An Open Letter to the Dakota Oyate

Melvin Lee Houston

We, as Dakota people, have a shared history of exile, pain and grief. Since 1862, we have been working individually and collectively to recover from that pain and renew our beautiful way of life. This is challenging work. Many divisions were created among us before and during the Dakota War that live on today. We need to recognize that these political divisions as well as geographic divisions were forced upon us by colonization.

The church, the settlers and the cavalry divided us into ‘good’ Indians and ‘bad’ Indians. The ‘bad’ Indians were those that wanted to keep their Dakota culture, language and lifeways. The ‘good’ Indians were those that were willing to give up their Dakota identity, adopt Christianity and assimilate. We were all forced to choose a path that we thought would allow for our continued survival. Even our chiefs had to make this choice. Some thought our survival depended on adopting the customs of the Europeans. Others thought we needed to resist in order to protect who we were.

Even among the ‘good’ Indians, there were divisions. There were the ‘cut hairs’, the ‘friendlies’ and the ‘loyal’ Mdewakanton, also called the loyalists. It is important that we as Dakota understand the definition of a loyalist and how this word is used today.

A loyalist was someone who was loyal to the church, the traders and the military against those who wanted to maintain their Dakota culture, their language and way of life. Little Crow and those 38 stood up to resist assimilation and to have their language, their culture, their lands, and all their inherent rights protected. These rights were all under attack as was our personal survival.

The loyalists were individuals who thought they could make it in the European way. Some were doing well, some weren’t and some became like the Europeans and exploited us. They are the ones that signed off on what the traders wanted. They are the ones who wanted the treaty because the traders wanted the treaty. They gave up their traditional identity as Dakota. But, in the aftermath of the war, all Dakota were made to suffer; all were labeled as enemies of the United States. They put us all together and exiled us as one, and we intermarried and became related. We lived side by side after the war. In Minnesota, there was a bounty for our scalps and we would be murdered if we returned. It would be 50 years before we could even leave the Santee reservation (after spending years at Crow Creek).

The term loyalist became known again in modern times as a result of the lawsuit filed against the U.S. government by Sheldon Wolfchild and other descendants of the loyal Mdewakantons. The lawsuit claimed that the land and revenues of the Shakopee, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux communities belonged to them. This lawsuit gave the impression that if you signed on, you would be enrolled with one of the wealthy Minnesota Dakota communities and benefit from their gaming revenue. More than 20,000 people signed up, many believing they would receive millions of dollars. Most of the people who signed onto the lawsuit were poor. The lawsuit appears to have preyed on their poverty. They did not understand the full consequences of identifying as a loyalist or what the term meant historically.

Recently, Sheldon Wolfchild filed a second lawsuit, this time claiming 12 square miles of land that includes the Lower Sioux Reservation, arguing it should be given specifically to the loyalists. The 12 square-mile area is where Jackpot Junction Casino is located. It is important to note that these loyalists who filed the initial lawsuit and the most recent lawsuit were all denied enrollment into Shakopee. The loyalist lawsuits are clearly all about monetary gain and nothing more. The bigger problem, though, is that these modern day loyalists have used these lawsuits to make it appear to be supportive of Dakota culture when they never stood for our culture before. They have even tried to connect their lawsuit and their efforts to the Dakota 38. They are telling the story of our resistance and claiming it as their own. They’ve been misrepresenting and misinterpreting it for too long.

The loyalists need to tell their own story. Theirs is as much a story of survival as the story of the Dakota resisters. But their story is not ours, and ours is not theirs.

There is a structure and protocol on how to honor our ancestors. We need to follow those instructions, to pay respect and know our history, our culture and why we are here, why we were there. We have certain things we do as indigenous peoples – our ceremonies, medicine, how we honor our relatives. In all of this, we cannot act for personal gain or name recognition. That is why the Mankato Run begun by Amos Owen almost 30 years ago is never promoted and is conducted with the utmost humility.

