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.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Missionary heroes and villains (v)

When the war was over, the governor appointed Stephen Riggs to be the Military Chaplain to Indian prisoners. In general, historians have come to describe his role in the trials that took place at Camp Release as a one-man grand jury. Often relying on the testimonies of those who had no joined the armed struggle, as well as the Christian Indians who opposed it, Riggs, in essence, created the charges against those who he determined required punishment for their acts. No single human being was probably more responsible for creating guilty verdicts against more than 300 Dakota, verdicts which almost inevitably led to a sentence of death by hanging. 

What everyone knows is that the testimonies he took often lasted no more than a few minutes so that it’s difficult to assume that officials of the government could have rendered, in many cases, anything but snap judgments. To say that justice was done at Camp Release in those few days of a blood-soaked frontier hearing is almost impossible. Those who consider what happened there as a cruel, kangaroo court have good reason. And the Reverend Stephen R. Riggs, missionary of the gospel of Jesus, was both the mind and the heart of that injustice.

Stephen Riggs seemingly never second-guessed the individual or collective results of his own conclusions of testimonies given at Camp Release. He played major roles in establishing the cases against almost 400 individuals; of that number, only fifty were released and twenty sentenced to imprisonment. The remainder, over three hundred Dakota, by way of indictments he brought forward, were condemned to hang. “The greater part of these,” he admits in his autobiography, “were condemned on general principles, without any specific charges proved, such as under less exciting and excited conditions of society, would have been demanded” (181).

What he meant by “excited conditions of society” can only refer to the bloody hate generated throughout the territory by the massacres perpetuated by the hungry Dakota. During the deliberations, the mail was full of hate, “letters from all parts of Minnesota,--a wail and a howl,--in many cases demanding the execution coming into our hands,” he wrote in his memoir. Newspapers in St. Paul burned with hate.

Those “excited conditions of society” had a palatable effect on him and the proceedings. Many of those quickly-drawn indictments, he admits, “had no good foundation.” His faith was that those convictions would be “reviewed by a more disinterested authority.” They were, by President Lincoln himself. Riggs himself tries to give cause for what injustice was done: “the condemnations were demanded by the people of Minnesota.”

At Mankato, Rev. Riggs acted as an agent of the state by translating for the condemned as well as letting the prisoners know what was going to happen. His old colleague Rev. John Williamson, ministered to their spiritual and physical needs. In his retelling of the story, many of those 32 who were subsequently hung turned to the gospel of Jesus for comfort and hope. For their work, both Riggs and Williamson were roundly condemned by white people, who had lost 500 of their neighbors to the Little Crow’s warriors, some of whom they knew and even considered friends before the blood had begun to flow.

After the mass hanging at Mankato, Williamson and Riggs continued to minister the hundreds of prisoners held in squalid conditions at Ft. Snelling, a place some call a death camp. Of the 300 or so Dakota men who were not hung—reprieved by President Lincoln—120 died in the next three years, some of them while imprisoned at Camp McClellan, in Iowa. Of the 1,600 Dakota men, women, and children locked up at Ft. Snelling, many guilty of no crime, 300 were dead in just a few months.

And it’s important to remember that hate was as poisonous as it was overwhelming. When contrary voices were heard—the voices of clergymen who publically deplored the horrid prison conditions in which the Dakota were suffering—they were brutally criticized. Preachers were physically attacked by white citizens simply for ministering to the imprisoned Indians. Riggs and Williamson and Whipple, who had intervened personally with President Lincoln, regularly kept religious services with the Dakota, and were scorched by newspaper editorials. “Holiest rites of the church given to red-handed murderers,” one journalist wrote. “God was mocked.”

The war had created such venomous hate that the white settlers of Minnesota wanted nothing less than to be rid of all its first residents—all Native people, including Ojibwa, who’d played no part in the war.

Hundreds of Dakota were crammed aboard steamboats for a long trip down the Mississippi to St. Louis, then brought across the state to St. Joseph to be jammed into yet another boat that took them up the Missouri to Crow Creek, in the Dakota Territory. Rev. Williamson protested: “When 1,300 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, 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," many white folks said. "The only solution," said others. For what those Dakota did, vengeance maintained, hundreds had to die. And they did. An eye for an eye, a life for a life.

Through it all, Rev. Stephen Riggs stayed beside them, even though, by his own admission, his wife Mary was herself a victim of the war. “Mary’s health,” he wrote, “always tenacious but never vigorous, had received a severe shock by the outbreak and what followed.” In five years, his wife, and the mother of their eight children, died in Beloit, Wisconsin, and was thereby delivered “to the flowergarden of God,” he wrote.

What I want to establish is telling the Riggs’ story is the fact that this man’s life among the Dakota was complex—he is neither a hero, nor a villain. In fact, I think it may well be important to say that he was neither hero nor villain because, quite clearly, at times he was both.

He was a man who believed in his calling, loved those who he served, tried to balance justice and mercy, and never stopped ministering to those he’d come to serve. His commitment was total, lifelong. But there were moments in time—and not just a few—when his work was intractably related to larger causes and movements that imperiled and destroyed the lives and fortunes, the hearts and souls, of the very people he came to serve and eventually, I think, to love.

When his daughter tried to explain in a mission magazine what had happened during the brief but bloody Dakota War, she ended her story with attitudes that are strikingly clear:

The Indians have not been without excuse for their evil deeds. Our own people have given them intoxicating drinks, taught them to swear, violated the rights of womanhood among them, robbed them of their dues, and insulted them! What more would be necessary to cause one nation to rise against another? What more, I ask. And yet there are many who curse this people, and cry, ‘Exterminate the fiends.’ Dare we, as a nation, thus bring a curse upon ourselves and on future generations?

No comments: