April 2019

Dakota Uprooted: Capitalism, Resilience, and the U.S.-Dakota War

White American empire transformed Minnesota into an agricultural and extraction-based economy that uprooted Dakota from their traditional homelands.

by John Legg

Following the surrender of the Dakota in September 1862, thousands of Dakota people were forcibly removed from their homelands in Minnesota as part of a two-front war to preserve and maintain U.S. empire. Loyal Americans fought to end the Rebellion in the south and to exterminate its Native neighbors in the west. Many found themselves in concentration camps, like Fort Snelling, designed to separate Dakota from white society.[1] “It was a gloomy, inhospitable site,” one Dakota described Fort Snelling, “on bottomland that turned to mud and offered no protection from the icy winter winds.”[2] For Dakota confined in Fort Snelling, the goal of U.S. policy was clear: theft of Dakota land and the extermination of its people.

The forced removal of Dakota to Fort Snelling indicates two issues. First, it was designed to separate Dakota from white society following the U.S.-Dakota War. Second, the land in which Dakota people lived would now be transformed into a white agricultural landscape. White American empire transformed Minnesota into an agricultural and extraction-based economy that uprooted Dakota from their traditional homelands.

An 1863 photograph Dakota tipis in the bottomlands of Fort Snelling’s concentration camp. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Simone Weil provides an important theoretical framework for this analysis in The Need For Roots. For Weil, uprootedness grows from two primary factors: military conquest and economic domination, both consistently intertwined under capitalism.[3]  “But when the conqueror remains a stranger in the land of which he has taken possession,” says Weil, “uprootedness becomes an almost mortal disease among the subdued population.”[4] We see this clearly through the practice of American empire, especially in the context of the Dakota/white settler experience in Minnesota. The very presence of white settlers on Minnesota land initiated Dakota uprootedness through their exclusionary use of waterways and their appropriation of much-needed food supplies. White consumption threatened each of these essential resources upon which the Dakota relied. The primary goal for this expansion into Minnesota was to create open space for what I term the “built rural environment.” White settlers came to this place to seize new opportunities for themselves: lands for farming, trees for timbering, and iron for mining.

The Minnesota landscape would be transformed from the Dakota Oyate (homeland) to this built environment designed around the extraction of resources.[5] The goal was to “make white men” of Dakota people, transforming them, according to Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole, into a civilized group with “industry, thrift, [and] economy.”[6]  Those who rejected assimilation stood in the way of white empire and blocked a “whole system of Northwestern Development,” as James Wickes Taylor blustered in  The Sioux War (1863).[7]  During the process of removing Dakota people, the government hoped to transform the Minnesotan landscape into a capitalistic enterprise.

Minnesota, according to white Americans, was a vast open landscape for agriculture and industry. The National Era claimed that “there is no part of the Union where the cultivation of the soil is better regarded than in Minnesota, and it is equally adapted to grazing.”[8] Another news article in the Sunbury American remarked that “the farmer in Minnesota is guaranteed success in his labors,” after describing the practical results in Minnesota’s cultivation. The state would produce more “wheat, rye, corn, oats, and vegetable[s]” than any other state.[9] There was this potential seen by Americans as a new place to settle and produce. Minnesota was a place for freedom, a place away from the politics and “propagation of slavery,” said National Era, paving the way for white prosperity.[10]  However, white empire in Minnesota depended on one crucial act: uprooting the Dakota from their lands. White settlers accomplished precisely that by flooding into Dakota territory and making life extremely difficult for the Dakota people.[11] White settlement became the spark that ignited U.S. empire, leading directly to war and the expulsion that Americans imagined all along for the Dakota.

The signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux depicted by artist Francis David Millet in 1885. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Northerners and Southerners continued the debate over slavery as they moved westward, though they both succeeded in the uprooting of indigenous peoples. Through the signage of the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851, white empire and Dakota uprootedness became a reality in southcentral Minnesota. White settlement displaced the Dakota onto thin and sparsely-inhabited lands along the Minnesota River. Those treaties promised nearly $1,665,000 for the sale of 21 million acres of land. Over time, however, Dakota barely received five percent of that total. The government neglected to pay their promised annuity payments while the remaining  funds were taken by Indian agents who served as intermediaries between Dakota and the U.S. government.[12] Bison populations dwindled from over-hunting and starvation set in within the Dakota communities. Andrew Myrick, a trader in the Minnesota River Valley, exemplified this larger ideal of American empire in saying “so far as I am concerned, let them eat grass or their own dung.”[13] White settlers like Myrick were eager to starve-out, remove, and uproot the Dakota from Minnesota.

This system of deprivation and starvation continued into August 1862, when southcentral Minnesota became engulfed in heated combat. Conventional accounts of the war depict it as a defensive effort of white settlers protecting their property from Native savagery.[14]  Examining the conflict through the lens of capitalism and empire building, however, reveals a different perspective to the story. Americans lunged westward and consumed Native lands ravenously and recklessly in southcentral Minnesota. Not only were these peoples taken from their traditional homelands, but, after a brief stay at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, they were banished from the state.

