The Hanging at Mankato

by Claire Barliant

Fragments of a living history of the 1862 mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota Indians.

“The Hanging at Mankato” originated as "Reading History," a performative reading and conversation hosted by Triple Canopy at Cabinet, Brooklyn, on June 30, 2011. “The Hanging at Mankato” was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2010 call for proposals for the Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York Council for the Humanities.

At times, reading here
In the library,
I’m given a glimpse
Of those condemned to death
Centuries ago,
And of their executioners.
I see each pale face before me
The way a judge
Pronouncing a sentence would,
Marveling at the thought
That I do not exist yet. …

How vast, dark, and impenetrable
Are the early-morning skies
Of those led to their death
In a world from which I’m entirely absent,
Where I can still watch
Someone’s slumped back,

Someone who is walking away from me
With his hands tied,
His graying head still on his shoulders,
Someone who
In what little remains of his life
Knows in some vague way about me,
And thinks of me as God,
As Devil.

—Charles Simic, “Reading History”


I was not in the first fight at New Ulm nor the first attack on Fort Ridgely. Here let me say that the Indian names of these and other places in Minnesota are different from the English names. St. Paul is the “White Rock;” Minneapolis is “the Place Where the Water Falls;” New Ulm is “the Place Where There Is a Cottonwood Grove on the River;” Fort Ridgely was “the Soldiers’ House;” Birch Coulie was called “Birch Creek,” etc.

—Big Eagle, Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862, 1988


Early in the winter of 1854, we began to think of emigrating to America. Of any other reason than that it was God’s will, I am ignorant to this day. … We were met with sickness, poverty, and need; the money we had left, we had loaned to friends in our party and now we were in need of everything. Late in the fall we moved to Geneva. At this time my assurance that it was God’s will that we should move to America was put to a hard test. It went from bad to worse. Home, food, money and health—all was lacking. Once I said: “If I stood on the shores of Sweden naked, I would consider myself fortunate; and if God ever would give me the means again, we would go back.” But when that time came all was forgotten.

—Pastor Peter Carlson, autobiography, late 1800s

Claude Dablon, Lac Superieur et autres lieux ou sont les missions des peres de la Compagnie de Jesus comprises sous le nom d’Outaouacs, 1673, James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

ONE DAY IN THE FALL of 2006 my mother, visiting from Chicago, and I were having breakfast in Brooklyn, with her rolling through updates on distant relatives who occupy various corners of the Midwest. She told me about our cousin, Helene Leaf, who was researching a Lutheran church founded in East Union, Minnesota, by my great-great-great uncle, Peter Carlson. I was until that point failing to pay attention, dutifully nodding and uttering, “Really?” every few seconds. But then something cut through the static of anonymous small towns and genealogical records: Helene had learned that another great-great-great uncle named Anders Johan Carlson had served in the Union army during the Civil War, and had been standing guard during the execution of several Indians, the sight of which had made him vomit—even, I imagined, as a crowd stood by stolidly, or perhaps even jubilantly. I had grown up in Chicago and had never heard of any such execution, and neither had my mother. The story stuck with me, though, quickly shifting into that category of things you feel like you’ve known all your life.

Reconciliation Park, Mankato, Minnesota.

A few months later, I did a cursory Google search and found that the event in question had taken place in Mankato, an unassuming town in southern Minnesota, on December 26, 1862. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged by the army, making it the largest mass execution to ever take place in the US. A story began to take shape: The scaffold fell from the Dakotas’ feet, the nooses tightened around their throats, and a resounding cry went up from the throng of a thousand onlookers. Anders Johan was repulsed by the sight of inert bodies suspended from the gallows, swinging against each other like pendulums. He turned away, as did several other troops, and retched.

