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  • Transgressive AdoptionsDakota Prisoners’ Resistances to State Domination Following the 1862 U.S.–Dakota War
  • Christopher J. Pexa (bio)

The best way to civilize Indians is to imprison them.

Major Thaddeus Bradley of the Seventh Minnesota Infantry


In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel Trouillot describes the “erasure and banalization” that characterize historiography of the Haitian Revolution. In a chapter titled “An Unthinkable History,” he observes how the tropes of modern history writing are identical to figures of discourse in the late eighteenth century, arguing persuasively that these historiographical tropes take two forms. On the one hand, “some narratives cancel what happened through direct erasure of facts or their relevance,” while on the other hand, some “narratives sweeten the horror or banalize the uniqueness of a situation by focusing on details.”1 The combined effect of these tropes or formulas is “a powerful silencing” of nondominant narratives, one that renders them, and questions about them, “unthinkable.” An analogous erasure surrounds the aftermath of the U.S.–Dakota War between United States and Minnesota militia and Dakota warriors reluctantly [End Page 29] led by the Mdewakaŋton chief, Little Crow (Ta Oyate Duta, or “His Red Nation”). The war itself is a little-known event in the history of U.S. colonization, despite how white Minnesotans at the time called it a “second Civil War” and how contemporary Dakotas assert that it was a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide.2

In an article that recently appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dakota activist Waziyatawin points out that the sesquicentennial of the war calls up the violence of a past that has been sanitized within settler society, arguing that “Dakota people paid a terrible price so that white Minnesotans could claim this beautiful and bountiful land.”3 To recall the human costs of the war for Dakota, in other words, is to conjure what has been previously unthinkable within settler society: the recognition of moral obligations involved in commemorating a Minnesota statehood born of genocide. Such an act of recollection is especially important now, for at the time of this writing, the state of Israel has justified its invasion and killing of over 1,400 Palestinians in militaryoccupied Gaza following the kidnapping and killings of three Israeli teenagers in June 2014.4 This disproportionate response recalls that of white militia in the Dakota people’s “beautiful and bountiful land” who, after the killing of five whites in Acton, Minnesota, on August 17, 1862, engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, spurred on by the infamous call of Governor Alexander Ramsey, in a special session of the Minnesota legislature convened on September 9, 1862, for “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota” to be “exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”5 As Waziyatawin notes, what followed from that pronouncement reads as a clear indictment of the genocidal campaign waged by the settler state: “The hangings, the concentration camps and forced imprisonments, the forced gender segregation, the punitive campaigns into Dakota Territory to hunt down and terrorize those trying to flee, the bounties on Dakota scalps—all are examples of how Ramsey’s plan was successfully implemented.”6 This campaign culminated in the punitive expeditions of General Alfred Sully and General Henry Sibley into western Minnesota and Dakota Territory, to which some 5,000 Eastern Dakota, fearing punishment for an involvement in the war that most of them simply did not have, fled from the thousands of amassed Union and state troops.7

Few scholarly works have addressed the colonial amnesia surrounding the 1862 U.S.–Dakota War, and fewer still have explored how Dakota experienced and resisted state power in the concentration camps8 that were created shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862, and the surrender of Dakota at “Camp Release”9 a few days later, on September 26. This obscurity has been slowly lifting, though, with scholarly and public discourses beginning to proliferate in light of the 150-year anniversary of the war in 2012.10 This essay contributes to that body of work by examining an understudied [End Page 30] archive of Dakota voices that...


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