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.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dakota War--XIV

"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.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Dakota War--XIII

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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dakota War--XII

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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dakota War--XI

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.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Light unto my path

Walking along the Floyd River this morning, I found myself oddly haunted by a lyric I rarely think much about: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path..."  You know.  Broken sunlight creates remarkable features where there otherwise is none, grace from fungus, dead limbs and fallen leaves. 

Today, the morning sun was a light unto my path. Write your own sermon.

Dakota War--X

"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.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


“What is man that you are mindful of him. . .” Psalm 8

As I write, cable news is all geared up for the Republican National Convention, about to begin, hurricane or not.  In the evenings, the GOP will trot out their best and brightest to inspire thousands gathered in Tampa, and millions around the country.  New Tea Party stars will woe ‘em with their own brand of beloved ideology and sheer mystique.  Stem-winding rookies will parade up front like perfect foals at a county fair.  The candidates themselves will shake the rafters, I’m sure.

In a month, the Democrats will gather, and other than a directional spin here or there, the rhetoric will likely be pretty much the same—we care, the opposition doesn’t; we know the way, the opposition are beanbrains.  The names on the signs will be different, of course, and, probably, the color of the balloons; but their convention will also be, as an NPR headline said this morning, a “love fest.”
I like ‘em.  Most of the speeches are inspiring—and they will be next month too.  The rhetoric is just about the best rhetoric around, and what’s formulated in the back rooms is public policy, the direction a party creates to steer the ship of state into an always perilous future.  People are dying in Afghanistan; jobs are still leaving this nation as plentifully as immigrants are arriving, unemployment won’t dip beneath eight per cent.  Despite the balloons, these “love fests” are high-stake enterprises, promising, as all of them do, a far brighter day because hope is on the way.  That’s what everyone says.

Viewership is down from the old days. People aren’t watching.  Maybe the entertainment just isn’t exciting enough to draw a crowd.  Maybe a ton of us just don’t care.  Sometimes, I think we’re really a pitiful lot. We don’t much care about significant issues.  Sometimes it’s not hard to echo David:  “what is man that thou art mindful of him?”

What a lot of the electorate knows is that these love fests are just so many fancy words, because, really, what makes Democrats or Republicans think they can do something about Islamic fundamentalism, the debt crisis, or health care?  To many of us—me too sometimes—the problems we face appear greater than the reach of tinseled rhetoric.  Political dialogue is a fancy phrase for hot air.

Let’s get real.  Conventions, like retreats, even spiritual retreats, are designed to inspire, to uplift, to generate joy sufficient to carry us through darkness we all know lies directly down the path before us.

David knew, from the inside, his own emptiness.  Even as King he suffered derision; as a believer he behaved wretchedly.  David knew the emptiness of his own rhetoric, even in his songs.
But, amazingly, he kept singing, as we all must, because he knew, in his heart and his soul, and his mind that hope was on the way. 
There is, in this life, enough reason for all of us to despair; but there is—listen to David—great reason, always, to hope.
Despite our bully pulpits, the good news of eternity is simply this--that God loves us.  That’s what David promises, and that’s what the Lord, by way of his favorite singer, promises us too. 

That’s real talk.  Nothing empty there.           

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Dakota War--IX

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.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dakota War--VIII

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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Dakota War--VII

In a poignant scene from The New Land, an beautiful film about early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, Kristina Nillson, played by Liv Ullman, is sleepless in the family's log cabin. She can't stop weeping because she is utterly forlorn with homesickness--she misses Sweden horribly. Her husband, Karl-Oskar (Max Van Sydow), is powerless to stanch her tears, it seems, until he tells her that, once their house is built, they'll call it--and the whole neighborhood--New Smaland, after their Swedish home. With that assurance, Kristina smiles for the first time.

The rural Midwest is littered with New Smalands--New Berlin, New Holland, New Prague. I'd never quite understood what joy such names might bring to that very first wave of European immigrants until I saw that scene from The New Land. If they were going to be here, in a wilderness, what joy it must have brought to somehow, fancifully, call that wilderness home.