One year later, my mother informed me that Helene had discovered that Anders Johan, who went by A. J., had written an account of his experiences as a soldier for a local newspaper. Helene diligently photocopied the articles, and I scoured them for confirmation of the story I had imagined, but there was nothing. Carlson described his life as a soldier in great detail but he relied on third-party sources to recount the execution, seemingly erasing his own presence, whether because he was traumatized or ashamed or simply overwhelmed by the task of telling this story. I looked up additional accounts by other troops and bystanders, but they all describe the event impersonally, remotely, as if reciting from the same script; then their moral sensibilities kick in, and they reflect that the hanging had inspired in them some feeling of triumph and personal satisfaction. I’ve only come across one account that hints at the trauma of seeing thirty-eight men die simultaneously, an essay submitted to a Minnesota Tourism Bureau contest by a seventy-one-year-old woman in 1933. “The execution,” she allows, “was an awful spectacle for a girl of fifteen to witness.”

W. H. Childs, Execution at Mankato, December 26, 1862, 1862, Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives.

Three years from its founding, Mankato assumed its position as the leading city in population and wealth in the Minnesota Valley and it stands so today. Of thrilling interest is its history and worthy of commemoration the valorous deeds of its pioneers. Wonderful the transformation they have made in turning the wilderness maze into a great orderly emporium of trade.

The lonely Indian trail of 50 years ago has become a busy street, bounded with magnificent marts of trade, the forest clad hillside has become lined with stately halls of learning and justice, the swampy valley, flood-torn and thicket-tangled, has become beautiful with palatial homes and magnificent sanctuaries, and the death-like stillness of a desolate waste has been made to pulse with commercial, educational and spiritual life. All honor to the founders of this metropolis of Southern Minnesota, and to all the time-scarred veterans of the Wilderness—the heroes of the log cabin—whose toil, courage and sacrifice have bequeathed to us such a splendid heritage.

—Thomas Hughes, Mankato: Its First Fifty Years, 1903

A. J. CARLSON WROTE NEARLY FORTY articles for the East Union News between 1898 and 1900, most of which are saved on microfilm at the Carver County Historical Museum in Waconia, Minnesota, a few having been lost. His writing is clear and direct, with occasional flashes of that dry, self-deprecating wit so particular to Scandinavian Midwesterners. About joining the army, he wrote,

After first having received our outfit of arms which consisted of Austrian rifles taken from the Rebels at Fort Donaldson, Tenn., in the winter before, and ammunition that would only fit the Springfield rifle, which was in general use in the Infantry service all over the United States, the consequence was every bullet had to be made smaller before it would fit our new gun.
As usual the Swedes had to take a back seat when selecting the officers and consequently your scribe was mustered in as “High private in the rear rank.”

But when he reaches the moment of the execution, he simply bows out. After describing how his company was ordered to march to Mankato from where they were stationed in Glencoe, about forty miles away, to assist in the hanging, he writes, “I will now let another author speak about the tragic event more fully partly from the Mankato Record published at the time, and also from the official records.”

Joel Emmons Whitney, Little Crow, 1862, Minnesota Historical Society.

This caesura mystified me: Why was he unable to relate his own experience of witnessing the execution? Victims of trauma tend to repress the memory of an event—was his inability to describe the hanging a form of denial? Or was it shame and disgust, a feeling of being complicit that rendered him mute? Whatever the reason, instead of telling the story from his own point of view, Carlson opted for collage, piecing together a narrative from newspaper accounts and orders from the commanding officers. “Among those witnessing the execution was Baptist Lassuillier, head chief of the Winnebago Indians, whose reservation was in this county,” he wrote, quoting the newspaper accounts. “He was a man of fine physical development, and dressed in citizens clothes his presence was not known except to his intimate friends and acquaintances. Always a staunch friend of the whites and loyal to authority, his sympathies were of course on the side of the law and order, and against those who had so cruelly murdered the white settlers.” Then, quoting the commanding officers: “All persons interested in Mankato and the adjoining distance for ten miles from these headquarters, are hereby notified to sell or give no intoxicating of any description, including wine and beer, to the enlisted men of the United States forces in this valley and vicinity, unless it be upon an order from or approved by the colonel commanding.”

