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Gov. Dayton repudiates Gov. Ramsey’s call for Dakota extermination

by Eric Ferguson on August 19, 2012

Little CrowGov. Mark Dayton marked the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War by repudiating Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s call for the Dakota to be exterminated or removed from Minnesota.

“I am appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement released Thursday. “The viciousness and violence, which were commonplace 150 years ago in Minnesota, are not accepted or allowed now.”

Dayton called for flags to fly at half-staff from sunrise to sunset Friday, declaring it a day of remembrance and reconciliation on the 150th anniversary of the start of the six-week U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

He asked Minnesotans “to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.”

Hundreds of Dakota were gathering Thursday in Flandreau, S.D., for a ceremony planned Friday along the Minnesota-South Dakota border to symbolically welcome back to Minnesota the Dakota who were exiled after the war. Dakota leaders had urged Dayton to condemn Ramsey’s statement, and word of his repudiation quickly spread.

“I got the chills when I heard. Oh, man, that is such a good feeling,” said Corbin Shoots the Enemy, a member of the Crow Creek Tribe that lives on a South Dakota reservation where many Dakota were sent after the war. “It’s hard to explain the feeling I have right now, but I say thank you to the governor. We’re coming home.”

The Star Tribune ran an excellent series on the war, so I’m not going to attempt to repeat it. I’m just going to comment on something I’m not sure came out as strongly as it could.
The Dakota War could be a textbook definition of “brutal”, or a textbook definition of “total war” had that term been in use yet, and likewise with “ethnic cleansing”. The roughly 1,000 people killed sounds like a slow day in World War II or a bad week in the current conflict in Syria, but that was massive in terms of the populations involved. No subsequent Indian war came close. A large part of Minnesota was cleared of people as whites fled East, Dakota fled West, and those who didn’t were killed. The Dakota were starving and felt cheated by the government and traders. Whites were fighting a civil war and felt attacked from behind at a time of vulnerability — remember that the men most suited for soldiering had already been shipped off. The stakes weren’t merely pride or grievance, but survival, which I’m not sure came through in the Star Tribune series or was at least wasn’t explicit, though certainly the material is there to derive it. To be fair though, the series focused on Little Crow and told the story from the Dakota point of view, and wasn’t intended to be comprehensive.

The Dakota War in 1862 is generally considered to be the start of “the Indian Wars”, which period extends to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. It took place over almost the whole US West of the Mississippi, though it should be noted that wars between whites and Indians started right away when Europeans first came to this hemisphere. It wasn’t the beginning of Indian history in Minnesota, coming from a context that was more than the Star Tribune series could get into, nor was it the end or even the last battle (that was Sugar Point in 1898). It was however the war that was most formative in the state’s history, even though it’s mostly gone down the memory hole.

When the governor issued his statement repudiating the words of his predecessor, my first thought was, “It’s never been repudiated or apologized for before?” Yet from the quote in the linked article, apparently this hadn’t been done, and even 150 years later, the effect is quite powerful:

“I got the chills when I heard. Oh, man, that is such a good feeling,” said Corbin Shoots the Enemy, a member of the Crow Creek Tribe that lives on a South Dakota reservation where many Dakota were sent after the war. “It’s hard to explain the feeling I have right now, but I say thank you to the governor. We’re coming home.”

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