Abraham Lincoln’s Dakota Legacy, Part Two

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When Abraham Lincoln sanctioned the mass execution of Dakota warriors in December of 1862, he endorsed a policy with ramifications that ended Dakota life as they knew it. His decision not only extinguished 38 lives, it also sentenced many more men to years in an inhospitable prison camp. Moreover, Lincoln’s failure to condemn the atrocities that non-Natives inflicted upon the Dakota people, both before and during the Dakota War, further propagated the long-standing belief that the mistreatment of America’s First Peoples was justified as a means to achieve Manifest Destiny. Today, the Dakota people continue to live with the consequences of Lincoln’s decision, but through education, reconciliation, and their perseverance, they’re also honoring their ancestors’ legacy. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) can play an important role in magnifying the complexity of this tragic chapter in American history.

Although some are aware of the mass execution, many people don’t realize that the loss of life didn’t conclude with that tragic act. Many of the 1,700 Dakota men, women, and children incarcerated in a concentration camp at Fort Snelling died. In May 1863, the U.S. military relocated as many as 1,310 of the camp’s survivors from their Minnesota homeland to the Dakota Territory. Approximately 265 more Dakotas were sent to Camp McClellan, a military prison in Davenport, Iowa, where it is estimated that 120 died from disease and inhospitable living conditions. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, eventually pardoned the survivors in the spring of 1866. They were promptly relocated to the Dakota Territory where they joined their families.

Historical knowledge is too often disseminated through dates and numbers, and we must ensure that those Dakotas are remembered as more than just statistics. Every American knows who Abraham Lincoln was, but how many can identify Little Crow as the leader of the Dakota resistance during the war? How many of us know about Chaska, the 39th Dakota sentenced to die, but who was ultimately pardoned due to the appeal of missionary Stephen R. Riggs?

TCU students can gain empathy for the Dakotas by reading any of the texts consulted for this article, but the most potent may be The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters, written by former Sisseton Wahpeton College (SWC) faculty member Dr. Clifford Canku and his fellow Dakota elder Michael Simon. The book provides transcriptions and the first published translation of letters written by the Dakotas incarcerated at Camp McClellan, capturing the harsh realities of the prison. One writer, Elias Ruben, discussed how there “is a great need for food, the children and women” encamped with the prisoners “are very hungry.” Another letter by Robert Hopkins described how the Dakotas complied with the order to dismantle their stoves before winter with the assumption that “probably they will give us different ones.” The new stoves never came and so they were forced to reassemble their original stoves to avoid freezing. Perhaps the most revealing letter came from Moses Many Lightning Face, who lamented Lincoln’s assassination and noted how the fallen president had “compassion for us, as so we are still alive, but now they told us he was killed, and we are saddened.”

Listening to the descendents of the executed or imprisoned Dakotas can prove equally revealing. SWC Dakota studies professor Erin Griffin, who grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, where 38 of her ancestors were executed, notes that Americans “often get caught up in one way of telling stories, thinking there is the white history and the Dakota history.” She remembers how when she was younger she used to demand that people know the history of her people, but now she simply hopes for understanding. “People…cannot be forced to care about or consider history or place. Each individual must make a conscious decision about whether history and knowledge of the land are important.”

Knowledge is empowering, and TCUs should teach about traumatic events so that students can reconcile them for themselves. The film Dakota 38 offers a great starting point. This documentary tells the story of Jim Miller, a Dakota Vietnam veteran and spiritual leader, who had a dream in which the Creator told him that he must ride his horse 330 miles east from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to the Mankato execution site. The journey that Miller and other descendants of the Dakota 38 made embodies the resolve of their people’s character, as they raised awareness about what happened in 1862 with the hope for reconciliation. The film captures the infectious nature of the riders’ messages, as Natives and non-Natives opened their doors and cupboards to help them overcome the harsh physical and mental conditions of the Minnesota winter. The film concludes with the modern City of Mankato welcoming the riders home to the land of their ancestors. Of course this symbolic reconciliation doesn’t atone for lost lives, broken treaties, or false promises. But acknowledging past wrongs is a step in the right direction.

Not seven generations have passed since the Dakota Wars. TCUs must help equip our students with the knowledge and the tools to remind Americans of Lincoln’s Dakota legacy. The existence of TCUs is a testament to Indian resilience. We owe the next seven generations our insurance that TCUs will remember the tragedies inflicted upon Native peoples while simultaneously celebrating the heroes who have made the road easier for young people today. The words of Little Crow should resonate with us all:“You are the messengers of time. You are the prophets of the time. You carry forth the word through your own behavior.”

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair.


Berg, S.W. (2012). 38 nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the beginning of the frontier’s end. New York: Pantheon.

Canku, C., & Simon, M. (2013). The Dakota prisoner of war letters: Dakota kasapi okicize wowapi. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Hirsch, M. (2008). “A multitude of cares: Abraham Lincoln and the Dakota uprising of 1862.” National Museum of the American Indian 9(4).

Smooth Feather Productions (Producer). (2012). Dakota 38 (film). Retrieved December 2013, from http://smoothfeather.com/dakota38/

Westerman, G., & White, B. (2012). Mni Sota Makoce the land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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