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Continued: Born to lead, Part 2

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 15, 2012 - 8:39 PM

The mother took her young son down to the frozen lake and chipped a hole in the ice.

She knelt on the snowy banks and held him out over the jagged gash, chunks of ice bobbing in the dark opening. She dipped his warm little body into the shock of the water.

Then she plucked him out, scooping up snow with her hands and massaging it into his skin.

This, she believed, would steel him for the trials ahead, as a leader of the Dakota people in a time of great challenges.

Her name was Minnei-okha-da-win, or "musical sound of water running under the ice."

She named her son Taoyateduta, or Strong Scarlet Nation, a hint to the greatness she imagined for him. Like his father, grandfather and those who came before them, one day he would take the name Little Crow as chief of their village in Kaposia.

Few details of Little Crow's childhood survive, but his mother's story was passed along in the Dakota oral tradition, written down in the early 1900s by Dr. Charles Eastman, a mixed-blood Dakota also known as Ohiyesa.

Exactly how old Little Crow was when his mother administered her bracing preparation for the future is unknown. But sometime between 1810 and 1818, he was born into a powerful family amid a dozen bark homes and tepees nestled in the bluffs and twisting ravines south of modern-day St. Paul.

He grew up in the fragile, final days of traditional life for the Dakota, in a culture still relatively undisturbed by the influence of white people trickling into what would be Minnesota. His village of Kaposia (Kah-poe-zsha) translates to "swift footed" or "unencumbered," reflecting how easy it was to move from the east to the west side of the Mississippi River, close enough to the St. Croix and Minnesota rivers to serve as a beehive of trading.

He was free to follow the seasons hunting deer and muskrats, to range as a young man to every corner of what would become the state, warring with the Ojibwe up north or quarrying pipestone in the sacred red-rock deposits far to the southwest. On the way home, the white soldiers' new stone walls that would one day be known as Fort Snelling cast a shadow from high atop the bluffs, just a short canoe paddle from Kaposia.

For Little Crow, it was the beginning of a delicate, life-long dance with the encroaching white population.

As he grew, his mother continued forging her first-born son into a leader, taking him alone into the woods for days at a time to embrace solitude and the natural world.

"My son, if you are to be a leader of men, you must listen in silence to the mystery, the spirit," she was quoted in Eastman's writings.

But if Little Crow carried a sense of destiny and dynasty, he was also just another Dakota kid hunting birds and small animals. Eastman tells of a game Little Crow played with his dog when he was 10, forming two camps of boys along a lake near St. Paul. The goal was to sneak up on the other camp without being detected.

When he was 12, a companion broke through the ice. Little Crow did not hesitate. He tied a line to a log and crawled out on the ice until he, too, was splashing in the frigid water. Eastman describes how he managed to save his friend and himself.

Little Crow's reputation as a boy of quick thinking, gumption and steady nerves began to build.

A young man's wandering

When the influx of white neighbors was finally felt in Kaposia, it was devastating.

Whiskey traders such as Pig's Eye Parrant set up shop nearby in the 1830s. Among the first Dakota to bend to the influence of alcohol was a chief named Cetanwakanmani - Little Crow's grandfather.

Little Crow watched whiskey seep destructively into the lives of other men in Kaposia. But more and more, he was ranging far afield, first as a messenger to other tribes and then bartering with the white traders' whiskey and rum while gambling for furs to the west.

He became adept at poker and was becoming known as a ladies' man. Living for a while along the Cannon River in southeastern Minnesota, Little Crow took his first two wives. Then he moved up the Minnesota River valley to near the mission at Lac qui Parle, where Montevideo now sits.

He began attending the missionaries' school, sharpening his English and math skills. He married four sisters. Polygamy was common and politically astute, expanding influence through kinship.

Around this time, he met a tall trader from the American Fur Co. named Henry Hastings Sibley, who would become governor once the Minnesota territory was a state. One day, Sibley would be handed the task of quelling Little Crow's revolt.

But their relationship started innocuously enough. Sibley's records show Little Crow bringing in 640 muskrat pelts for trade on May 15, 1837. A few years later, Sibley and his pals came upon a herd of hundreds of elk during a hunting trip, an unusual find when most game was dwindling in Minnesota's forests and plains.

Sibley would recall how his hunting party tracked the elk on horseback, ranging 25 miles a day, while Little Crow jogged along "on foot, keeping up and conversing."

'I am a chief now'

In his memoirs, Sibley recounted in great detail the day in 1845 when Little Crow's father, Chief Big Thunder, died.

The chief's gun fired as he unloaded it from a wagon, wounding him. Sibley wrote that when he heard about the accident, he grabbed the Fort Snelling doctor and a mixed-blood interpreter, and headed to Kaposia.

The doctor and the old chief agreed the wound would prove fatal; they figured he had only one day to live. Sibley said he then overheard a dramatic deathbed conversation:

"He told his son frankly that it had not been his intention to make him chief. Although he was his eldest born, he had very little good sense and moreover was addicted to drinking and other vicious habits." But because his second son died fighting the Ojibwe, Big Thunder told Little Crow, he had no choice but to name him as successor. Sibley described Big Thunder cautioning Little Crow about the futility of resisting the superior forces of the whites, urging his son to let his people "accommodate themselves to the new state of things."

