The ethnic cleansing of the West

Military aggression took many forms. Two examples, separated by about thirty years, capture and in some ways bookend the ethnic cleansing of the West. Remember that earlier in the nineteenth century, the area west of the Mississippi was considered Indian Country. This was where the tribes had been relocated to, with the promise that they could live there in some freedom. But big brother was hungry, and the needs of an expanding empire threatened that precarious safety.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of thirty-nine Dakota men. The Dakota had been relocated several times and by this time were confined to part of southwest Minnesota, on land that was hard to live on and much smaller than the treaties previously agreed to. Food and trade goods that were supposed to come didn’t, and the Dakota were starving. A local storeowner refused them credit for food and reportedly said, “Let them eat grass.” Skirmishes between the Dakota and the settlers turned to war, and by the time it was over thirty-seven days later, many soldiers, settlers, and Dakota were dead. When the storeowner’s body was found, his mouth was stuffed with grass.

Some of the Dakota fled, and others surrendered. Of the two thousand who were taken into custody, twenty were sentenced to prison, and 303 were sentenced to death, charged with rape, murder, and robbery. According to military practice at the time, all two thousand should have been released. Describing this in his book Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer calls this the actions of a sovereign nation rising up against foreign invaders. It was a military action with a military result. But Lincoln ultimately approved thirty-nine executions in the largest mass hanging in US history. The rest of the surviving Dakota were evicted from the state of Minnesota and sent to reservations in Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Confederate soldiers, who also took up arms against the United States of America, were not hanged. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson granted them a pardon and an amnesty, restoring to them “all the rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution.” Far from being shamed or exiled, many of the leaders of the former Confederacy were restored to positions of authority. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, was elected to Congress and became the governor of Georgia. Robert E. Lee became the head of Washington College.

Following decades of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the Ghost Dance was spreading across multiple tribal groups. Beginning with the Lakota and spreading to others, the Ghost Dance was a message of hope that promised that the white invaders would leave and that everything would return to the way it had been. Native people began gathering in large numbers and dancing the Ghost Dance to see visions of those they had lost and to bring a new vision into being.

In his book Our History Is the Future, Lakota academic and activist Nick Estes describes the Ghost Dance as a “utopian dream that suspended the nightmare of the wretched present by folding the remembered experience of pre-colonial freedom into an anti-colonial future.” Just as in the Anishinaabe flood narrative, the people were reaching back for their old ways in the hopes of creating something new. The Ghost Dance was less a religion than a shared vision of what was yet possible. A vision of a world without conquerors and invaders, a world without “white devils” who stole their children and killed their people.

And the US government saw it as a threat. Almost thirty years after the hanging of the Dakota, in December 1890, the US Cavalry opened fire on a camp of nearly three hundred Lakota ghost dancers near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge  Reservation of South Dakota. The fully armed US Cavalry came to one of these camps with a Hotchkiss gun, a cannon with a rotating barrel, and the intention of disarming the Lakota. One Lakota man refused to give up his rifle, and according to some witnesses, the rifle went off when he was grabbed by soldiers. The US Cavalry opened fire. At least 150 Lakota were killed and fifty wounded, including women and children. Because of a blizzard, it would be three days before the dead were buried. Twenty US soldiers were later awarded the Medal of Honor. 

From “Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future” by Patty Krawec – Broadleaf Books