I never found any evidence to support the apocryphal story of Carlson’s visceral reaction to the execution, whether in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society or in interviews with historians. I realized that I had become attached to the story in part because the very act of vomiting seemed to redeem his role in the execution. But I began to understand his resistance to describing the execution—which was, even just forty years later, already out of sync with the history of Minnesota’s heroic pioneers and the young state’s pivotal role in the Civil War—as a similar kind of disavowal, if not exactly contrition or protest. Perhaps my uncle believed that the only way to manage his complicity, and his revulsion, was to elide his own experience and instead revisit the scrim of official records and documents that justified the hanging, while also disappearing the event into the language of vague, unimpeachable bureaucratic authority.

Like a destructive storm, the war struck suddenly and spread rapidly. Everything was confusion. It was difficult to know who was friend and who was foe. … Little Crow wanted to make peace, but the majority of the people wanted him to lead them in a war. They threatened him and called him a coward until he in anger agreed to lead them in war.

—Esther Wakeman, Through Dakota Eyes


Thirty-five years ago Aug. 20th will be remembered by the old settlers, that are yet among the living, as the day when, late in the evening, the rumor came that the Indians were killing the white settlers and were coming down the Henderson road, fast approaching East Union; burning and killing everything in their way.

—A. J. Carlson, East Union News, January 1, 1898

Joseph Brown and Little Crow, 1858, Gilcrease Museum.
Henry Sibley, 1862. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

CARLSON'S RETICENCE, HIS DECISION TO describe the execution in the form of collage, and his unwillingness to fix the event to a single narrative—what he saw and experienced—makes more sense in relation to what preceded and followed the hanging. Until the 1800s, when settlers began encroaching on Dakota hunting grounds, the two populations lived in relative peace, engaging in the lucrative trade of beaver hides and often intermarrying. Then, in a series of concessions, the Dakota parted with twenty-five million acres of land in return for paltry amounts of cash and food annuities and were encouraged to become farmers; by mid-century they were left with fewer than one million acres along the Minnesota River for their seven-thousand-member tribe. Corruption among the Indian agents meant that the Dakota were often cheated of their annuities; chiefs gave away more land in exchange for slightly more money, but traders’ claims increasingly limited the amount received by the tribes. Finally, in 1862, with the Dakota’s crops failing, much of the Union army fighting the Confederates, and the Civil War delaying the payment of annuities, the Dakota revolted. They were spurred by the murder of five settlers in Acton by four Dakota men on August 17. A group of Indians who had been resisting white acculturation seized this confrontation as an opportunity to wage war on the settlers, convincing Chief Little Crow to lead them into battle, despite his initial reluctance. The Dakota attacked the Redwood Agency the next morning.

Henry Sibley, who had served as the first governor of Minnesota, was commissioned by current governor Alexander Ramsey to lead an expedition against the Indians. Twelve companies, consisting of some 1,600 volunteers (“A greener set of men were never gotten together,” Sibley lamented), eventually overcame the Dakota offensive after three weeks of skirmishes that culminated in the Battle of Wood Lake. Meanwhile, many Dakota disagreed with the decision to go to war. Some fled to Canada or the West, and around two thousand gathered in a camp with the understanding that their tacit surrender meant they would be treated as prisoners of war and eventually forgiven. But contrary to what he had led the Dakota to believe, Sibley, after declaring victory, took the entire camp into custody. Four hundred Dakota men were arrested and tried for murder—often in less than five minutes, with as many as forty cases dispatched in a single day. (Abraham Lincoln intervened on behalf of the Dakota, limiting death sentences to thirty-eight out of 303 men who had been convicted of killing settlers.) The remaining Dakota were forced to walk to Fort Snelling, which became their prison camp throughout the winter, during which more than two hundred died. When spring arrived the survivors were herded into steamboats and trains and shepherded hundreds of miles to rough, unknown territory in what is now South Dakota.

Adrian J. Ebell, Camp Release, 1862, Minnesota Historical Society.

When I was a young man I often went with war parties against the Chippewas and other enemies of my nation, and the six feathers shown in the headdress of my picture in the Historical society at St. Paul stand for six Chippewa scalps that I took when on the warpath. By the terms of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, the Sioux sold all of their lands in Minnesota, except a strip ten miles wide on each side of the Minnesota river from near Fort Ridgely to the Big Stone lake.

