one of the most costly battles of the 1862 war took place on such a seemingly harmless little chunk of prairie grasses. But you can't alter history. People died at Birch Coulee--13 cavalry and just a few Dakota. Dozens were wounded, many severely.

The attack came at dawn, the Dakota surrounding the camp on every side. To them, it must have seemed, for a time, like shooting fish in a barrel. At least thirty men were wounded in just a few minutes; ninety horses--they were tethered to the wagons that surrounded the tents--were shot and killed. Eventually, those soldiers who survived in Brown's camp used the horses' bodies--and even their dead comrades--as cover to keep the Dakota at bay.

The sound of gunfire that day run up the Minnesota River valley, all the way to Ft. Ridgely, where Sibley put together a relief party of 240 men and sent them scurrying down the road to find the battle. When they encountered some trouble themselves, a messenger was sent back to the fort, begging for reinforcements. Sibley himself and most of his men left immediately, hundreds more.

By the time they got to Birch Coulee, on September 3, the Dakota had fled, conscious of the new overwhelming numbers against them. Even though the cavalry had suffered the worst casualties of the war, already by the time of the bloody battle of Birch Coulee there was no question about the outcome of the war.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Morning Thanks--an old picture


We have a closet full of slides. We have no slide projector, and, even if we did, who really would want to come over to see a couple thousand pictures of our kids growing up. Last week, my granddaughter found a handful of slides and wondered what on earth they were. "Can we make some?" she asked me.

Slides are ancient media.

We can't just toss them, so there is only one answer: digitize 'em. How?--send them off?--buy a printer that'll do it?--get a machine? I settled on the last, and I've been at it sporadically, as I will be for the next 100 years.

The word nostalgia, to me at least, is sweet--and it is sweet to go through those hundreds of snapshots of kids and places that no longer look at all as they do today. In actuality, I'm told, the word nostalgia is a relative newcomer to the English language, borrowed from modern Latin and somehow redolent with the idea of homesickness. But then there's some Greek involved here too, because my dictionary claims that word's infrastructure is a composite--Greek nostos "homecoming" + algos "pain."

Only when I read that am I willing to admit that looking closely at old family slides is, in fact, nostalgia, because some indefinite pain is definitely involved, pain that, at least to this old Calvinist, often pushes sweet sentiment out the back door. I hate to admit it, but spending time looking at ancient slides has side that's something of a "painful homecoming."

Take this one. Just a few months after our daughter was born, and probably a few weeks after completing the school year, the three of us Arizonans--we'd only been a trio since March--went on a one-day trip to Sedona, I believe, where I snapped this shot of the two most important women in my life.

But when I pulled this slide out of the tray, I recognized in a moment exactly what I'd felt when I shot the picture. I knew, for the first time, really, that the baby in her lap had changed my wife in ways I was only beginning to discover. She really couldn't put herself into the joy of this little getaway because she was, by body and soul, incapable of putting herself anywhere but into that brand new little girl in her lap. We were in Sedona, Arizona, a gorgeous place; but really she'd never left home. My wife was a new mom, and I knew--just as most every husband somehow does--that from this time forth and forever more, I would no longer be the sole recipient of her love.

At Sedona, she was deeply distracted. On vacation, she wasn't. It was impossible for her get away. Something--someone else, a dear child--dominated her attention.

That's what I remember thinking about the day I took this picture, and it's what I see in the image. It's a homecoming all right--I'm going back to a place I was, camera in hand, more than 35 years ago.

And there's pain too--but it's not from some sense of displacement, some psychic anger at having to share love. The pain from the old photographs arises from something else, maybe a wish, just for a moment, to turn back the clock, to sit there again somewhere outside of Sedona, to see my wife and our brand new baby in her lap, to know that life is not only good but different, once again, much different. The pain comes from knowing I can't. All I've got is the slide.

This morning, Sunday morning, I'm very thankful for the memories I pulled from an old slide tray.

But I'm also thankful for a line from Ephesians, second chapter, about workmanship--how that's what we are, in fact: "we are God's workmanship'; and the sheer fact, if you believe the Word, that right then and there he was--God, that is--working on us, on me, on my wife, even on that child, whose baby pictures number in the hundreds. We are what he does. And when I snapped this picture, that day, he wanted me to know something more about the woman I married, the baby I'd fathered, and the man--the husband and the father--I was going to need to become.