Sibley said the dying chief solemnly "shook us by the hand" as they rose to leave, then died the next day.

There is only one problem with Sibley's story: It couldn't be true.

Historians, pointing to interviews journalists conducted with Dakota witnesses in the late 1800s, now agree Little Crow was 160 miles up the Minnesota River at Lac qui Parle that winter when news of his father's death arrived. He likely waited until the ice melted to paddle down with a flotilla of his wives and supporters picked up along the way.

He had already heard that a half-brother was poised to become Kaposia's leader, partly because Little Crow had been away for a decade.

On May 10, 1846, the dispute over who would be chief came to a head. Everyone flocked out of the bark houses and buffalo-skin tepees to watch as Little Crow's half-brother shouted that he was no longer wanted in Kaposia and should return to Lac qui Parle. He raised his gun to punctuate his point.

Folding his arms across his chest, Little Crow stepped forward and declared: "Shoot then, where all can see. I am not afraid of death."

When the shot rang out, a wail rose over the commotion and Little Crow fell into the arms of an ally. The musket ball had ripped through both forearms, shattering the bones. He was rushed to Fort Snelling in a canoe, where the post surgeon prepared to amputate everything below both wrists.

Little Crow vehemently argued that he could neither lead his people nor hunt in the afterlife without hands. He returned to his village, swamped with sympathy, and was treated with herbs and splints.

His forearms shriveled awkwardly, the bones twisting and overlapping. He never regained full use of his fingers. In images the white photographers soon started snapping, Little Crow concealed his deformities with skunk-skin wristbands and long sleeves.

But his bravery won over the elders. His half-brothers were quickly executed and Little Crow became the undisputed leader of his band.

Now in his mid-30s, his kinship relations strengthened through his wives' ties out west and his oratory skills sharpened, he was ready to put his womanizing, gambling days behind him.

"I was only a brave then," he said in the autumn of 1846. "I am a chief now."

Swapping land for survival

In 1850, the white population of what would soon be the state of Minnesota stood at about 6,000 people.

The Indian population was eight times that, with nearly 50,000 Dakota, Ojibwe, Winnebago and Menominee living in the territory. But within two decades, as immigrant settlers poured in, the white population would mushroom to more than 450,000.

To clear the way, the government negotiated a pair of pivotal treaties in 1851 that would prove to be the kindling for the war to come.

White leaders approached the proceedings in an opportunistic, entrepreneurial spirit. But for the Dakota leaders, it was an exercise in searching for a way to survive amid massive, debilitating changes.

Herds of game they had subsisted on were dwindling as land was cultivated for farms. More and more white settlers were encroaching. Little Crow and his fellow chiefs knew their economy was changing and life would never be the same. Selling 24 million acres, roughly the land west of the Mississippi and south of what would become Interstate 94, was a high price. But the alternative appeared to be extinction.

Little Crow was optimistic that in exchange for those huge tracts of land, the Dakota would acquire a strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River where at least they could still live as a sovereign nation. The $3 million the U.S. government put on the table would pay for food, schools, farming equipment, blacksmith shops and goods to ease his people into the new reality that seemed inevitable.

His grandfather had signed an 1805 agreement with Zebulon Pike that paved the way for Fort Snelling. His father had joined two dozen Dakota chiefs in Washington, D.C., where they relinquished 5 million acres of land east of the Mississippi for $1 million.

Now it was Little Crow brokering treaty terms at Mendota as Sibley, territorial Gov. Alexander Ramsey and their trader friends pushed the Dakota to accept promises of millions of dollars to help feed their people in exchange for moving all of the Dakota onto the reservation.

A couple of weeks earlier, at the Traverse des Sioux treaty signing near St. Peter, the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota gave up their lands farther up the Minnesota River for $1.67 million. Right after signing, they were directed to another barrel to sign what they assumed was a copy of the treaty. But the second documents were so-called traders' papers, requiring payment of more than $200,000 of the treaty money for overdue credit.

Could these white officials be trusted now? Sibley and many other traders had Dakota wives and children, and were now extended family. To the Dakota, kinship was key to culture and trust.

After watching from the sidelines, Little Crow decided it was time to cut the best deal he could for his Mdewakanton band of Dakota -- and his eloquence put him in the forefront of the proceedings. Artist Frank Mayer, who sketched Little Crow in 1851, described him as "dignified, very determined and ambitious."

On the last day of July, newspaper reporters first noticed him when elders tapped Little Crow to speak at the treaty negotiations. Dressed in beautifully beaded trousers, a silk shirt, and red belt and neckerchief, Little Crow demanded education funding from an 1837 treaty that remained unpaid, saying "we will talk of nothing else but that money if it is until next spring."

For the next week, Little Crow demanded white treaty commissioners redraw the reservation boundary farther east so his people could be near the woodlands they were used to and not stuck completely on the prairie. Ramsey and the negotiators finally relented and even jacked up their price.

