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A Dakota War story you should know

  • Article by: COREY HICKNER-JOHNSON
  • August 15, 2012 - 7:06 PM

When we revisit a historical event, such as the U.S.-Dakota War, we reconsider ourselves. Who are we because of that war? Who might we have been if things had happened in a different way? How might this event be remembered if there had been others involved? How might this event be remembered if alternative perspectives were heard?

The Star Tribune, through reporter Curt Brown, has done an outstanding job of re-remembering the Dakota War. I use the word "re-remembering" because the paper has worked to provide alternative perspectives -- not just the white, male voices of powerful officials who presided over war tactics and government actions. Star Tribune articles have celebrated Dakota voices, biracial (white and Dakota) voices, and the voices of white settlers. The newspaper's work is evidence that this state is making progress in facing the ugly facts of the Dakota War.

However, there is a voice that has not been expressed in the Star Tribune: Sarah Wakefield's. Her voice -- also ignored in her time -- is one that I wish to insert into the modern conversation.

At the onset of the Dakota War, Wakefield's husband decided that she should travel with her children to Fort Ridgely. He thought it would be safer there, as white homes were being raided and captives taken. George Gleason, a clerk at the Lower Agency warehouse, drove Wakefield, 33, and her children -- a baby daughter, Lucy, and a 4-year-old son, James.

Their journey was interrupted by two Indians: Hapa, the man who would antagonize Wakefield throughout her captivity, and Chaska, the man who became Wakefield's savior.

After stopping Gleason and Wakefield, Hapa wished to kill both of them.

"I begged Hapa to spare me," Wakefield would write, "put out my hands towards him, but he struck them down. I thought then my doom was sealed and if it had not been for Chaska, my bones would now be bleaching on that prairie, and my children with Little Crow." Chaska persuaded Hapa to spare Wakefield, and she was taken as a war captive.

Wakefield spent six weeks living among the Mdewakanton Dakota, often in danger from a few Dakota who felt captives should be killed. Chaska and his family intervened. Wakefield was still nursing her daughter. Her body was weak and unaccustomed to the outdoors. Throughout her firsthand account of her captivity, Wakefield describes various ways that Chaska and his family protected her from murder, starvation and, at one point, from sexual assault.

When he felt it was safe, Chaska brought Wakefield and her children to Gen. Henry Sibley and his troops. Wakefield sought to speak out for Chaska's good deeds. She maintained that Chaska had been her protector and had not killed George Gleason. But Sibley would not corroborate Wakefield's account of her captivity. Her account was ignored.

There were 392 trials for alleged war crimes committed by Dakota during the war. Three hundred and three Dakota men were sentenced to hang, while their families were brought to a prison camp near Fort Snelling, according to "The War in Words" by Katheryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. After pardoning many of the accused, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men. Despite his innocence, and despite Wakefield's attempts to intervene, Chaska was convicted of killing George Gleason. He was sentenced to hang on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato.

As a final cry for justice, Wakefield published her work, "Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity," in 1863 and 1864 in Minnesota. Through her narrative, Wakefield challenged not only her role as a submissive, subordinate woman, but also the government-endorsed, or accepted, version of the Dakota War.

In Minnesota today, the legacy of the white, male monopoly over the historiography of the Dakota War lives on. Minnesota has Pope, Ramsey and Sibley counties. There are several sites, including Sibley State Park, whose namesakes belong to the deceivers of both Wakefield and the Dakota. These men are celebrated; Minnesota children grow up believing them to be heroes.

Though disenfranchised from the hegemonic remembrance of the Dakota War, Wakefield's legacy and the exploitation of the Dakota at the hands of these men lives on through Wakefield's narrative. Vindicating both herself and the Dakota, Wakefield describes the exploitation of the Dakota people and the wrongful hanging of an innocent man, Chaska, her protector.

"Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees" might have been disenfranchised in its time, but it contributes shocking insights to our modern understanding of the Dakota War.

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Corey Hickner-Johnson is an independent writer and educator in St. Louis Park.

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