There's some comfort in the sweet homecoming pain of endless trays of old slides, just as there is in knowing that he's still at work, shaping us, just as he was in Sedona--all three of us. He's still putting us together. We're still his works-in-progress.

We are his workmanship.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 10


"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 soldeirs 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. Once it was clear that both New Ulm and Ft. Ridgely weren't going to fall, once it was clear that the Dakota dream of retaking their territory wasn't going to happen in the way he hoped it would, Little Crow headed northwest to the Upper Agency residents, ready to enlist them--or even draft them--into the cause, by force if necessary. The only way to win, he determined, was by increasing his manpower.

But the Upper Sioux Agency folks would have nothing of it. They were Sissetons and Wahpetons, and many of them were "farmer Indians." When they saw the hundreds of white women and children, as well as mixed bloods, held captive--and those captives' wretched condition--they were appalled. They'd hadn't joined the war effort; now, seeing all those suffering children, they were horrified.

"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. You have said that whoever talks in this way shall not live--that you will kill him. Stop talking in that way, and if anyone says what is good, listen to it."

The "hostiles," as they were called, weren't interested in throwing in the towel on what they'd begun, and they made it clear that they wouldn't. Things got tense before Little Crow's people simply turned around and went back east. The people from Upper Sioux didn't like what was going on, so they painted their bodies and readied themselves for war--not against the whites, but against the Dakotas. For a time, some kind of new, huge bloodletting seemed imminent--a war between the Indians.

On Friday morning, August 29, about 100 braves from the Upper Sioux Agency went after the Dakota to demand the return of the property of the farmer Indians and mixed bloods they'd killed or taken captive.

In what must have been one of the most dramatic moments of the war, Little Paul fearlessly lined up his warriors in the middle of Little Crow's camp and asked the hostiles why they'd gone to war against the whites, a question he said he'd asked before, a question for which he'd never received an answer, he said. Then he 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 to me."

His words didn't prompt a thousand warriors to leave Little Crow. But some of the chief's warriors did cross over and join with the Upper Sioux farmers, enough so that even more of the warring spirit fled from the Dakota, who'd just a day or so earlier suffered defeats at both New Ulm and Ft. Ridgely.

Little Crow swore to fight on, but historians believe that his most immediate goal at this point was self-preservation. He told the Sisseton and Wahpetons that, should the whites capture him, they would surely put him on display in a cage like an animal. It's likely that he wouldn't have been wrong on that score.

The confrontation between the Christian Indians and hostiles had to be one of the most crucial moments in the war, even though no guns were fired and no blood was shed. The war itself--and the story--was nowhere near over; but what was manifestly clear was that Little Crow was right when he, just a few nights ago, had warned his people that taking on the whites could only end in disaster.

If I were Native today, I don't know how I'd feel about Little Paul and his Christian Indians. They were peacemakers, but they were also pragmatic. They'd already thrown in their lot with the very paleface people who'd robbed all the Sioux of their land and their heritage. They'd made their bed as turncoats, and to Little Crow and his most fierce warriors, they were simply traitors.

To the whites in 1862 Minnesota, they were not warriors but ministers of peace. They were not driven by their own regard for being Sioux, but by expediency, by comprimise, by giving in and giving up. They'd cut their hair and worn shirts and pants as if they were white. "Stop fighting," Little Paul told the warriors.

And yet, 150 years later, it's hard to imagine anyone more responsible for saving hundreds of captured settlers--some men, but mostly women and children--who'd been taken hostage by the Dakota. Maybe no one saved more human beings than the Christian Indians.

Just two days ago, in Morton, Minnesota, we stopped at a local museum. Last year, I'd stopped in that small town and asked about a couple of old monuments erected more than a century ago, monuments I'd never seen but I knew were erected somewhere east of the village. With the help of downtown merchant, I found them on a barely navigable gravel road, up on a bluff in a setting that was almost totally unkept, beer cans littering the grounds.

I couldn't find them back when we returned this week, so we'd stopped in the museum, hoping to get directions. Two people, white folks, were working in the museum, but they really didn't know for sure where the monuments were, even though those impressive markers, fifty feet high, stood less than a half mile from the museum's own front door.

On our own, we found them back. One of those monuments is dedicated to Little Paul and the other "faithful Indians."

In calling those Indians "faithful," that monument is, today, painfully politically in-correct. Some, I'm sure--white and Dakota--would rather have them lost forever. They'd rather no one ever saw them.