Dakota prisoners faced rough living conditions that winter of 1863, leading to widespread sickness and death before the spring frost melted. Records indicate an estimated 130 to 300 of the 1,700 Dakota held at Fort Snelling died as a result of inhospitable living conditions. After the harsh winter of 1862 and 1863, the Dakota people were shipped by steamboat down the Mississippi River and up the Missouri River to the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. When the Federal government started moving military units and constructing military installations like Fort Snelling throughout the American West, their goal was to bring military order and Anglo-American culture westward. These institutions, as Alison K. Hoagland argues, symbolized centers of power that served as both offensive and defensive purposes.[15] Debates over the institution of slavery, at the same time, reached a fevered pitch as the nation inched towards emancipation during the early years of the war. Federal officials used the American West as a measure to check slaveholders and their goals for Southern empire building in western territories—though the Federal government had similar initiatives on their minds, especially through the signing of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Warren G. Harding and Indian Commissioner Burke pose with Dakota and Crow Chiefs Frost, Plenty Coos, Owl, Red Horse, and an unidentified chief at the White House. Courtesy of Photo Lot 90-1, Number 888, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institute.

White Minnesotans did not simply want the Dakota to leave. They wanted them dead. In an article in the St. Cloud Democrat, one Minnesotan wrote, “a Sioux [Dakota] has just as much right to life as a hyena, and he who would spare them is an enemy to his race.”[16] White Americans dehumanized Dakota peoples, depicting them as lower peoples to make the process of empire easier for settler forces.[17]Furthermore, white Minnesotans knew the opportunities that would come from Indian removal.  They were eager to access Dakota land. “Settle the Indian question properly,” says an article in the St. Cloud Democrat, “emigration will flow in, and the iron horse will soon be rushing up to our doors.”[18]  The plan for white empire was clear: seize Dakota land, redistribute it to white migrants, and subsidize their prosperity with the publicly-funded railroad.[19]  Westward expansion was American capitalism in its purest form—grab and repurpose Native land with aid from the state. With the Dakota removed from Minnesota, white Americans would be free to reap the rewards. 

What did this uprootedness mean for the Dakota people? Weil viewed uprootedness as a form of cultural erasure that led to violence against subjugated groups. Expansion and capitalism displaced the Dakota from Minnesota, and while they have returned in 2019, they still face the wrath of the colonizer’s force. Historical loss, as discussed by Kathleen Brown-Rice, is a form of trauma that Native peoples have faced through colonialism. The loss of land in particular changes the socioeconomic status of Native Americans and brings forward a slew of other social issues.[20] Just as in other Indigenous communities, Dakota on reservations are poverty-stricken. American Indian youth are susceptible to higher drug use and alcohol consumption, higher than any other ethnic community in the United States, according to a 2018 report by Drs. Randall C. Swaim and Linda R. Stanley for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.[21] Further, the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls continue to rise around the United States, with a majority not being reported to the Department of Justice. The Urban Indian Health Institute reported that of the 5,712 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls, only 116 were reported to the DOJ, with murder being the “third-leading cause of death among American Indian/Alaska Native women.”[22]

Protestors at Minnesota’s State Capitol building protest the Fort Snelling site. Image courtesy of the Mendota Dakota Tribal Community.

The Dakota continue to persist despite the attempts by white Americans to erase Dakota culture and identity from the Minnesota landscape. They may have been physically removed from their traditional homelands, but the spirit of belonging to Minnesota stuck with them through the experience of removal. Dakota still seek recognition in Minnesota with the names of sites relevant to their people. In today’s terms, Dakota cling to the framework of decolonization to free themselves from the colonizers’ wrath in Minnesota. Native scholars and Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird push for Native peoples not simply to return to the days of pre-colonial Minnesota, but rather reestablish Dakota destiny and reclaim their sovereignty.[23] “The ecological destruction may be so complete that Indigenous lifeways may be impossible to practice,” argues Waziyatawin, and “there is a simultaneous and urgent need for both the restoration of sustainable Indigenous practices and a serious defense of Indigenous homelands.”[24] Minnesota has faced near-destruction of their forests, wetlands, and prairies to the expansion of American empire.

Dakota in Minnesota still face uprootedness. From the empire building of the nineteenth century to the lasting economic and environmental injustices seen in Minnesota, the Dakota people continue to feel removed from their lands. The theft of Dakota land represents an ongoing act of genocide that warrants reparations. Regardless, the most honest approach would acknowledge that white Americans perpetrated a permanent act of plunder from which their descendants continue to benefit materially. We continue to uproot the Dakota by expelling them from the full material benefits of community membership–the essence of uprootedness–after having taken their community at gunpoint.

John R. Legg is a graduate student in the Department of History at Virginia Tech. His work centers on the contested public memory of the U.S.-Dakota War. His thesis, “Dakota Resilience: Contested Memories and the Decolonized U.S.-Dakota War,” examines how Dakota centralize and reclaim the memory of the Dakota War. Additionally, he is an intern at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, where he is researching Native Americans during the Civil War era. His work has been featured in places like the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Journal of the Civil War Era’s Muster Blog, and Tropics of Meta. You can follow John on Twitter (@thejohnlegg).

