- Little Crow, Leader of the Santee War of 1862
by Scott W. Berg
Pantheon , 2012
For some, this is a book about Little Crow, the Dakota Isanti leader of the War of 1862 in Minnesota. For others, it may be about Abraham Lincoln, the president who ordered the largest mass hanging of indigenous peoples in U.S. history, though he is better known for freeing black slaves. When Twin Cities–born Scott Berg, now a teacher of writing and literature at Miami University of Ohio, writes about the most famous Indian leader of the Santees of the nineteenth century he becomes one of the few writers of this awful history who uses great care, skill, and insight to imagine a different world.
He uses the skills of a writer rather than a historian as he names in particular detail the horror of how the United States slaughtered Indian people during the Indian Wars period, which included the Civil War era. As much as is possible using the English language, Berg tells the story of a heroic Little Crow reluctantly leading his people in what he knew to be a “war of extermination” by the U.S. military.
Berg tells us that Little Crow, who emerged from a long-standing Native dynasty, was determined to see his people, facing annihilation at the hands of Euro-American invader/colonists, survive in their own country as they always had. Berg asserts that Abraham Lincoln, a Kentuckian, was juggling two wars before his tragic assassination, showing him to be one of the great politicians of any time in history.
This stunning journey of the Isanti is made remarkable through Berg’s easy narrative voice, his deceptively simple explanations of racial hatred, vicious settler mentality, and the cruel, indiscriminate violence of the colonial period brought about by the failure of U.S. law, policy, and justice. As a result of the war, he tells us, sixteen hundred Dakotas were interred at Fort Smelling, Minnesota, and thirty-eight native patriots were hanged in the largest government killing in U.S. history, a war crime sanctioned by the a president revered in history as a great emancipator.
In the aftermath of the war, the Santee treaty-protected home-land (reservation) was wiped from the face of the earth and those who survived were scattered throughout the Northern Plains. Some ended up in Nebraska and South Dakota while others fled to Canada. Minnesota, along with the United States, acted to rid the state of its indigenous presence. [End Page 98]
As this Indian–white war played out and as Little Crow saw his people hounded and killed, he left his homeland and rode northward, avoiding the dragnet of the U.S. military. As Berg tells us, Little Crow briefly thought about unifying the tribes toward a common agenda by traveling hundreds of miles much like Tecumseh and countless other tribal leaders had done during the 1800s. He ended up for a while among relatives at Spirit Lake (called Devils Lake by whites) where, by accident, he met his fellow tribesman, Standing Buffalo, who had fled to Canada during the conflict. Together they thought they might have had “one more card to play”: to organize and drive out the invading whites.
However, they found few supporters among “the friendly Indians,” who were exhausted by war and starvation and disease. Little Crow then turned toward home, where his former village, Kaposi, had once stood. There a white farmer shot and killed him. The echo of his prewar premonition has been recorded in history in one of his most famous speeches when he had declared war on the invaders of his homelands, saying, “I am a Dakota, my braves. I will die with you.” The Santees did not disappear from the earth, but the invasion of their homelands and the war changed their lives forever.
Writing American Indian history has always embodied inevitable flaws. One of them is to depend heavily on what has been called the “captivity narrative.” Berg does not avoid this flaw. As early as chapter 2 he succumbs to the...