I'm not judging anyone, only thinking about the political reality. Praising--and celebrating--those Indians who turned their backs on their own brothers and sisters, on their own native character and culture, is not particularly easy today, even though those men and women may well have saved as many lives as "the hostiles" took.

The historians at the Morton museum were white--and they didn't know where to find those moments either. Maybe no one should talk about what happened just up the road 150 years ago. Maybe the whole story is too full of sin, on every possible side, in every beating heart, no matter what the color of the chest.

Maybe we all should keep quiet and forget those somehow seemingly embarrassing monuments all through the Minnesota River valley, as well as the horrible story itself. Maybe so.

I don't know, but somehow I think not.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Morning Thanks--paired beauty


The truth is, I'd never even heard of such a thing as commercial duck hunting. It's difficult for me to imagine anyone grabbing a double-barrel and going to work on a pond or river or lake, setting out decoys or getting behind a blind, and pummelling away.

It happened, I guess, and not all that far from where I live. Just a bit north, in southwest Minnesota, a landscape created by glaciers created a topography festooned with sweet, shallow ponds, maybe four to six feet deep, just deep enough for the kinds of critters ducks love to scoop off the bottom. Any deeper and, some of them at least, would have to don scuba gear. Lake Heron used to be the New York of waterfowl.

So there were thousands here once upon a time, and, if our spotting them was any indication, there still are hundreds around on myriad farm ponds and a couple dozen of Minnesota's smaller prairie lakes. The whole neighborhood around Windom, I'm told by an unimpeachable source, used to be home to America's most lucrative commercial duck hunting.

That was back when duck was even a working man's delicacy. Today, yo order duck only in five-star restaurants. You can't run into Macs or KFC and pick up a teal meal. Don't think I've ever heard of wood duck hot wings or mallard McNuggets.

A man told us, just yesterday, how his grandfather used to shoot 500 ducks a day. Let's guess fall, okay, and a ten-hour span of daylight. You do the math. That's a lot of shooting per hour. And a lot of retrieving. And plucking.

Once upon a time, when it became illegal to pick off waterfowl at that rate, a burgeoning black market grew up on the prairie. That's what we were told.

Anyway, yesterday we were in the heart of what once was America's greatest duck hunting wetlands. And that's where we came upon these two--a picture of elegance and grace.


All day, it didn't stop raining, an awful day for a tour, good day for the ducks; but these two swans reminded me that there's really no such thing as an ugly duckling. They're some kind of proof that sheer lines can be gorgeous. Yesterday, all day long, out hunting things to learn, we didn't lack for beauty, even though the day was intensely dreary.

But these two, even now, only digitally, are a reminder of precious character of beauty itself, and worthy subjects for my morning thanks.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862--Chapter 9


The frontier both produced and attracted colorful characters like Judge Charles Flandrau, who was born in New York (his father practiced law with Aaron Burr), but, like so many others infected with wanderlust, moved west eventually, to a trading capital on the Minnesota River named Traverse des Sioux, just north of present day St. Peter.

When it became clear that New Ulm was under siege, Flandrau assembled a militia and headed west to the German village on the river, committed to bring aid. Soon enough, he was appointed (or somehow became) the military leader.

Flandrau's men were vastly more willing to fight than they were trained to do it. Hardly anyone had fought an Indian before, and that fact, the Judge insisted, worked against the settlers and their hastily assembled help. "White men, Flandrau once wrote, "fight under a great disadvantage the first time they engage Indians. There is something so fiendish in their yells and terrifying in their appearancfe when it battle, that it takes a great deal of time to overcome the unpleasant sensation it inspires. Then there is a snakelike stealth in all their movements that excites distrust and uncertainty which unsteadies the nerves at first."

It wasn't until Saturday morning that the Dakota, led by Little Crow himself, decided once more to try to take the city. They expected little resistance. By that time, the place had become overrun with refugees, but they'd also gained some fighters, other volunteers who were able to sneak into the city, even though most of the countryside was full of marauding Dakota warriors. Little Crow wasn't going to walk over New Ulm.

His plan of attack included a diversion, which Flandrau fell for, sending 75 of his men out to determine just exactly what was going on at Fort Ridgely. Little Crow's men set fires, whose billowing smoke was meant to trigger that kind of response; but they were pure subterfuge.

Mid-morning, the Dakota fighting force formed a huge line to the north of the settlement, visible to all within the barracaded section of the town the settlers had cordoned off. To counter the imminent attack, Flandrau ordered a significant number of his fighting men to go out from the fortified area and into the houses on the perimeter of the village to try to stop Little Crow's men before they get close to the more than a thousand refugees who were cowering in the basement of a couple of New Ulm's larger buildings.