Such was, I suppose, New Ulm, a German immigrant community of folks who'd come here en masse, almost a thousand strong. Before the war, no one particularly liked them--whites or Indians--because, like immigrant groupings ever before and after, they wanted dearly to hole up with each other and not mind the foreign world scrambling wordlessly around them.

The Dakota found the New Ulm Germans far less, well, giving than their non-German neighbors; and their non-German neighbors felt the New Ulmsters curiously clannish and even a bit heathen. But as a people they worked hard, and their little German colony was successful in every possible way, as were their farms.

Coming from Europe and knowing little about the American frontier, they weren't particularly well-armed. They were odd people, really foreigners, unready for battle. What's worse, their town was laid out perfectly for an attack, easy pickin's; but they were hearty and smart, as the Dakota would soon discover.

The first attack came on Tuesday afternoon, almost a day after the settlers had swarmed into the village to band together for safety and readiness. Lines of defense were erected, the streets were strewn with wagons and whatever else might impede a viscious Dakota advance. Lines of fire were created to man the perimeter of the village, and, almost comically, a third wave force of men within the fortified town, in lieu of guns, brandished pitchforks. Of the 100 men there, only thirty had guns.

Casualties occured on both sides in that first attack on New Ulm, but when the fighting began, at three in the afternoon, it lacked precision and power because that day the Dakota were basically leaderless. They were not a fighting force; they were 100 headstrong warriors acting pretty much on their own, and their ragged assaults never really made much headway against the German defenders behind the barricades they'd assembled.

By evening, a thunderstorm pounded the whole region, putting an end to things. The Dakota stopped firing and called off their attack, surprised at how little they'd gained--how nothing had fallen their way. It was, in fact, a defeat, their first. Taking New Ulm wasn't anything like slaying homesteaders.

Inside the barricades, the Germans were sure that the war wasn't over; but things were looking better than they had early in the afternoon.

They'd kept the Dakota away, but clearly they were under siege.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dakota War--VI

What happened in the Minnesota River valley in 1862 is a horror that goes by a dozen names at least, one of which is "Little Crow's War." In a way, it was. In a tragic way, however, it wasn't.

After March led his ill-fated band of soldiers into an attack he should have foreseen at Redwood Ferry, Ft. Ridgely's roll of fighting me--if they could be called that--numbered less than thirty. Little Crow had, battle ready, four hundred Dakotas--and that doesn't include the bands who were out killing and looting.

Which is not to say there were only thirty human beings at Ft. Ridgely. Almost as soon as the butchery began, survivors, runaways, and walking wounded started coming into the Fort. Now Ridgely never was a "fort" in the sense of "fortress"; there were no huge log walls, nor was there some kind of impenetrable gate. The refugees gained solace in their horror only from being with others, numbers of them. Only because it was hell to be away from the fort was the fort any real comfort at all.

Little Crow wanted the fort, and if he'd taken it, the war and its aftermath could have been significantly different. He wasn't stupid. He'd opposed the war from the get-go, told the young turks that there were thousands of white people for every one of them in the valley and that soon enough more than they could count would come riding up, with artillery, duty-bound to end the bloodshed by killing off every last one of the Dakota.

Little Crow's end strategy was to secure the whole valley, take hundreds of prisoners, and then negotiate an end to the war from a position of power. He had no dreams of tossing every last white face from Minnesota; he knew that would never happen. If the Dakota were to remove all the white people from their land and hold a thousand captives as bargaining chips, they could begin to talk about significant change. He hated the mindless rampage of rape and murder. He knew every bloody story white people told would make negotiation--and victory--more downright impossible. He wanted military gains, not more wives.

Monday night was long and hard for the men and the refugees at Ft. Ridgely. All through the darkness that night, they believed some kind of attack was imminent; but it hadn't come. Early Tuesday morning some lookout discovered a sprawling band of Indians two miles west. With his telescope, he could see them painted in battle colors, their wagons behind them. They were ready to fight and to win, to pillage at will, to carry away the wealth of goods they'd find at the fort.