What can we do to solve the divisions that continue to plague us and the problems that have emerged with these lawsuits?

First of all, we need to start with re-learning the issues and circumstances that led up to the war. We need to study the truth. The story that the 1862 war began with the theft of some eggs by young warriors is a false narrative. The truth is that the Europeans wanted us out of Minnesota and set the stage for the war over a long period of time. An 1857 news article we found points out how the settlers wanted access to the rich agricultural lands of the Winnebago and proposed starting a war with the Sioux as a means to access more land. This and other historical documents clearly show how the war was planned and very deliberate.

Second, the Dakota exiles should know the reason we live in exile. Every descendent should know the reason they live in exile and why this happened to us. Many of our grandparents never knew the true history of why they were exiled. They were born into exile and never told why it happened. My generation and the younger generation now have access to historical records our parents and grandparents didn’t. Through these records, we are learning the truth about what led to our exile and why it happened. With this access to historical information, we can evolve instead of perpetuate the myth of what happened to our people before, during and after 1862. It is our responsibility as Dakota to reclaim our true history.

Third, we need to understand the role the loyalists have played in our history and it is up to the descendants of the loyalists to share this information. We need to understand, so we can see how and why we were divided, and look at how we can repair those divisions.

I suggest that we host an annual Dakota history gathering that helps us all learn and share our stories of the past. We can focus the gathering on a different piece of our history each year. It will take a generation, maybe more, but it is only by understanding the truth of the past that we can build a better future.

Finally, our Dakota people need to come together and repatriate the 38. The bodies of these warriors were robbed from their graves where they were placed along the Minnesota River in the city of Mankato on December 26th, 1862 and were never returned. They paid the ultimate price for their people. We have never received them back. All we have received and all that has been returned are the skull, the knee cap and some of the skin of Cut Nose (Mahpiya Inazin).

This loss will always linger in our soul: Where are the remains of our warriors, our relatives? They have earned the right to rest. We will not forget them. We are always looking, searching and questioning. We have to remember their names and their families, the families that are still with us today. It is imperative to know who these people are and where they are.

I am hopeful that we can build the Dakota NAGPRA Coalition and our collaboration with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Mayo Clinic so that all Dakota can learn their true history and see our relatives returned.

All My Relations

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rainbow's picture
I agree with Mr. Houston's position on this topic. The two lawsuits filed by Sheldon Wolfchild have caused a lot of division and suffering among the Dakota Oyate. I am a white activist who works with Leonard Wabasha, the hereditary chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate and the cultural resources director for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. I am working to help the Dakota Oyate to regain their sacred Mille Lacs Lake ancestral homeland in Minnesota. I believe that Wolfchild has been "misrepresenting and misinterpreting" Dakota culture and history for quite a while. For over a decade I have been protesting his radical distortions of Dakota Oyate history. Chief Leonard Wabasha has an interpretive sign at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. On it he states: "My people are the Mdewakanton Oyate. Mdewakanton means the People of Spirit Lake. Today that lake is known as Mille Lacs. This landscape is sacred to the Mdewakanton Oyate because one Otokaheys Woyakapi (creation story) says we were created here. It is especially pleasing for me to come here and walk these trails, because about 1718 the first Chief Wapahasa was born here, at the headwaters of the Spirit River. I am the eighth in this line of hereditary chiefs." In a youtube,com video Wolfchild says that there is no Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate creation story at Mille Lacs Lake and that his people's creation story is at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. A band of the Iowa tribe lived at this confluence until 1685. For hundreds of years before the 1600's the Dakota Oyate lived at their Mille Lacs Lake homeland and believed it was the place of their origin. I believe that Wolfchild and his close associates are stealing the Dakota Oyate's sacred site history at Mille Lacs and other places and moving it to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in order to gain leverage to accomplish their active goals in the area.
Bob G.'s picture
As a soldier from the Vietnam Era, I have been involved with the POW/MIA program. The Dakota 38 deserve the same treatment.
Bob G.