If not for a somewhat larger war raging at the same time, a frontier war which broke out in 1862 might be more widely known and more thoroughly studied by Americans . This smaller war has been known by many names. Currently, it's called the "U.S.-Dakota War". It's also known simply as the "Dakota War" but has also been called the "Sioux Uprising" and "Little Crow's War". When known by these names, the significant, repeated fact about it is that it ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
But it also has an older, politically incorrect name: the "Indian Massacre of 1862". It was known by that name for a very long time because some Dakota from the Lower Sioux Agency attacked white homesteads in and around the Minnesota River valley in what you could call, if settlers' accounts are to be believed, "a manner reminiscent of Jenjhis Khan" (to paraphrase our incoming Secretary of State). One of the results of which was the aforementioned mass hanging of 38 Dakota on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, MN. 2012 being the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the war and subsequent executions, all throughout this year organizations like Minnesota Public Radio have been solemnly recounting the tragic circumstances of the Dakota of that time and repeating that historically unique execution statistic. Their main message is: we're supposed to be nice white people yet we all share in the guilt associated with this notorious and heinous act.
What seems to be less notorious and heinous to them is the number of settlers killed by the Dakota. There's no agreed-upon count, but the number may be as high as 800 — mainly farmers and merchants killed (again, if eyewitness accounts are to be believed) in various, gruesome ways including scalping, beheading, and disembowelment. There's even an account of an infant cut from its mother's womb and nailed to a barn door. Eight hundred settlers killed within a single geographic area over the short span of six weeks — that has to be statistically significant in the history of the United States of America. Yet at best, these victims are often treated as collateral damage, and at worst, as complicit participants in the destruction of the Dakotas just as German civilians were complicit in the Nazis' Final Solution.
The Dakota had legitimate grievances: the more-or-less forced transition from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle was not going well for them, crops were failing, and, most significantly, land agents were cheating them out of their treaty payments. I imagine that I would have felt aggrieved if I had been in their position. But was it 800 civilian lives-worth of grievance? Not all Dakota agreed, including John Other Day, also known as Anpetutokeca. He's credited with saving 60+ settlers' lives by leading the way to an Agency building (either the Upper Sioux or Lower Sioux Agency, depending on which account you read) and standing guard all night. Depending upon which side you've chosen, Other Day is either a villain or a hero — a turncoat sycophant or a brave man sticking to his principles.
To me he's a man who saved one branch of my family. According to family accounts and genelogical records, they were among the group of 60+ settlers Other Day protected. They had left the northern Lake Champlain area of Vermont for Minnesota in the previous decade to escape the crowding of the East and find land of their own to farm. They later went on to help establish the city of Grand Forks, ND. Were they innocents or were they guilty of "stealing" land from the Dakota? I can't say. What I can say, though, is what they weren't. They weren't rich and powerful. They were farmers who, if their forefathers had stayed in the hellhole which was Europe, would have spent their lives as laborers in the mines and mills of Victorian Britain. If not for Other Day, there's a high probability they would have ended up lumped among the mostly nameless hundreds killed that autumn in southern Minnesota.
John Hinderaker posted a piece discussing the new MN K-12 Social Studies standards which calls for students to:
Explain reasons for the United States-Dakota War of 1862; compare and contrast the perspectives of settlers and Dakota people before, during and after the war. (Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850-1877)
That sounds benign and neutral enough, yet the standard that benchmark falls under is that the student should understand that:
Regional tensions around economic development, slavery, territorial expansion and governance resulted in a civil war and a period of Reconstruction that led to the abolition of slavery, a more powerful federal government, a renewed push into indigenous nations’ territory and continuing conflict over racial relations. (Civil War and Reconstruction: 1850-1877)
So, as usual, the root cause must be…RACISM!
Tell that to my supposedly white patriarchal racist great-great-whatever-he-is-to-me who, in gratitude for helping to save his family from a massacre, named his son in honor of John Other Day — a not-white person.
Hinderaker illustrates his point that it would be good to teach children some of Minnesota's heroic history by explaining some of the history of the celebrated 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That along with the bad, there has been some good in which they can take pride, and I agree, though I would say that emphasizing the exploits of the 1st Minnesota is emphasizing the obvious.* I would be happy if students in Minnesota learn, in the case of the 1862 conflict, that there were good actors, bad actors, and those caught in the middle who were just trying to live their lives. That we don't have to conclude that either side was "evil" but that we don't have to devolve history into the vague amoral mash of a "mistakes were made on both sides" moral equivalency, either. Land agents, Dakota bent on murder, and an apathetic federal government acted badly. They were responsible for their actions and no one else.
And the descendants of the Dakota who were cheated, should they live their lives as aggrieved victims and dependents of the state? As to the latter, they really don't have to anymore. It wasn't the plan, nor does it fulfill the promises of the treaties they signed with the federal government, but if "payback" is owed, it seems that white people coming to their casino and voluntarily handing over hundreds of millions of dollars is a substantial, appropriate, and possibly even ironic payback.
*I don't disagree with him. Students in Minnesota should learn about, and take pride in, the exploits of the 1st Minnesota. Though my own great-great grandfather wasn't in the 1st Minnesota, he was in the 3rd Wisconsin and was wounded at Antietam and Gettysburg. (Facts which I had to find on my own as an adult, BTW.) While I do take a certain amount of vicarious pride in the fact, that doesn't mean I get some sort of credit-by-association for his brave actions.