History lesson: The Santee 38+2

Drawing of the mass execution of 38 Santee warriors at Mankato, Minnesota. Credit: Library of Congress
Drawing of the mass execution of 38 Santee warriors at Mankato, Minnesota. Credit: Library of Congress

On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 of our iSanti Dakotah ancestors were publicly executed for their alleged roles during the Dakota-US War earlier that year. It remains the largest mass execution in American history. Two more men were later captured and hanged for their alleged crimes. This became known as the 38+2 in our tribal history.

What caused the war that led to the deaths of 600 white settlers, 100 iSanti warriors and another 300 iSantis in a concentration camp?

Starvation was a key factor in the last Dakota war that also resulted in the forced relocation of a tribe from its homeland. The story of the iSanti 38+2 begins in southwest Minnesota.

It was the summer of 1862, the iSanti Dakotah (Santee Dakota) had surrendered their territory in southern Minnesota to the United States in exchange for a small patch of land – the tribe’s first reservation – and an annual financial stipend for food, clothing and shelter. The US was in the midst of its civil war with the southern states. President Abraham Lincoln’s decision that summer would change the lives of thousands of people and their descendants.

Struggling to finance the war, and with the Confederate states stronger than anticipated, Lincoln couldn’t grasp the Union military’s capability to eventually dominate the war. With funding at a thin margin, the 16th President of the United States ignored the treaties with the iSanti and diverted the tribe’s stipends to the war effort.

Located on a reservation 20 miles wide and 70 miles long, hugging the Minnesota River near New Ulm in southwest Minnesota, the iSanti turned to farming for survival. But an 1861 drought destroyed any chance for a successful crop harvest. Hunting excursions came up empty. Without the annual stipend and additional food promised them, the iSanti were on the brink of starvation.

Replica of Santee tipi at Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Replica of Santee tipi at Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, Minnesota.

In August 1862, tribal leaders reached out to government officials and local community leaders  for help. They requested credit from merchants for food and clothing, to be repaid when the tribe received its next stipend. Knowing that was unlikely to happen, the Americans denied the request.

‘Eat grass’

One of the men – Andrew Myrick – may have lit the match that started the five-week Dakota-US War of 1862.

“When men are hungry, they help themselves,” said the local trader. “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, they can eat grass.”

Upset, Chief Little Crow and other leaders left the meeting. The iSantis future remained in limbo.

Later that day, as a small group of iSanti returned from an unsuccessful hunting trip, the men encountered a farmer. A fight ensued and the farmer, along with four family members and friends, lay dead.

Fearing for their lives, the iSanti returned to the reservation and explained what happened. Later that night, Chief Little Crow agreed to lead a band of iSanti warriors into battle against the Americans.

A rifle once used by Chief Little Crow is on display at the Santee Dakota tribe's museum at Santee, Nebraska.
A rifle once used by Chief Little Crow is on display at the Santee Dakota tribe’s museum at Santee, Nebraska.

The following morning, a group of iSanti soldiers attacked nearby Redwood Post, home to Myrick and about 60 white settlers. The surprise attack resulted in casualties among the settlers. Myrick – the man whose insults contributed to the attack – was seen climbing out of a second-floor window in a bid to escape. He was gunned down.

Myrick was later found with grass stuffed in his mouth. The message was clear – the iSanti declared war against the United States.

Five-week war

Battles raged over the next few weeks. On August 20, Little Crow and 800 warriors converged on Fort Ridgely. The military held the fort, and when reinforcements arrived, the iSanti moved on to a new target.

The Americans successfully defended two major attacks on New Ulm. Area militia groups went to New Ulm to fight against about 100 warriors.

In late September, the American military eventually overpowered the Dakota, ending the war at the Battle of Wood Lake. As the military wielded its arsenal against the iSanti warriors, Chief Little Crow and more than 100 warriors took off for the north, spending time in Canada. Other warriors joined nearby tribes.

Concentration camp

The United States government wasted no time in punishing the iSanti. About 3,000 tribal members – few who had anything to do with the war – were forcibly relocated to a spot below Fort Snelling, near St. Paul. Ancestors would spend the next year here, having to fend for themselves in an American concentration camp. Lack of food, clothing and other resources contributed to the deaths of about 300 people.

A memorial honors the 3,000 iSanti citizens held prisoner at a concentration camp at the bottom of a hill from Fort Snelling.
A memorial honors the 3,000 iSanti citizens held prisoner at a concentration camp at the bottom of a hill from Fort Snelling.

My paternal great-great-grandparents were among the prisoners. My great-great-grandfather was a French Canadian fur trader who married into the tribe. My great-great-grandmother was Iciyapewin (American name was Mary). My great-great-grandparents on my grandmother’s side may have been among the prisoners, but we haven’t been able to confirm the information.