The Medawakantons and Wacoutas had their reservation up to the Yellow Medicine. In 1858 the ten miles of this strip belonging to the Medawakanton and Wacouta bands, and lying north of the river were sold, mainly through the influence of Little Crow. … It caused us all to move to the south side of the river, where there was but very little game, and many of our people, under the treaty, were induced to give up the old life and go to work like white men, which was very distasteful to many.

—Big Eagle, Through Dakota Eyes

THE MEMORY OF WAR, LIKE ALL memory, tends to be limited to those who have lived it. Rarely does war take on larger meaning, becoming relevant for those who are separated from it by hundreds or thousands of miles, decades or centuries. Suffice to say the Dakota War is hardly one of these exceptions. While the anger and agony felt by the Dakota seems to have barely been attenuated by the passing of 150 years, for most people its memory has disappeared. The Dakota have their stories, passed on from generation to generation, and the rest of Minnesotans have the crumbling monuments to fallen settlers and moldering historical sites that are strewn about the Indian Trail, the unpaved historic byway that runs through the Minnesota River Valley, where the Dakota War was fought.

Elsewhere, these markers have been casually integrated into the landscape, with the names of streets, parks, and towns echoing the war that wrenched the modern state into being. “The Dakota conflict was the last act in a cultural transformation that divided the history of ‘modern’ Minnesota from that of the multicultural borderland that had existed for the previous two hundred years,” Mary Wingerd writes in North Country: The Making of Minnesota. This shift was congruous with a systematic eradication of the indigenous population throughout North America, which was officially sanctioned by President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 (although it likely started as early as Ponce de León’s arrival in Florida in 1513). Two Minneapolis high schools, a state park, and a park in Mankato bear the name of General Sibley. When I take the bus to the Minnesota Historical Society, an imposing new building on top of a hill, with architecture that mimics the classical pomp of the nearby state capitol, I get off at the corner of Marion and Ravoux—the latter being the name of one of two ministers who baptized the Dakota in the days leading up to the execution. (The convicted Dakota hoped they would be granted a reprieve if they converted to Catholicism, Wingerd speculates.)

So many Indians have lied about their saving the lives of white people that I dislike to speak of what I did. But I did save the life of George H. Spencer at the time of the massacre. … Once after that I kept a half-breed family from being murdered; these are all the people whose lives I claim to have saved. 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 refused 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.”

—Big Eagle, Through Dakota Eyes

IN 2002, A DAKOTA ACTIVIST and academic named Waziyatawin helped organize a march to commemorate the execution. Now, every other winter, a couple of hundred people, mostly members of the Dakota tribe, march 150 miles from the Lower Sioux Reservation in the Minnesota River Valley to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, with a stop in Mankato. Every mile or so they drive into the ground stakes inscribed with the names of Dakota captives who were forced to follow that same route from in November of 1862. I meet Waziyatawin in the Grinder, a cheerful, tidy café in the tiny town of Granite Falls, about one hundred miles from the border of South Dakota. In recent years Waziyatawin has emerged as a forceful advocate for the return of land to the Dakota, and a historian at the Smithsonian had recommended I read her books and articles on the Dakota conflict.

Unlike other accounts I’ve come across, Waziyatawin’s writing thrusts the 1862 war into the present, and insists that we recognize its enduring consequences. While delivering a speech in November 2010 to a group of students at Winona State University, Waziyatawin said the Dakota needed to reclaim their land “by any means necessary,” which earned her the attention of the FBI. In 2008 she published What Does Justice Look Like?, which argues for the return of twelve million acres of Minnesota public land to the Dakota, among other forms of reparation, such as relief from debts (and refers to white people by the Dakota word, Wasicu). Waziyatawin is careful to never claim to be a spokesperson for the Dakota, but as a result of her speaking engagements and prolific publishing, she has become a figurehead of sorts.