Little Crow brought his warriors to a halt. He knew he had to convince them--including the cold-blooded murderers among them--that taking Ft. Ridgely was the smart thing to do, not an easy argument. After all, the bloodthirsty figured that any victory there would get them little more than some dead soldiers, soldiers who had fought as valiantly as Dakota braves when they were pinned down at Redwood Ferry. What they'd prefer is the easy pickins of isolated white homesteads, little more than target practice--and the booty was oh, so sweet.

That morning, Little Crow mustered his most eloquent self for yet another council meeting about two miles from the fort. He tried to convince his people--who hadn't been his people, really--that the fort was the legitimate path to victory. Some chiefs dissented; the Dakota were democratic, after all. Arguments swelled, positions solidified. There were winners and losers that early morning, and when all was said and done, Little Crow, whose war, in some ways, it never was, lost once again.

To many Dakota, New Ulm--this odd little German immigrant community--was too juicy a target. They knew the Germans weren't armed, there was going to be much more to win, and, as some chiefs argued there within sight of the fort, there'd be women, much prettier, much younger, great wives.

Perhaps that council, within sight of Ft. Ridgely, was the beginning of the end. Had Little Crow won that day at that moment, had those 400 braves attacked the couple dozen fighting men at the fort, had they taken the artillery for their very own, all the ammunition and horses and supplies, the whole war effort just may have wound its way to a different outcome.

But to many Dakota braves, New Ulm seemed too fat and sweet a target. They decided, right there on the flat land above the Minnesota River, within sight of Ft. Ridgely, to head instead to New Ulm. Little Crow lost--and so did they.

In just a few hours--and Little Crow knew it and he'd told them--those very few troops at the Fort would feel their numbers swell. Reinforcements were on their way. In just a few hours, taking the fort would require much more Dakota blood. He'd told them that, too.

But the warriors wanted New Ulm. Little Crow had lost the battle and the war.

The video below begins at the southeast corner of Ft. Ridgely today, then pans slowly west and north until you'll see the remant outlines of what once was a fort. There are no walls and never were. What's visible here is a dangerous location of the fort, steep valleys on several sides, perfect cover for the Dakota warriors. Behind the building is open plain. Out there, post sentries first spotted the 400 Dakota warriors at the place Little Crow chose for a council, a council that determined to attack New Ulm first.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Dakota War--V

Years ago, I read Scarlet Plume, a novel by Frederick Manfred. I read the book because I admired the author, who, years later, became a good friend. That novel left a lasting impression on me because of the horrors Manfred related--the gruesome,bloody deaths of white settlers in what was called, for years, the Sioux Uprising of 1862. Manfred related what he'd read in the records, the diaries, the memoirs of the white survivors. Those stories cannot easily be forgotten.

The Dakota cause was to rid the region of white people. Small bands of warriors roamed hither and yon throughout the territory in an incredibly wide arc, killing people, butchering them--often literally butchering them.

Early on Thursday morning, August 21, four Dakota men rode up to the home of Lars and Gure Anderson, fifty miles north of the Lower Sioux Agency. The Dakotas were dressed in white man's clothes, their hair cut in white man's fashion. They carried shotguns, but for white folks it wasn't unusual to suddenly host armed Indian men on their way to hunting grounds.

The Andersons treated them kindly and thought little of the moment. After Lars gave them sine fresh milk, however, they killed him right there on the spot, then went out to the garden where a son was digging potatoes, and shot him dead too. Another son ran to the doorway of the house to see what had happened, and they shot him. Mrs. Anderson grabbed her three-year old daughter and hid in the cellar, but two other daughters, ten and fifteen, ran into the grass, where caught, and raped.

Mrs. Anderson was thrown into horror. Her daughters were screaming, her sons and her husband were either dead or dying, and she had hold of her only unmolested child. Should she abandon the cellar and risk their lives as well? She stayed put, in horror, all day long, waited until nightfall before venturing forth from her hideout.

Dazed, in shock, holding her three-year-old, she walked aimlessly all night long, ending up the next morning somehow back at her own ransacked home. Deathly afraid, she determined that if she was going to die, she might as well do so in her own house, so she reentered the cabin and found the son who'd been wounded in the doorway, a bloodied child who had nearly lost his senses. The Dakota were gone.

