Why Little Crow?

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 6:41 PM

The history beneath our feet laid the foundation for what Minnesota would become.

Shakopee. Chaska. Wabasha. Mankato.

From meteorologists barking storm warnings to highway signs zipping past, Minnesotans see those names without thinking twice about the Dakota leaders whose historic villages lay beneath the fresh asphalt of parking lots. Our roads often follow paths first trod by their ponies.

We zip past cornfields, seldom slowing down to examine obelisk monuments that punctuate the Minnesota River valley or weathered gravestones etched with the words "Killed by Indians."

Martini glasses clink at the Dakota jazz club and pleasure boats bob on Lake Minnetonka -- a Dakota word for "great water" -- which now serves as a backdrop for the headquarters of mega-corporations such as Cargill.

Jets landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport rumble over Fort Snelling, where cannons blast and actors dress up as frontier soldiers to entertain families. How many Minnesotans pause to consider that some Dakota regard it as a concentration camp, where 1,600 of their ancestors were penned on the nearby river flats in the winter of 1862-63, shivering, starving and dying from disease in the cramped conditions? How many realize a Dakota named Shakopee was drugged in Canada, hauled back by dogsled and hanged at the fort for his role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862?

Amid the sepia-toned photos and yellowing records that connect us to an era so long ago and still so close each day, one man's life stands out in stark relief: Chief Little Crow.

His eloquent, metaphorical speeches survived in the memory of a son and were written down. His treaty negotiations and trips to Washington were recorded in vivid newspaper accounts. Photographers from St. Paul to Washington could not resist having him sit for portraits, leaving many detailed images. Dakota oral history offers insights into his early life.

The record is so rich about this complex, conflicted, pre-eminent figure in Minnesota history that it allows us to step into his life and times this week, as the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-Dakota War approaches Friday.

'Heal a dirty wound'

History keeps coming up with new words to describe the cataclysmic events a century and a half ago: Massacre. Uprising. Conflict. War.

At first, commemorations were clear-cut and one-sided: Brave white pioneers subdued bloodthirsty savages. But in recent decades, the Dakota story of starvation, exile and resiliency has emerged.

"This war has been misinterpreted, misunderstood and the truth has never really been told," said Melvin Lee Houston. He traces his family's roots to Little Crow and lives on an isolated reservation in Santee, Neb., where many Dakota from Minnesota were sent after the war. "I think if everyone really understood the truth of what caused the uprising and its aftermath, they would have a better understanding of us and we would better understand the white perspective."

Emotions remain raw for descendants on all sides even fifteen decades later. Attempts at reconciliation on the 125th anniversary in 1987 seemed to simply reopen old schisms.

"These were the first true Minnesota patriots who fought for this land, their people and their way of life," said Chris Mato Nunpa, a retired professor and Dakota advocate from Granite Falls. He sees apologies without the return of land as feeble attempts to assuage white guilt.

Other leaders, Dakota and non-Dakota, insist that blaming and shaming are misplaced. They grapple with ways to use this anniversary year to heal long-festering wounds they link to heightened suicide rates, alcoholism and diabetes among roughly 5,500 Dakota left in Minnesota and thousands exiled to reservations in Nebraska, Canada and the Dakotas.

"No doubt there is pain transmitted all the way down from 1862 to this very minute," U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison told a healing gathering at a Minneapolis church earlier this year. "The way you heal a dirty wound is to put some truth on it, and the 150th anniversary is literally an opening up of a doorway we all have to walk through."

"People need to remember," said Dan Spock, director of the Minnesota History Center, that "this state exists in large part because of the dispossession of the Dakota ancestral homeland and the terrible chain of events that happened as a direct result of the government's failure to fulfill its obligations -- this is really a fundamental part of the state's history."

Glimpses of Little Crow

An early chronicler of Little Crow's rise before the war was James Lynd, a Kentucky-born trader, Minnesota state senator and newspaper editor.

He came to Minnesota in the 1850s to finish his life's work: a six-volume manuscript on the Dakota. In it, Lynd described the chief first known in the Dakota language as Taoyateduta and later as ittle Crow:

"Among the present living chiefs of the Dakota, Ta-o-ya-tay-doo-ta is the greatest man," Lynd wrote. "He possesses a shrewd judgment, great foresight, and a comprehensive mind, together with that greatest of requisites in a statesman, caution. As an orator, he has not his equal in any living tribe of Indians. ...

"In appearance Little Crow is dignified and commanding, though at times restless and anxious. He is about five feet ten inches in height, with rather sharp features and a piercing hazel eye."

The man Lynd described grew up on the Mississippi River bluffs of Kaposia, in what is now South St. Paul. Later he rose to power and sought a way for his people through the vast changes white settlers were bringing to Minnesota. He negotiated treaties to give his people the money to survive and transition to the white man's ways of farming. But the treaties were largely unfulfilled and payments were claimed by white traders for debts allegedly owed. By the summer of 1862, Little Crow's people were starving and seething.

Lynd was among the first to die in the war, as a trader's store was plundered and burned. Rolls of his manuscript were tossed in a nearby ravine -- found months later by an enlisted soldier who cleaned his gun with the pages until an officer stopped him and preserved the rest, including the description of Little Crow.

Besides the historic records, glimpses of Little Crow survive in three wildly disparate pieces of art from three distinct eras.

In a glass case in the Meeker County history museum in Litchfield, a tiny silver spoon is engraved with his portrait on the handle and the words: "Little Crow's Massacre." The relic reflects the 19th-century sensibility among settlers that Little Crow was to blame for the war.

Then, on the banks of gurgling Crow Creek in Hutchinson, there's a bronze sculpture of Little Crow shading his eyes and gazing west across the river. On the war's 75th anniversary in 1937, hometown artist Les Kouba donated the piece, with a plaque that, in dated language, hinted at a more complicated story:

"The red of the sunset upon these waters reminds us that all blood is red -- even that of the red-skin who fought us for possession of this stream, and in the mist which rises from the river we see the smoke of the pipe of peace between all peoples curling upwards from the valley of the Crow."

The third piece of art, near the roar of Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis' signature park, was erected just 18 years ago. Most people don't even notice the bronze and copper mask of Little Crow's face supported by two stainless steel poles. Indian artist Ed Archie NoiseCat left the eyes empty, a void filled only by the green of surrounding pine trees.

Like an apparition, it is easily overlooked -- much like Little Crow himself 150 years later.

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