Waziyatawin discusses how the events are remembered among the Dakota.

Waziyatawin has chestnut hair swept back into a ponytail, a girlish flop of thick bangs that highlights her brown eyes, and an easy, infectious smile. She greets me warmly, tells me to call her Waz. She seems like an unlikely candidate for the most wanted list. If anything, she comes across as maternal, and I can imagine her as the cool professor all the kids love at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where she is Indigenous Peoples Research Chair in the Indigenous Governance Program. The café is filled with tchotckes for sale, and we sit underneath wall-mounted plaques bearing treacly platitudes such as, “A mother’s love is like seeds scattered in the garden.” She tells me she was doing yardwork before she arrived, and I apologize for pulling her away from her family. We talk for a minute about chores—gardening and the like—before I get the nerve to start asking her questions. At this point I should admit that a complex and contradictory series of thoughts is powering through my brain. I’m not entirely sure that my reasons for being here—including doing this interview under the guise of research—aren’t related to a feeling of personal guilt over my ancestor’s racism and complicity in the hanging, and by extension, whether I am hoping to earn something along the lines of exoneration from Waz. Intellectually I know this is an absurd desire, but it unsettles me nevertheless. Fighting off this uncomfortable knowledge, I tell her I want to talk about the execution and the personal history versus the official history. I start off, “So if you wouldn't mind telling me when you first heard about or learned about the forced evacuation or the execution …”

John Stevens, Panorama of the Indian Massacre of 1862 and the Black Hills, scene 17, 1872, Minnesota Historical Society.

I SWITCH OFF THE RECORDER and we talk about the Minnesota River Valley and how beautiful it is—perhaps the most common, and definitely the easiest, subject of conversation in the area during late summer. Out of some sense of obligation, or perhaps for masochistic reasons, I had brought my mother, who lives in Chicago, along on the trip and to the interview. She is of course also interested in our family’s history. During the interview, she is, for the most part, quietly helpful. She has listened intently throughout, taken pictures of Waz while she answers my questions. Now she says how difficult it is to hear about the treatment of the Dakota. Waz tells us about plans for a new power plant, Big Stone II, that was going to be built near the plantation before environmental groups successfully stopped its construction, and how the Sioux hadn’t even bothered to protest because they feel so powerless and didn’t think they could make a difference. Waz seems almost despondent about the lack of impact the commemorative marches have had, and makes it clear that she has shifted her priorities to thinking about sustainability, with singular focus on land rather than symbolic steps toward “reconciliation.”

“So have no other descendants like us,” I tentatively ask Waz, “the troops or the white settlers who were instrumental in the removal, has anyone else reached out to talk to you or …”

“Yeah,” she says, and names a few, before adding, “but that doesn’t help us. That’s about easing white guilt and easing their conscience.”

“What sort of help would you like?”

“Land. Land, land, land,” she immediately responds.

“The Attack at New Ulm,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1863, 23.

As the conversation is winding down, and we are making motions to rise and go, my mother says, “I have a friend who grew up in New Ulm, and she had never heard of the hanging.”

Feeling relaxed, probably too relaxed, now that the interview is technically over, I affirm my mother’s comment. “Yeah, I had never heard of it until I found out about my ancestor’s memoirs, and whenever I ask my friends about it, they’ve never heard of it either.”

Waz nods and smiles tightly, then stands up. She is no longer smiling. “I hope this was helpful,” she says simply and politely.

My mother shakes Waz’s hand and says what a pleasure it was to meet her, and I do the same. Waz thanks us for the coffee and walks out of the cafe. I stare at a plaque quoting Ecclesiastes, chapter 3—“For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” and so on—and feel like an idiot for treating the subject so lightly.