Mrs. Anderson hitched two oxen to a sled, put her wounded son and her three-year old on it, and set out for her son-in-law's cabin, hoping for safety. Before she left, she cried over the bodies of her husband and her son who'd been killed in the garden.

Her son-in-law's cabin had also been attacked. The dead were all around, but she also found two survivors, loaded them on her makeshift wagon and left for Forest City.

Those two young, violated daughters somehow miraculously escaped their captors. Eventually they too found their way to Forest City, passing the naked corpses of their neighbors, heads severed, skin stripped from their bodies, long gashes running up and down the rotting torsos.

Multiply that story a hundred times--and more. Use your imagination and make it even worse because even more horrifying things happened, more blood flowed, more wanton, brutal killing was let loose on the entire region. So much horror that five hundred miles in all directions, white settlers left their farms and circled up their wagons in small frontier towns, confident that they would be next to be attacked.

Transgressions against the Dakota people were impossibly unforgivable. Annuities promised were not delivered. Agents were notorious crooks. A way of life was utterly destroyed by hoards of white settlers. 30,000 immigrants came to Minnesota in 1855 alone. In 1850, there were 6000 white people in the whole territory; by 1856, there were 200,000. And they'd all come for land--Dakota land.

Little Crow understood that if the region would be cleansed of white people, he'd have to fight a white man's war: attack the agencies, the fort, the towns. He wanted no part of the butchery that went on, the wanton rape and murder that slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children, during the next six or seven days. But Little Crow had little say in what went on in the name of war. His warriors were no longer his. They'd become bloodthirsty. Some had become savages.

What happened that week throughout the Minnesota River valley--and beyond--was, and still is, almost beyond our worst imaginations. Whether I like it or not, Manfred's account of the horror, in his novel, Scarlet Plume, wasn't trumped or sensational. Absolutely horrible things happened.

There is, of course, still more to the story.
The drawing above appeared in Harper's Weekly, in the fall of 1862, when the stories reached New York.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dakota War--IV

Here's the truth: so much of the 1862 Dakota War is--and was--unimaginable. Even at the time, what actually happened would have been, just a minute before it did happen, completely unthinkable.

After the carnage at the Lower Sioux Agency, word began to spread--it's hard to imagine life without radio or tv or phone--about what had gone on: the Sioux were on a rampage of ethnic cleansing. The only army garrison in the region was a minor outpost foolishly placed atop a knoll above the the Minnesota River, north side, a scattering of buildings with no fortification to speak of, a place named Ft. Ridgely, the only military fort in southwest Minnesota, home to 76 fighting men, some of whom could hardly be called that since the vast majority of the region's fighting men--real fighting men--were already deported to the South. It was, after all, 1862. What was left was local militias, not exactly lean and mean fighting units.

The place was in charge of a Colonel Marsh, of Fillmore County, who'd proved his mettle at Bull Run but knew next to nothing about the region's Native people, not to mention fighting them.

When he heard what had happened at the Lower Agency, he decided to put the rebellion to rest himself and took 46 enlisted men and an interpreter down to the river, on his way across. On the rutty path down there, more haggard locals met him, and at least one of them--a preacher named Samuel D. Hinman, who, on Sunday, had preached to Little Crow--told him that once he and his men got anywhere near the river, his little band of untested recruits would be vastly outnumbered by the Dakota.

No matter. Marsh couldn't imagine that he and his tough guys couldn't handle the Sioux.

They got to the river at a place called Redwood Ferry, marching single file through the broad stand of marsh grass that created wonderful cover for the Dakota, who were there waiting to take out the soldiers.

When they got to the water, the flatbed boat was conveniently awaiting them. From across the river, a farmer Indian named White Dog yelled at them, asking them to come over for a council. Suddenly, a single shot was fired, and all around them, Dakota warriors, in full battle regalia, arose from the brush and weeds to start shooting.

The fight went on for hours actually, and Colonel Marsh himself, trying to find a place to cross the river, finally drowned in the attempt. His troops were decimated--24 men were killed. Only one of the Sioux died.

It was an intense and glorious victory for the Sioux, an unimaginable loss for the military.

