Today (26 Dec, 2012), marks the 150th Anniversary of the hanging of 38 of 303 Sioux men who took part in the 1862 Sioux Uprising in southern Minnesota. The anniversary of this, the largest mass execution in U.S. history, is especially poignant in that it occurred the day after Christmas in stark contrast to the cultural message of the holidays, and that the cultural aspects of both the uprising and its repression have yet to be openly dealt with by the dominant culture – although marking the 150-year anniversary has generally re-opened discussion in a positive direction, though it remains a discussion engaged in mostly by Native American culturalists and Minnesota historians rather than a generalized public conversation.
The following is an account of my 23 Sept historical tour of Ramsay County relating to the Uprising and Native American culture in Ramsay County, Minnesota:
Sunday (23 Sept, 2012), I was fortunate to take part in a Ramsey County Public Library outing in honor of the sesquetennial (150th Anniversary) of the Minnesota (USA) – Sioux War of 1862.
“1862 – that was before the Mennonites came to American in 1874… what does this have to do with Mennonite culture and history?” one might reasonably ask. “Quite a lot, in fact,” I would just as reasonably reply.
The Indian Wars of the American West play an important role in the history and ethic of the Mennonite immigration of the 1870s to North America – especially in the United States. In particular, the Minnesota – Sioux (or Dakota) War of 1862 specifically opened up much of the area in Southwest Minnesota for later settlement and agricultural development – just in time for speculators to get the townsites and farms of Mountain Lake, Bingham Lake, Windom, Butterfield and others set up and ready to market to the newly arrived immigrant refugees from Alexander II’s increasingly repressive Russia.
To be fair, groups such as the Aron Wall congregation, did not arrive in Mountain Lake until 1878 and were in no way directly related to or directly culpable for these events. In fact, much of the farmland purchased by those early Brüderthaler were tracts being abandoned by previous settlers fleeing the infamous grasshopper hordes of the previous decade.
On the other hand, these lands had only recently been opened up and made secure by American aggression in the Dakota wars and the newly arrived Mennonites would have been only too aware of this fact in as much as numerous family narratives record intense propaganda on the part of the Tsar’s agents extolling the dangers and terrors the Native America tribes and such uprisings posed to those who chose to leave the safety and security of the Ukrainian veldts and southern Russia for the wild frontier prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota Territory and Minnesota.
Not only were lands being opened up and secured by the activities of the United States army and cavalry units, but news of the necessity of such actions in order to encourage and guarantee settlement of those lands was an important consideration for Mennonites pondering a move to the New World in a weigh-off between religious freedom and unknown dangers.
Finally, this war marked the beginning of a massive ethnic relocation that would greatly influence the Mennonites of the Great Plains culturally by bringing the Dakota peoples to new homes near future Mennonite settlements near Brandon, Manitoba, Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Wolf Point and Fort Peck, Montana and many other, smaller reserves.
In fact, the establishment of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation in Montana would eventually lead to President Wilson’s decision to open up those lands to settlement between 1911 and 1915 – an invitation many Mennonites would enthusiastically accept as they founded farms, businesses, schools and churches in present-day Lustre, Volt, Grand Prairie, Larslan, Oswego, Frazer and Wolf Point. Similarly, other Mennonites would settle on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
Ghost Trails and Places provided the urban inhabitants of developed landscape the same opportunities afforded those of us who grew up on those rural reservations. It was easy for us to imagine the Indian villages, hunting camps and horse pastures of the First Nations as we toiled under their shadows summerfallowing or swathing hay. Remnants of this history are still readily and easily apparent to even the most casual hiker.
The cities of St Paul, Roseville, White Bear Lake, Little Canada and Centerville have largely expanded over the earlier native landscape of Ramsey County, mostly erasing such physical reminders of their own extensive period of Dakota habitation – but not completely.
Not-so-amateur historian David Riehle has developed a remarkable annual tour of the accessible former village sites and farm grounds of the Dakota or Kaposia culture in and around St Paul. In fact, the original village center of St Paul was a Dakota settlement Imnizaskadan, meaning “White Cliffs,” along the banks of the Mississippi adjacent to the current municipal airport. While all traces of the village have long disappeared, the site itself remains visible to visitors from a well maintained vantage point in front of the terminal – a vastly under-visited yet highly-recommended, tourist destination.