My mother and I get into the car and head back to Minneapolis by way of Mankato via the Indian Trail. We talk for a long time about the way the conversation ended, about how we seem to have offended Waz, and why. We both feel remorse for having let her down, somehow. After driving for about ten minutes we enter the Upper Sioux agency and come across a generic-looking building, which may or may not be a visitor center; the doors are locked. We retreat and continue along the byway, passing a handful of farms and an endless backdrop of ripening green cornfields. Soon all signs of people fade away, leaving a winding road lined with lush late-summer foliage: cottonwood, sumac, oaks, and deciduous trees. We spot an occasional duck-hunting blind, built from sun-bleached wood, rising from the tall grass, and catch glimpses of the river, bright and sparkling in the afternoon sun. Along the way we stop at various memorials for the “heroic pioneers”: the Joseph Brown historic site, the Schwandt State monument, the Redwood Ferry historic site.

After about seventy-five miles the byway peters out and we reach New Ulm, a small town that, in the fading afternoon light, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot going for it. We’re greeted by an advertisement for the town’s Teutonic origins: a sign featuring a cloaked and bearded Goth, sword held aloft, striding toward the road. We drive a few minutes past it, far enough to see a cluster of one-story cement-block buildings, and then turn back toward the highway.

John Stevens, Panorama of the Indian Massacre of 1862 and the Black Hills, scene 15, 1872, Minnesota Historical Society.

At once 40 of us were ordered out with ten days rations to make a circuit west as far as Lake Preston, 30 miles away. On the third day we came to the lake, which was one of the most beautiful little lakes I have seen, it was nearly round with a small island in the center, and the sandy shores and its clear water with fish and fowl in abundance and surrounded with a small strip of heavy white oak timber.

—A. J. Carlson, East Union News, May 15, 1898


My grandmother, Isabel Roberts (Maza Okiye Win is her Indian name), and her family were taken as captives down to Fort Snelling. On the way most of them walked, but some of the older ones and the children rode in a cart. … When they came through New Ulm, they threw cans, potatoes, and sticks. They went on through the town anyway. The old people were in the cart. They were coming to the end of the town, and they thought they were out of trouble. Then there was a big building at the end of the street. The windows were open. Someone threw hot, scalding water on them. The children were all burned and the old people too. As soon as they started to rub their arms the skin just peeled off. Their faces were like that, too. The children were all crying, even the old ladies started to cry, too. It was so hard it really hurt them, but they went on. …

It was on this trip that my maternal grandmother’s grandmother was killed by White soldiers. My grandmother, Maza Okiye Win, was ten years old at the time and she remembers everything that happened on this journey. The killing took place when they came to a bridge that had no guard rails. The horses or stock were getting restless and were very thirsty. So, when they saw water, they wanted to get down to the water right away, and they couldn’t hold them [the horses] still. So the women and children all got out, including my grandmother, her mother, and her grandmother. … She [Maza Okiye Win’s mother] was going to put her mother in the wagon, but it was gone. They stood there not knowing what to do. She wanted to put her mother someplace where she could be warm, but before they could get away, the soldier came again and stabbed her mother with a saber. She screamed and hollered in pain, so she [her daughter] stooped down to help her. But her mother said, “Please daughter, go. Don’t mind me. Take your daughter and go before they do the same thing to you. I’m done for anyway. If they kill you, the children will have no one.” Though she was in pain and dying, she was still concerned about her daughter and little granddaughter who was standing there and witnessed all this. The daughter left her mother there at the mercy of the soldiers, as she knew she had a responsibility as a mother to take care of her small daughter.

“Up to today, we don’t even know where my grandmother’s body is. If only they had given the body back to us, we could have given her a decent funeral,” Grandma said.

—Isabel Roberts, as told to Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century, 2006

WHILE THE EXECUTION HAS LARGELY faded from the conscious history of the state for most people, it occasionally surfaces in writings that treat it with greater historical rigor and accuracy than in the past. In 1990 Carol Chomsky, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, published an article in the Stanford Law Review that analyzes the trials preceding the execution. (The article came out four years after a group called the Dakota Studies Committee issued a formal request for a reconciliation between Indians and other Minnesotans. Governor Rudy Perpich responded by proclaiming 1987 “the year of reconciliation,” in which “the Dakota people will join with others in appreciation of cultural diversity and human understanding.”) We meet in her office, a sunny room in the university’s law school. Chomsky, a legal historian, has shoulder-length brown hair and a friendly, approachable air about her. She tells me she became interested in the topic after a colleague who taught American Indian law and was involved in planning the reconciliation events suggested she look into the trials. “We don't usually, among white Americans, think of this kind of thing as somebody's story,” she says. But over the course of doing her research, she came to understand that the Dakota consider it as “a narrative that is, in a sense, owned by different groups, different families.”

