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Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches
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The American Indian Quarterly 28.1&2 (2004) 185-215



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Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches

In November of 1862 approximately 2,100 Dakota men, women, and children were forcibly moved in two groups from the Lower Sioux Agency to concentration camps at either Fort Snelling or Mankato, events which marked the first phase of expulsion of our Dakota people from our homeland of Minisota Makoce (Land Where the Waters Reflect the Skies).1 These two groups were paying the severest of penalties for the retributive actions of Dakota people who dared to fight the Wasicu (white) invaders, who dared to fight because they could not take any more offenses, who dared to fight because they were pushed to desperation and there appeared to be no other options. This article will examine existing accounts regarding these removals from a critical perspective within the broader framework of colonialism. Furthermore, it will discuss the necessity of truth telling and remembering in our commemoration of the removals to the achievement of healing and restoration of well-being among Dakota people.

When examined within a framework of colonization, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is just one point on a continuum that carries through to the present day, but it also provides a possibility of change for the future. At the most basic level it challenges the narrative that seeks to justify policies of invasion, forced removal, and genocide. In doing so the narrative immediately shifts from one of white innocence and Dakota guilt to one of white oppression and Dakota subjugation. On the topic of violence and oppression, Brazilian liberationist educator Paulo Freire wrote:

With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the [End Page 185] oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.2
The Minnesota River near Henderson, Minnesota, November 11, 2002. The march roughly followed the flow of the Minnesota River from Lower Sioux to Fort Snelling. (Photo courtesy of Waziyatawin Angela Wilson.)
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Figure 1
The Minnesota River near Henderson, Minnesota, November 11, 2002. The march roughly followed the flow of the Minnesota River from Lower Sioux to Fort Snelling. (Photo courtesy of Waziyatawin Angela Wilson.)

The term violence here not only encompasses the physical assaults but all injurious abuses perpetrated upon a people, their way of life, and their land. If 1862, then, is examined in the context of the subjugation and oppression of Dakota people by colonizing Wasicu settlers and the United States government, then the process of violence had already been initiated.

When faced with oppression several psychological responses result: flight, fight, or capitulate. The Dakota had already capitulated to a tremendous degree, continually seeking peaceful resolutions through treaty negotiations for land issues and tolerating missionaries, traders, agents, and settlers, even when they were illegally occupying Dakota lands and destroying Dakota resources. Others had already fled further [End Page 186] west as a means of escaping the oppressive forces at work in Minnesota. As the Dakota were pushed to the point of desperation with their very survival at stake, however, fighting was increasingly the likely option for those who wished to maintain a presence in our ancient homeland. The violence finally echoed by Dakota warriors was simply a defensive response to the subjugation and oppression they had endured for decades. This is not to excuse the acts of violence perpetrated by Dakota people. This violence did not advance the Dakota cause (though it is unlikely anything would have in the face of white greed for Dakota land), and it is a reality that white families were killed during the war. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu points out about human rights abuses perpetrated by African National Congress (ANC) members against the upholders of apartheid South Africa, however, there was a legal equivalence with the abuses perpetrated by white South Africans but not a moral equivalence. As in all cases where acts of violence have already been perpetrated, we can make important...