Further Reading

[1] In using the term “concentration camp,” I follow how the Dakota refer to the camps. Many non-Natives consider camps, like Fort Snelling, to be internment or holding camps. In a December 2018 editorial by Dakota leaders, Charles R. Vig, Shelley Buck, and Brian Pendleton suggest that the Dakota experience was traumatic. Anything less, the authors argue, “appears to be an effort to minimize the tragedy that befell [their] ancestors.” Read more at “Counterpoint: Paint the Dakota’s Plight in the Winter of 1862 As It Was—Horrific,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), December 10, 2018.”

[2] Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches,” in In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century (St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2006), 56.

[3] Simone Weil, The Need For Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind; Reprint, Routledge Classics edition, 2002 (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1949), 41.

[4] Weil, The Need For Roots, 41.

[5] The term “built rural environment” has themes that parallel William Cronon’s idea of “Second Nature,” seen in his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), xix. This “second nature” refers to “the artificial nature that people erect atop “first nature,” or the environment seen prior to non-Native development and empire building. In the case of the “built rural environment,” I place my argument through terraforming, an idea that an environment is transformed to a landscape suitable to support humans. See James S.J. Schwartz’s “On The Moral Permissibility of Terraforming,” Ethics and the Environment, Vol 18, No. 2 (2013) 1-3. Schwartz’s thrust is that there is an assumption that a specific landscape is “lifeless,” which brings reasoning to colonize, settle, or transform that space into a suitable environment for human life. For the story of the Dakota, white settlers saw the land as an empty swath of land, ready for a “rebirth,” in Frederick Jackson Turner’s terms (“The Significance of the Frontier in American History” July 12, 1893). The process of terraforming the Minnesota landscape removed Dakota and other indigenous peoples for the sake of empire building and westward expansion.

[6] Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for The Year 1863 (Washington: Governmental Printing Office, 1864), 283.

[7]  James Wickes Taylor, The Sioux War: What Has Been Done by the Minnesota Campaign of 1863; What Should Be Done during a Dakota Campaign of 1864 (St. Paul: Office of the Press Printing Company, 1863), 12.

[8] “From the Northwest,” The National Era (Washington D.C.), July 18, 1850.

[9] Thomas Foster, “Minnesota Territory,” Sunbury American (Sunbury, PA), June 15, 1850.

[10]  A.B. Webber, “Minnesota Correspondence of the Press and Tribune,” The Press and Tribune (Chicago, IL), August 16, 1859.;“June 20th,” National Era (Washington D.C.), July 18, 1850.; Statements such as these are common in the antislavery literature to see slavery as anti-white. See, for example, Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[11]  See Richard White’s The Republic for which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 107.

[12] “Minnesota Treaties,” USDakotaWar.org, accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.usdakotawar.org/history/treaties/minnesota-treaties.

[13] “Andrew Myrick,” USDakotaWar.org, accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.usdakotawar.org/history/andrew-myrick.

[14] See, for example, Boyd Cothran’s critique of the Native/settler violence in American memory in Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 19-20.

[15] Alison K. Hoagland, “Village Constructions: U.S. Army Forts on the Plains, 1848-1890,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 34, No. 4 (1999): 215-218.

[16] “Indian war,” St. Cloud Democrat (Saint Cloud, MN), October 16, 1862.; In the January 29, 1863 issue of the St. Cloud Democrat, a passage states that “Minnesota is staggering under a debt of vengeance that will be cancelled in the extermination of the Sioux,” “Lo, the Poor Indian: The Lecture of Mrs. Swisshelm,” St. Cloud Democrat (Saint Cloud, MN), January 29, 1863. I post this in a note to strengthen the argument that white Minnesotan’s eagerly sought to both remove and seek revenge on Dakota following the U.S.-Dakota War.

[17] For more information on savagism versus civility, see Robert F. Berkhofer’s White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).; Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 285.

[18] “The Railroad Supper: A Perfect Success,” St. Cloud Democrat (Saint Cloud, MN), March 26, 1863.

[19] Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), 4 .

[20] Kathleen Brown-Rice, “Examining the Theory of Historical Trauma Among Native Americans,” The Professional Counselor,  accessed  June 5, 2019, http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/examining-the-theory-of-historical-trauma-among-native-americans/.

[21] Randall C. Swaim and Linda R. Stanley, “Substance Use Among American Indian Youths on Reservations Compared With a National Sample of US Adolescents,” JAMA Network Open, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2018), 1-2.

[22]  Annita Lucchesi and Abigail Echo-Hawk, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States,” Urban Indian Health Institute, 2016, accessed April 21, 2019, http://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf.

[23] Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird, eds., For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook (Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2012), 2-3.

[24] Waziyatawin, “The Paradox of Indigenous Resurgence at the End of Empire,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012); 68.

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