Claire Barliant: Could you compare the Dakota trials to those of Confederates during the Civil War, which took place at the same time?

Carol Chomsky: Abraham Lincoln declared that the Southerners were not sovereign just because they had broken away. They were citizens of the United States, and they could have been viewed as simply citizens who were engaging in treason or murder. But the Southerners were accorded the rights of a sovereign nation in terms of the military commissions. So they were tried only for whether they violated the laws of war, and otherwise, they were simply held as POWs if they were captured. And the reason for that, in part, was because otherwise the Union army would have been treated similarly by the Southerners. And so, for practical reasons, if nothing else, they were being given the rights of a sovereign nation in terms of the treatment with respect to their activities during the war. Meanwhile the Dakota, who were a sovereign nation, were not being viewed as a sovereign nation.

CB: You write that the law is meant to do more than simply dictate and enforce rules, that it “must do more than simply define boundaries of behavior and punish those who overstep the boundaries. The law must be more than the routine exercise of power. It must ‘guide and educate’ those subject to it and validate itself ethically in the eyes of the governed as well as in the eyes of the ruling class.”

CC: We enact our laws as a reflection of our sense of right and just behavior. Rules against murder are not just there because somebody powerful said, “This is the rule that should exist.” It’s because we have a societal understanding of what boundaries there should be for us to live together appropriately, and also what is ethical and moral. Now we don't all agree on everything, but, generally speaking, our rules reflect our principles.

The Sioux who were punished were not part of the community that created and supported those rules. It doesn't mean they weren’t governed by them, but it wasn't ever explained to them what was going on. In their perception, the notion of a trial—and a hanging—didn’t make sense. They knew that there had been killings, but from Dakota community perspective they had engaged in a war.

On Dec. 24th 1862 our company with A. C and K of the 6th Infantry Minnesota Volunteers, left Glencoe to assist in hanging the 38 condemned Indians at Mankato. We made about 12 miles the first day and stopped over night near some German farmers a few miles south of New Auburn, we were provided with a few “tepees” or regulation tents where 20 to 25 could easily crowd together. During the night we had a heavy rain which lasted until morning, during the latter part of the night the water ran right in the tent and under us so most of us were soaked through to the skin before we had any warning, the ground was frozen hard so the water started swiftly, about daybreak it turned bitterly cold, so our heavy clothes became stiff as a paper collar on a dude in a large city, and to pull down our large tents was a terrible job.

After having partaken of a little coffee, bacon and hardtack, we started towards St. Peter and arrived there about noon. A mile or so below town we passed the once notorious place called Traverse dis Sioux where the government had large warehouses from which the Indians had their annuity dealt out to them several times a year. This agency was established very early, and many important treaties between the Indians and the whites were made at this place. It was abandoned years ago, and only portions of decayed brick walls are left. We passed through St. Peter about noon Christmas day crossed the Minnesota River on a ferry, three miles above, and marched to the stone piles called Kasota where we found a few vacated houses, where a roasted turkey would not have tasted very bad, but none was forthcoming.

The next morning, Dec. 26th we started for Mankato six or seven miles distant and arrived there about 9 AM.

I will now let another author speak about the tragic event more fully.

—A. J. Carlson, East Union News, July 1, 1898


While he was in prison, awaiting execution, Hdainyanka (Rattling Runner) wrote an angry letter to his father-in-law, Chief Wabasha:

Wabasha: You have deceived me. You told me that if we followed the advice of General Sibley, and gave ourselves up to the whites, all would be well; no innocent man would be injured. I have not killed, wounded or injured a white man, or any white persons. I have not participated in the plunder of their property; and yet to-day I am set apart for execution and must die in a few days while men who are guilty will remain in prison. … When my children are grown up, let them know that their father died because he followed the advice of his chief, and without having the blood of a white man to answer to the Great Spirit. My wife and children are dear to me. Let them not grieve for me. Let them remember that the brave should be prepared to meet their death; and I will do as becomes a Dakota.