Little Crow believed he had pushed negotiations as far as he could for his people. But he was aware other chiefs disagreed and it was rumored they would shoot the first Dakota leader to sign the deal.

So Little Crow turned to address the two Dakota bands gathered for the Mendota treaty signing -- the Wahpekute and his own Mdewakanton. "I am willing to be first," he said, "even if a dog kills me before I lay down the goose quill." Then he signed the treaty in big bold letters.

After the treaty signing, Little Crow's people were supposed to receive $1.4 million, with annual interest payments of $58,000. Little Crow had imagined the money would help the Dakota adapt to their rapidly changing world. He believed the promises that it would be doled out in gold pieces to the Dakota every June before their traditional buffalo hunts out west, so that they could buy food and supplies.

But the traders swarmed in after the treaty signing to try to get the bands to sign the traders' papers, and the Wahpekute agreed to set aside $90,000 to pay debts. Little Crow and the Mdewakanton chiefs had heard about these documents and refused to sign.

The traders' claims of debts stemmed from a time when the Dakota traded furs for food and goods. As the pelts diminished, the traders extended credit. Chief Big Eagle, a Little Crow contemporary, later explained that the traders hovered over annual annuity payments to the Dakota with alleged records of debts. "As the Indians kept no books, they could not deny their accounts and sometimes the traders got all the money." The Indians, he said, had no legal right to take credit disputes to court. After the treaty signing, the traders insisted a third of the money belonged to them for old debts.

By the next May, with the treaty still unratified by Congress, payments had yet to be made to the Dakota. But white settlers were flooding in anyway. Congressional debates over the treaty dragged through the summer and payments to the Dakota didn't begin until November.

Little Crow rose to speak at Kaposia, arrayed in a suit of otter skin, raccoon tails dangling on his calves.

He described Ramsey's conduct a year before, saying the territorial governor refused to negotiate in good faith and merely whittled a stick and whistled for two months. "After he had eaten all the cattle he had brought," Little Crow recalled disdainfully, Ramsey "got up and belched up some wind from his great belly and poked his treaty at us."

Washington diplomacy

Soon Little Crow's stage moved from Kaposia to Washington, D.C., where he made two trips by steamboat and rail car in the 1850s.

The first trip was unofficial, giving Little Crow a chance to see the capital and get to know federal officials.

He quickly became a media sensation.

"The Indian Bureau of the government, we understand, did not invite this distinguished native Minnesotan to visit the capital, " wrote the Washington Daily Union newspaper of April 9, 1854. "But he is a man of means and he determined to come to the city on his own hook."

Little Crow was treated as a curious ambassador. He didn't disappoint, posing for photographs in lavish Dakota attire. President Franklin Pierce gave him an audience in 1854, as did President James Buchanan in 1858.

He was invited back by the government for the second trip in 1858, along with other chiefs, and the U.S. government had an official agenda. But first, they wined and dined the chiefs.

Little Crow served as toastmaster at a dinner of congressmen, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices. "Warriors and friends: I am informed that the great white war chief who of his generosity and comradeship has given us this feast, has expressed the wish that we may follow to-night the usages and customs of my people," Eastman recalled Little Crow saying.

He then called on an Ojibwe chief, Hole-in-the-Day, who unfurled "the clearest and longest wolf howl ever heard in Washington," followed by a "tremendous burst of war whoops that no doubt electrified the officials there."

It wasn't all showmanship, though. Many view the 1858 trip as a ploy to intimidate Indian leaders by showing them the might of the U.S. government. During the hot summer months, the chiefs were locked in stuffy meeting rooms where they were told that if they didn't agree to sell even more of their land, the U.S. government could seize it all. Under that threat, Little Crow signed away the half of the reservation north of the Minnesota River in exchange for $25,000 to pay trader debts.

Despite the oppressive negotiations, Little Crow relished the sites of the capital, including a stop to watch construction of the Washington Monument -- then one-third complete. One day, a reporter followed him into a gallery where a panoramic mural sprawled the length of a long wall. Painter John Mix Stanley had traveled west and called his expansive work "Western Wilds."

As he studied it, Little Crow's hazel eyes sparkled. Stanley's panel included a familiar scene: Kaposia, complete with women gathering wood and dressing buffalo skins, men gaming and carrying their birch-bark canoes.

The reporter wrote that Little Crow "seemed filled with delight. He clapped his hands, for the picture was a view of his own village ... so truthfully depicted before his astonished sight."

As Little Crow continued to scan the painting, he noticed a body being placed on a burial scaffold. "In profound silence and sorrow, he raised his hands above his head, clasping them there," the reporter wrote.

The sad scene appeared to dash Little Crow's wave of sweet nostalgia about Kaposia. The treaties he had signed forever forfeited this childhood home to the whites. He had thought it would be worth it. But with the agreements unfulfilled, life for the Dakota was turning out far differently than he had imagined. They were barely surviving on the thin ribbon of reservation land.

The reporter wrote that Little Crow stalked out of the gallery without a word. He returned to a Minnesota now teeming with white settlers.

The lake into which his mother had plunged him as a boy, preparing him for just such a crisis, now belonged to other people.

Coming Tuesday: A time of hunger. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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