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.

Monday, August 27, 2012

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.

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