When the braves advanced with a gigantic cavalcade of shrieking, those perimeter fighters lost their cool, just as Flandrau had said. Some say that had the Dakota pursued them, the town could well have been taken, right then and there. Instead, the did whatever pillaging they could in the defenseless buildings just outside the fortifications.

Two things happened that changed the course of things somewhat. First, a gaggle of sharpshooters called the Le Sueur Tigers (named after their village) kept hold of a windmill by blocking entry and simply picking off whatever Dakota warriors attempted to come near. They were equipped with the finest rifles of all of Flandrau's forces. Second, once the retreating settlers realized that the Dakota were otherwise occupied, they fortified their own positions, even burned some of the outlying buildings themselves to keep the goods from getting into Dakota hands.

It was, by any measure, a horrifying battle, in which 60 settlers dropped in the first hour--ten dead, fifty wounded.

A few hours into what developed into a stalemate, Little Crow decided to attempt another charge, this time from the south, up from the river. Once again, Flandrau sent some of his men outside the fortifications and into the houses on the edge of the village. Some of the roughest hand-to-hand fighting took place on the south side of town, and neither side seemed to gain significant advantage. Death and dying was occuring all around.

Little Crow grew worried. Nightfall would come soon enough, and his people hated fighting at night against an enemy they couldn't see. He assembled sixty of his men to make another charge at the barricades on Main Street.

People advised Flandrau that they'd be powerless against yet another front and urged the whole town to move into a stand of trees. Flandrau thought such a move would be disastrous, and determined that the best defense might be an attack they'd perpetuate themselves. "Get me forty or fifty handpicked volunteers and help me lead them, and we will drive the enemy out of the lower town and die trying," he told his men.

When the men assembled, he told them that going after the band of Dakota in the trees would be their last hope. So they did. Like the Dakota, that band of brave men left the barricades of the village, rifles in hand, screaming and yelling. Once again, fighting raged, but this time the settlers were clearly a match for Little Crow's warriors. When it became clear that his fighting force was probably too far away from the village and in danger of being cut off, Flandrau ordered his men to burn all the houses on the south side of town so there'd be no cover for the Dakota.

The settlers had successfully warded off the very best that Little Crow could throw at them. Thirty-two settlers died, 60 were wounded, and most all of New Ulm, Minnesota was burning. Almost 200 houses had been torched.

What he'd expected from the very first council meeting, the council when he told all chiefs who wanted war that nothing they could do could defeat the waves of white people who would come to defend their own, had become a reality. The war was lost. It wasn't over, but Little Crow had to know that his failure to take Ft. Ridgely--and his failure to take New Ulm--despite his own overwhelming numbers--did not bode well for the Dakota.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Morning Thanks--young men dreaming dreams


Once upon a time, when I asked how he was doing, some old friend of mine told me he had arrived at that time in life when he had to rethink his visions, lower the reach of his dreams.

I know that time. In a certain way, I suppose, it's called growing up--or, more certainly, growing old.

Maybe that's why I like this little shot of my grandson, who at eight months doesn't yet dream in the English language and may well believe that the world is nothing more a rubber ball he can hold in his hand.

I don't care. When he's sitting on my lap, his grandpa thinks he has every right to think he has the world at his fingertips. Because when he's sitting there, I become as much a child as he is.

It's just dang hard to be a cynic with a baby in your lap. And for that fact--and, of course, for him--this morning, I'm greatly thankful.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Dakota War of 1862-- chapter 8


I am deeply taken by the life and work of Rev. Stephen R. Riggs, Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota, who, by 1862, when the whole region descended into chaos, had worked among Native people in the Minnesota River valley for almost 25 years. In his memoir, Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux (1880), Riggs confesses painfully that when first he heard the horrific tidings of slaughter, he wondered whether all his work was in vain. “But often the thought came to us,” he says, “what will become of our quarter-century’s work among the Dakota. It seemed to be lost.”

My interest in Riggs arises from an understanding that perhaps no single cultural force was so intensely destructive of the Dakota way of life as the work of Christian missionaries. Confessing Jesus Christ as savior changed human beings, altered passions and behavior, and prompted those who did to renounce sinful ways they often simply equated with their own Dakota culture. I am myself a believer, and I know the impulse of the gospel imperative to go into all the world and preach the gospel, a command given by none other than the ascending Lord. I understand Rev. Stephen R. Riggs calling, and that of his contemporaries, who wished, more than anything, to bring all God’s children home to his love.