According to Reihle, Imnizaskadan was abandoned in the 1837 Treaty and the Dakota or Kaposia moved downriver near South St Paul and finally to the reserves along the Minnesota River where the 1862 war began.
Reihle’s tour is filled with narrative and facts – both I and my travel companion, who grew up in Roseville, learned a lot. The greatest strength of this tour lies not in the narrative but in the actuality of being almost physically transported back to the geography of the Dakota and seeing the remnants of this geography underneath the modern urban construction.
Our other major destination for the day would be Lac au Sauvages or Savage Lake and Gervais (Jarvis) Lake.
Savage Lake, located in Little Canada, was known to the Dakota as Day Camp because it was a day’s journey from Imnizaskadan – a day’s journey with all the implements and supplies necessary to move from the farms and winter camp along the river, up the bluff (via Swede Hollow) to the summer grounds and autumn ricing lakes around Savage Lake and points west and north.
To illustrate this point, we investigated several former trails now located under railroads and highways such as the Trout Brook Ravine (I 35-E), the Goose Lake Trail (present-day Centerville Road), Rice Lake Road Trail, Shakopee Trail and the trail from the Kaposia villages.
One finds it difficult to adequately describe the usefulness of this tour. While one could easily trace the route of Trout Creek on a map, the reality of the former world and our changes or impact on this landscape and cultural geography become apparent only by physically following the remains of these trails, in seeing the rise and fall of the ridges that had to be traversed (involving a 300-foot climb from the riverbottom), and the physical sense of security that one would feel in inhabiting Savage Lake.
Only from there and from seeing the eccentric bends and junctions in these old trail routes, can one realize Riehle’s hypothesis that Savage Lake may have been a major junction of trade, hunting, agricultural, commercial and migration routes not far from the boundary between the Dakota and Ojibwe nations (near present-day White Bear Lake) – a busy intersection along the essential highway system of a former culture.
While Reihle encourages us to consider the disjoint between this populous and wealthy urban center (St Paul), and the present reality of the Dakota descendants on Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota (the statistically poorest county in the United States), descendants of the Mennonite refugee settlers can take away the historical, geographic and moral lessons of our own immigration narrative and its impact on the geography, culture and ethnicity of the Great Plains.
Clearly, I do not find any ethical questions in the Mennonite settlement of these areas – the early settlers had little knowledge of cultural and geographic realities prior to their arrival, or of the minds and politics of the governments, railroads and speculators from which they purchased their farms and communities. But one would find it compelling to better understand the role the Mennonites more-or-less naively played in the resettlement and relocation of the First Nations tribes of the greater Agassiz and Assiniboia regions and to perhaps become more understanding of and sympathetic towards Native American claims for restorative justice – to the point of establish a spirit of supportive cooperation rather than fear or competition over lost opportunities, scarce resources and limited futures.
In fact, Russländer Mennonite descendants are somewhat uniquely positioned to understand and empathize with the impact of that stage in history on the Dakota culture in its similarity to the forced migrations, loss of lands and villages, homelessness, often near starvation, deprivation and generally negative refugee status experienced by the Russian Mennonites who remained behind to experience the Russian Revolution, Collectivization, two world wars, forced removal, expulsion and the near-tragic ending of our own historical Great Trek as the lands in Chortitza, Borosenko, Molotschna, Samara and the Kaban were forcibly sold-off and culturally abandoned to new inhabitants and politicos who felt little or no sympathy with the previous inhabitants of that historic geography.
Ghost Trails and Places would be a great tour to take as a means of initiating more competent and beneficial dialogue regarding this past in North America and possibly how the Mennonites of Latin America, especially those engaged in the current Chaco dialogues, might more successfully and ethically help resolve past injustices and feelings of injustice. As they always say, it doesn’t hurt to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” when attempting to better understand their perspectives and motivations – even if walking really means taking a comfortable drive in a restored 1957-era city bus.
For further reading: