150-year-old letters give voice to Dakota
North Dakota: The voices of Dakota men imprisoned after the Dakota Conflict of 1862 are finally being heard.
Clifford Canku from North Dakota State University has spent 10 years
studying letters written by those prisoners. The letters and other
documents had been stored away at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Canku has to pore over the faint handwriting with a magnifying glass
to read them.
"There's a lot to be bothered by," said NDSU professor Bruce Maylath. "This has been a one-sided story to this point. And for the first time this tells the other side -- directly from the Dakota side. And it tells it in the language they were most comfortable in."
The Dakota War of 1862 was an armed conflict between the U.S. and several bands of eastern Dakota Sioux. It began in August, 1862 and ended in December with the execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota.
The Dakota fought because the U.S. violated treaties that caused severe hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Traders with the Dakota had insisted the U.S. pay the tribal annuities directly to them.
In mid-1862 the Dakota demanded the annuities be paid to the tribes. After traders refused to provide supplies on credit under those conditions, the Dakota began attacking white settlers to drive them off their lands. These battles continued for several months until most Dakota bands surrendered to the U.S. Army.
By late December 1862,
more than 1,000 Dakota captives were jailed in Minnesota.
Some 300 were
sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death
sentence of 265 men who were then sent to the Fort
McClellan prison in Iowa.
also reflect the prisoners' concern after Lincoln was
assassinated. The men feared they would be killed because the man
who saved them was dead.
"One of them would turn to me with a letter and say, 'Flag this one. It's by my great-great-grandfather,'" Maylath said. "And to have the voices of the ancestors right there, visible in their own handwriting, that was the most moving thing to me."
Canku said some letters are painful to read.
One tells how the guards would rape Dakota women who
cleaned and cooked at the prison camp.
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