In 1862, there were dozens, maybe hundreds of Christian Dakota, some of them—maybe many of them—half-breeds. Those who were Christian believers frequently distinguished themselves by such behaviors as wearing the white man's clothes, cutting their hair, and becoming “farmer Indians.” In many cases, the traditionalists hated “farmer Indians” and mixed bloods just as deeply as they did the white people who’d stolen their land.

What makes the story even more confusing—which is to say, more human—is the fact that in the intense heat of all the horror, more than a few “Christian” Dakota became as savage any, as if their conversions had never amounted to anything more than a haircut.

On Monday night, when word of what was unimaginable first reached Riggs’ mission compound, forty miles away from the Lower Sioux Agency, one of those believers, a man named Paul, came to Riggs and his wife and begged for blue cloth, because he knew that only if he shed his white man’s clothes and returned to a breechcloth could he escape death at the hands of his own people. It must have been mystifying—and very scary.

That evening, Mary Riggs put her children to bed; but as more and more refugees, some of them hurt, came into the compound and told their stories, and as more and more of the “Christian” Dakota let the Riggs know that this fierce activity wasn’t simply some drunken spat, those people most in danger at the mission knew they had to act. Riggs led his people in prayer, and together they sang hymns, an Isaac Watts’ version of Psalm 46, “God is the refuge of his saints,” Riggs remembers.

God is the refuge of His saints,
When storms of sharp distress invade;
Ere we can offer our complaints,
Behold Him present with His aid.

Loud may the troubled ocean roar;
In sacred peace our souls abide;
While every nation, every shore,
Trembles, and dreads the swelling tide.

There is a stream, whose gentle flow
Supplies the city of our God,
Life, love, and joy, still guiding through,
And wat’ring our divine abode.

And then they left their homes behind, after midnight, almost completely unarmed, bound for an island in the river where they hoped they might be safe to ride out the ugliness.

The next morning, Riggs himself stole back to the compound to hear the latest reports. What he heard made it clear to him that the several dozen people in his makeshift, island refugee camp couldn’t safely stay any longer where they assumed they could.

When they left the next afternoon, afraid of ambush, they met other parties of men and women and children—some of them deeply traumatized, in shock, also trying to escape. A man wounded in an attack came up out of nowhere it seemed; they made room for him in one of the company’s few wagons.

Late that afternoon, the rain began and didn’t quit until the next day. “The first night we were out, some of smaller children called for home,” Riggs wrote. “The next night some of the older children would have cried had it been any use.”

By Thursday morning, as they headed for faraway Henderson, they were already out of food. They gathered wood from a grove, killed one of their cows, and roasted it over the fire. They had no utensils or pots and pans. And at that moment, a photographer escaping with them took this picture, one of the few photographs of the entire 1862 Dakota war.


On Friday, they abandoned their original plans when they came close enough—16 miles--to Ft. Ridgley and determined that they would seek shelter there. However, one of their number sneaked close enough to the fort, and what he found—burning buildings, masses of frantic homesteaders, considerable fighting—convinced him that the beleaguered company should return to the original plan, which meant, of course, more travel. They had no provisions, and, of course, they believed that at any moment they could be attacked. And about that, they weren’t wrong.

What was worse, however, was the steady witness they had to horrible destruction—as they stumbled along, they found burning homes, and frequent dead and burned and mutilated corpses. On the Sabbath, they came to a crossroads, where many others were congregated. In the presence of greater numbers, they felt at least somewhat safe—for the first time.

There are far, far more horrible stories than the story of the Riggs party’s desperate escape, but Riggs is a central character in this entire sorry tale. He’d studied the Dakota language and written a primer, a book you can still order from Barnes and Noble, Dakota Grammar with Texts and Ethnography, a book that not only describes the Dakota language, but provides the texts of traditional stories and myths from Dakota life.

He was a missionary who preached the gospel of Christ, a gospel that transformed new believers in ways that sometimes angered the traditionalists, as well it might. But he was not brutal or xenophobic. He was a 19th century American evangelical missionary, subject to all the prejudices we might assume someone from his era was. But he certainly didn’t hate the people he served.

And despite the fact that he and his wife and family had to run for their lives once the war began, he plays a continuing central role. He and his family left his mission compound behind, but he simply would not go away. Rev. Stephen R. Riggs will return.