300 sentenced to death

While soldiers forced the iSanti to Fort Snelling, others sought the warriors who fought during the battles. With hundreds captured, court proceedings – if you can call five-minute “trials” without evidence proceedings – were conducted, with almost everyone convicted. In the end, 303 iSanti men were sentenced to be hanged in Mankato, Minnesota.

President Lincoln apparently didn’t like the optics involved in executing 300 Indians. It didn’t look good, politically. So, he instructed his staff to come up with a more “reasonable” number. Somehow, 38 was the final choice.

Keeping with the holiday season and the whole Good Will to Mankind thing, the executions would take place the morning of Dec. 26, 1862. This allowed locals an opportunity to enjoy the Christmas holiday before gathering around to watch the mass execution.

A square scaffold was built, accommodating the 38 iSanti men to be killed. Dec. 26 was a cold, gray day as the iSanti was led to the scaffold – hundreds of locals gathered to watch the killings.

Drawing of the hanging of 38 Santee Dakota
Drawing of the public execution Dec. 26, 1862. Credit: Library of Congress

A noose was put around each man’s neck. A few minutes later, a lever was pulled, sending each warrior to his death. Almost. It seemed the rope for one warrior snapped, allowing him to fall to the ground. He was picked up returned to the scaffold, where a noose was removed from another man and placed around him. He was “executed” a second time.

The Mankato death of the 38 iSanti warriors remains the largest mass execution in American history. You may think that the number would have been exceeded with executions of Confederate soldiers for being traitors. But, apparently Indigenous people seeking to feed their families trumped traitors.

The 38+2 came about as two more iSanti men were captured and hanged.

Bodies stolen

The bodies of the 38 warriors were thrown into a shallow grave near the Minnesota River, only a few feet from their execution site. Overnight, Dr. William Mayo – founder of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota – was among the grave robbers who dug up the bodies. He took at least one – Marpiya Okinajin, known as Cut Nose – and used the body for experiments. The skeleton was later kept at a home and used as a child’s plaything. In 2018, more than 150 years later, Mayo representatives traveled to Santee, Nebraska, and officially apologized to the iSanti Nation. Only the remains of Cut Nose have been returned to the tribe for proper burial.

Santee, Nebraska? Weren’t the iSanti people living in Minnesota? Yes, until the federal government decided to relocate them from the state. The people at Fort Snelling were moved to the Crow Creek Agency in central South Dakota. Men who had been imprisoned for the war – some were only guilty of having a White girlfriend – were released and relocated to Crow Creek.

‘Trail of Tears’

A few years later, the iSanti were forcibly marched – our tribe’s “Trail of Tears” to a small patch of land in northeast Nebraska, now home to the Santee reservation. As my brother, Roger, has said, our tribe has been in Nebraska longer than it’s been a state.

Along with the forced relocation of the iSanti, the government banned our people from returning to Minnesota, a law no longer enforced. I joke that I break the law whenever we travel to the state.

Map of the Santee Trail of Tears.

The 1862 war has long contributed to uneasy relations between the state and tribe. In 2012, the mayor of Mankato reached out to the iSanti in hopes of a reconciliation. The city recognized the 38+2, dedicated Reconciliation Park. It’s located across from the execution site, which is now a public library. A white buffalo sculpture was erected at that location.

Reconciliation Park is anchored by a scroll with the names of the men hanged in Mankato, as well as a poem on the reverse side.

Scroll of Santee 38+2 at Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota.
Scroll of Santee 38+2 at Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota.

Tribe honors 38+2

The State of Minnesota has been attempting to right its wrongs for the past couple of centuries. The state, and some communities, have changed the names of lakes, parks and other places to Dakota names, reconciling them to their real names. Minnesota is changing its state flag and seal, which were considered offensive to Indigenous Peoples. The new state seal includes Mni Sota Makoce, Dakota for Minnesota.

Five years ago, on the anniversary of the executions, a veterans memorial was dedicated at the Santee reservation. A special memorial honors the 38+2 for their heroism. Veterans from each war a Santee has served are also recognized.

Santee Dakota veterans memorial in Nebraska
The Santee veterans memorial in Knox County, Nebraska, honors the 38+2 among other veterans.

Today, The iSanti observes our arrival in Nebraska with a wacipi (wa-chee-pee), or powwow, each June. Hundreds of dancers and drum groups from around the country gather at the landing spot for the three-day event.

While a return to the days before European contact is unrealistic, apologies, reconciliation, and acknowledgments are a step forward. The return of all tribal-related remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and anything else taken is a requirement. If the tribe wants to lend items to museums, etc., that should be the sole decision of the iSanti Nation.