Sergeant John Bishop, just 19, led 15 survivors back to the fort, eight of them wounded. Another eight returned later, on their own.

The fight at Redwood Ferry is a kind of precursor to what would happen 14 years later some 600 miles west at Little Big Horn. While it was, without a doubt, an amazing and unimaginable Dakota victory, a real reason to celebrate, the losses the military suffered virtually assured something Little Crow had made clear to the men who'd wanted war--there would soon enough be more soldiers, hundreds more.

All that blood in the Minnesota River would not go unnoticed. And even in upper Midwest in 1862, much of which was real frontier, there were already more white faces--and so many more--than red. And thousands more still on their way.
The photo, above, is of White Dog's club. White Dog, was a farmer--that is, he'd already exchanged his breech cloth for white man's clothing and cut his hair. What's more, he'd begun to farm, the profession white people felt Native people had to learn to survive. White Dog like many farmer Indians was cast into an impossible situation by the Dakota's determination to run all white people out of their world. In the war, they were neither fish nor fowl, often suffering horrors from both sides. White Dog was hung at Mankato, along with 38 other Dakota warriors, on December 26, 1862.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Morning Meds--Comparative Insignificance


“When I consider the heavens the work of your fingers, 
the moon and stars which you have set in place, 
what is man. . .”

We really don’t matter much.

I don’t know that I could type an opening line less politically correct.  I could smear ethnic or racial groups, and some bigot somewhere would cheer.  I could cuss like a D1 coach, and some reader would thank me for my refreshing honesty.

But try this on for size.  Walk up to your favorite kid—let’s make him or her some sweet pre-teen.  Reach for her hand, take it in your own, then smile and say, “You know, Tiff, we really don’t matter much.”  Visit some convalescent home and pull the same stunt.  In both cases, such behavior would be considered untoward in the extreme.
Imagine saying it to activist gay and lesbians, or the boisterous crowds who oppose them.  Imagine saying it to your own children.  Imagine saying it to your parents, your spouse.  Imagine someone saying it to you.  “You know, you really don’t matter much.”

But that’s the intent behind David’s space talk in Psalm 8.  When judged by the immensity of the God’s universe, human beings have comparative insignificance.

Western Christianity has, for centuries, considered pride the most malignant of the seven deadly sins, and with good reason.  It wasn’t sex that led to Eve’s seduction by the serpent or Adam’s mimicry.  They both wanted to be less like themselves and more like God.  Pride goeth before the fall.

And it’s pride that lives near the heart of our consumerist culture.  Imagine a television ad that proclaims to 50 million listeners that, really, we don’t matter much.  Not likely.  What all our marketing proclaims is that what our very special lives will be immeasurably enhanced if only we slip our hips into the right jeans or undergo cosmetic surgery for those crow’s feet. 

But why signal out the media for special disdain when all of us, in thousands of ways every day of our lives, seek our own interests at the expense of others?  On the job, in our leisure, in our most intimate relationships, we regularly, almost instinctively, put ourselves first.  We are wired for selfishness.

Yet, each of us, literally, is of no greater significance than a grain of sand on an ocean beach, a single inconsequential leaf in a mammoth national forest.  That’s what David is saying with this memorable comparison.

The character of the argument is both physical and aesthetic.  As I write, the Cassini-Solstic probe is investigating the planet Saturn.  To get there, this incredible spacecraft spent seven years journeying more than 2.2 billion miles at speeds that are unimaginable.  Consider those kinds of numbers, and then ask yourself what is man?
But out mattering so little also an aesthetic sort of thing.  How awesome are we, really, when compared to the diamond-studded night sky?  We really don’t matter all that much.

But the song’s last bars have yet to be sung.  All this belittling David is up to—it has cause, of course, because the greatest miracle is not a night sky or unfathomable, cosmic distances.  Something there is, of course, that’s even more miraculous.
All the more reason for praise.  All the more reason for joy.  All the more reason for thanksgiving. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Dakota War III

Just a day after four young Dakota had killed five people near Acton, just a few hours after a rapidly convened war council that drew Little Crow into action and the Dakota into war, the very first offensive began when Dakota warriors rode into the Redwood Agency and began killing people, white people. Some were friends; many were known to each other, and known well. In that sense, the attack was, to the people at the agency, as much of a surprise as it was a shock.

It was August 18, 1862, and the carnage ended that morning with 20 white people dead, ten captured. By the time the horror stopped, 47 more were missing. Most of those eventually escaped.

"A great many members of the other bands were like my men; they took no part in the first movements, but afterward did. The next morning, when the force started down to attack the agency, I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend that he did not want killed; of course he did not care about anybody's else’s friend."

"The killing was nearly all done when I got there. Little Crow was on the ground directing operations. The day before, he had attended church there and listened closely to the sermon and had shaken hands with everybody."

After the war, many whites and Dakotas gave their testimonies concerning the terrible events that began that day. This account, by Big Eagle, is typical. But is Big Eagle telling the whole truth, or is he spinning the tale to save himself from hanging?

No one will ever know.

Here’s what he remembers of that morning attack on the agency.

"I was never present when the white people were willfully murdered. I saw all the dead bodies at the agency. Mr. Andrew Myrick, a trader, with an Indian wife, had re¬fused some hungry Indians credit a short time before when they asked him for some provisions. He said to them: "Go and eat grass." Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: "Myrick is eating grass himself."

The Myrick story is well documented and somehow carries emblematic quality of the whole awful tale.

What Big Eagle also remembers, however, is how thrilled the Native people became once they knew they could take their fortunes into their own hands. Once they’d killed the people who’d taken their land, they warmed to the cause.

"When I returned to my village that day I found that many of my band had changed their minds about the war, and wanted to go into it. All the other villages were the same way. I was still of the belief that it was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave Dakotas and do the best we could. All my men were with me; none had gone off on raids, but we did not have guns for all at first."

Minnesota’s other civil war was underway.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Dakota War II

“Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool! When did he run away from his enemies? When did he leave his braves behind him on the warpath and turn back to his tepee? When he ran away from your enemies, he walked behind on your trail with his face to the Ojibways and covered your backs as a she-bear covers her cubs! Is Taoyateduta without scalps? Look at his war feathers! Behold the scalp locks of your enemies hanging there on his lodgepoles! Do they call him a coward? Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children: you know not what you are doing.”

They’d called him a coward because, as an old, veteran warrior, he didn’t like the idea of taking on the white settlers, not after five people were brutally murdered, a woman and a child among them. In council, the young men said the old man was afraid. Not so, he told them. And more.

“You are full of the white man's devil water. You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffalo left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. See!—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; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one—two—ten, and ten times ten 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.”

Those four young murdering braves who’d murdered five people white people had hightailed it back to their camp, where they told others what they'd done. Immediately, a war council was created, and the band leaders determined that the finest Dakota general among the Native people would be Taoyateduta, or Little Crow. What shall we do?--they asked Little Crow.

Little Crow knew war was foolhardy. He’d been to Washington D.C., and he’d seen the millions of white faces few others had.

“Yes; they fight among themselves—away off. Do you hear the thunder of their big guns? No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers as thick as tamaracks in the swamps of the Ojibways. Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day.

Little Crow knew about the Civil War, even though Bull Run was a half a continent away. They all knew about the Civil War, in part because there were precious few white men in the valley of the Minnesota River. They were gone to fight a war.

“You are fools. You cannot see the face of your chief; your eyes are full of smoke. You cannot hear his voice; your ears are full of roaring waters. Braves, you are little children—you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon (January). Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”

And so, Taoyateduta, or Little Crow, took up the fight, fully confident that it would end in failure, fully confident it would end the way it did. But, like a warrior, fierce heroism meant more to him than human life, far more than his own.

It was August 18, 1862. Only five white people had yet been killed. Inside of just a few days, the numbers would rise exponentially. The Dakota idea was simple—drive all the white people off Indian land.

That simple idea was foolhardy. Little Crow knew as much, but he could not abide being thought of as a coward. Just a day before, he'd sat in church and listened to a white man preach a sermon about God and Jesus. But he loved his people. In just a few hours, the war would begin in earnest.