—Mary Wingerd, North Country: The Making of Minnesota, 2010

THE DAKOTA PEOPLE WERE FORMED BY Ina Maka, or Earth Mother, at the juncture of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, which they call Bdote. Since 1817 Bdote has been the site of Fort Snelling, where the 1,658 Dakotas were held in a concentration camp for six months from early November 1862 to May 5, 1863, and where more than 200 died. It “is the site of our genesis and our genocide,” one man, Jim Anderson, tells Waz in What Does Justice Look Like? There are occasional protests against the existence of the fort, which Waz argues should be torn down and reclaimed by the Dakota as farmland.

“Interior of Indian Jail,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1863, 23.

On our last day in Minneapolis, my mother and I drive to Fort Snelling, on the southwestern edge of St. Paul, a few minutes from the airport. We park on a rise overlooking the water and walk past the fort, where guides in nineteenth-century costumes flank the entrance, and walk down a hill to a grove of trees, where a small circle of stakes with Dakota names written on them have been driven into the ground. Pieces of cloth hang from the stakes and the branches of trees. There are no plaques or markings to set the site apart from what surrounds it. It is a fragile, ephemeral memorial, a remnant of the commemorative march. It feels awkward, tentative, human, and, though the comparison is obvious, totally antithetical to the stone monuments we’d driven past earlier. The sedimented permanence of those markers seems to have enabled Americans to forget the past rather than remember it—their ostensible purpose.

The delicate Dakota memorial reinforces a paradox that is hard to accept, that real reconciliation would require a kind of collective amnesia, and possibly a form of cultural integration that many Indians resist. In other words, to forgive and forget is also to surrender. The alternative is to strive for the impossible, which is what Waz wants: the total abdication of US colonization. This leaves the Dakota—and the descendants of settlers—in a precarious position, with no foreseeable resolution. But perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps the presence of a renegade group on the margins of society acts as a balance, a reminder that those who occupy the center, and the way of life they promote, are on unstable ground.

Before we leave, we stop to look out over the point where the rivers meet. Three large birds fly out from the trees along the far bank and ascend in lazily expanding circles. The sun is so bright I have to squint to see them, and they flicker in and out of sight. They have the round heads, pointed beaks, and powerful wings of hawks. My mother is convinced they are bald eagles: “Just look at their wingspan.” I’ve never seen a bald eagle outside of the zoo, but these birds do seem appropriately majestic. I follow them as they rise, expecting they’ll eventually swoop down toward the river again. But they continue to fly in spirals into the sun, until I lose sight of them completely.

Once I had a taste of what it means to freeze to death, and do not believe that is the worst kind of a death. In a severe Minnesota winter I rode twelve miles without fur coat and with an ordinary overcoat. For a time I suffered terribly from the cold; I had neither strength nor time to run to get warm. The one mile went after the other and I thought, we’ll soon be there, and soon I did not feel the cold. But when I arrived I was so stiff, that when I tried to get out of the sleigh, I fell helpless to the ground.

Some of our people in the Union settlement were users and lovers of strong drink. For that reason I had many difficulties. Some immigrants had brought with them from Sweden a whiskey still, and soon they had the still going full blast in the woods and all winter they had a good time in their way. We warned and exhorted, but it did not help. Then we decided to pray especially David’s prayer, “Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues.” (Gör du dum oense) Ps.55:9. Not long thereafter the owners became enemies and destroyed their equipment. I was told, that, when one of them was about to break the last vessel he cried, “Now I am doing what Carlson wants me to do.”

The same thing happened with the Baptists, who had caused us much unpleasantness. We prayed, and they were divided and moved away.

—Pastor Peter Carlson, autobiography, late 1800s