CORRECTED-Dakota Indians mark hangings of 1862 with trek on horseback

David Bailey
Reuters Middle East

(Corrects spelling of name in paragraph 26 to Dan Spock)

* Largest mass hanging in U.S. history

* 300-mile trek in frigid temperatures marks killings

* Lincoln permitted executions during Civil War

ST. PAUL, Minn, Dec 25 (Reuters) - The day after Christmas

will be somber for Dakota Indians marking what they consider a

travesty of justice 150 years ago, when 38 of their ancestors

were executed in the biggest mass hanging in U.S. history.

Overshadowed by the Civil War raging in the East,

the hangings in Mankato, Minnesota, on Dec. 26, 1862, followed

the often overlooked six-week U.S.-Dakota war earlier that year

-- a war that marked the start of three decades of fighting

between Native Americans and the U.S. government across the


President Abraham Lincoln intervened in the case, demanding

a review that reduced the number of death sentences. But he

allowed 38 to be executed, including two men historians believe

were hanged in error, even as he was preparing the Emancipation

Proclamation to free black slaves in the South.

This month, in an annual event that started in 2005, some

Dakota are making a 300-mile trek on horseback in frigid winter

temperatures to revive the memory of this footnote in U.S.


"It was just a terrible trauma that they had to endure, and

we continue to have to endure this generational trauma to this

very day," said Sheldon Wolfchild, former chairman of the Lower

Sioux Indian Community in southwestern Minnesota.

This year's ride began on Dec. 10 in Crow Creek, South

Dakota, the reservation the Dakota were exiled to from Minnesota

after the executions. It ends on Dec. 26 in Mankato, where

riders will attend a ceremony to remember the hangings.

Riders travel east across South Dakota, crossing the border

into Minnesota and heading southeast to Mankato. Some ride the

entire route, others join as their schedules permit. Support

vehicles follow them.

The ride was captured in the documentary film "Dakota 38,"

which won a special jury award this year at the Minneapolis-St.

Paul Film Festival.

"During the ride ... it feels as close to how we might have

been in a camp," said Gaby Strong, who has participated in the

ride or support for it each year. "That is really what we are

doing over the course of the 10 or 15 days that we are all


Strong, 49, who lives in Morton, Minnesota, near the site of

a key 1862 battle in the U.S.-Dakota war, said the ride has

helped form bonds among the Dakota Sioux, especially the young.

"It's about healing, not only just for me, but for my

community," said Vanessa Goodthunder, a rider and participant

each year. "We are just bringing home our ancestors. You meet a

lot of new people, and I get a lot of different perspectives."

Goodthunder, 18, who is majoring in American Indian studies

and history at the University of Minnesota, said the rides have

helped young Dakota connect with each other and their history.

"It's your identity. It is who you are," she said.


Over the next three years, Americans will commemorate the

150th anniversary of a host of Civil War battles. Almost

forgotten are the conflicts with Native Americans that occurred

in the second half of the 19th century as the United States

rapidly expanded west.

Few of those conflicts are well known, with the exception of

"Custer's Last Stand" -- when flamboyant officer George

Armstrong Custer and his men were killed by Sioux leader Crazy

Horse and his warriors in 1876 -- and the Battle of Wounded Knee

in 1890, which many historians consider a massacre and the end

of the Indian wars.

Thousands of Native Americans, white settlers and U.S.

soldiers were killed in the Indian wars. Native Americans were

coerced to cede their lands and then forced onto reservations.

In the Upper Plains, that included members of the Great

Sioux Nation, which comprises Lakota to the west, Nakota in the

middle and Dakota to the east around Minnesota.

The seeds of the Dakota war were planted years earlier, in

the 1830s, according to historians, when the fur trade that had

been the basis of the region's economy since the late 17th

century began to fade and land became valuable for settlement.

Under treaties in 1851, the four main Dakota bands ceded

about 35 million acres of what is now southern Minnesota, parts

of Iowa and South Dakota. In exchange, the U.S. pledged payments

and allowed the Dakota a narrow tract of land about 10 miles

wide on either side of the Minnesota River. Settlers swarmed

onto the newly opened lands.

In 1858, just after Minnesota became a state, Dakota chiefs

were summoned to Washington, D.C., and told they would have to

give up the northern half of that narrow reserve, said St. Cloud

State University historian Mary Wingerd.

By summer 1862, the Dakota, now largely dependent on

government treaty payments that were long delayed, were

starving. On Aug. 17, young Dakota men out hunting killed five

white settlers.

The hunters pressed Chief Taoyateduta, known as Little Crow,

to back a war. Some Dakota, but not all, fought soldiers and

settlers in the short, bloody war in August and September 1862.

Hundreds of settlers were killed and hundreds more taken

hostage in the war during attacks on forts, federal Indian

agencies, cities and farms around southwestern Minnesota.

Thousands of settlers fled east, fueling a statewide panic, and

federal troops marched in to quell the Dakota fighters.

The U.S. was victorious on Sept. 23, 1862, and Little Crow

left Minnesota.

Afterward, more than 2,000 Dakota were rounded up, whether

they fought or not. Almost 400 men faced military trials, which

often lasted just a few minutes, and 303 were sentenced to die.


Lincoln demanded a review limiting the death sentences to

those Dakota who raped or killed settlers. The number sentenced

to hang was reduced to 38, but even in these cases the evidence

was scanty, said Dan Spock, history center director at the

Minnesota Historical Society.

The 38 condemned men stood on a large square gallows

surrounded by soldiers. Thousands watched as a single blow with

an ax cut a rope and dropped the scaffolding.

Wingerd said she could understand why the Dakota fought, but

the brutal killings of settlers could not be condoned and she

could not agree with people who believed that no one should have

been hanged.

"We have to understand it as a huge tragedy with victims on

both sides," Wingerd said of the deaths of settlers and the

forced marches and scattering of most Dakota from Minnesota.

"In fact, the Dakota nation did not go to war and most of

the people who were expelled from Minnesota were guilty of

nothing," Wingerd said.

About 1,700 Dakota women, children and older men who did not

fight were marched to a prison camp at Fort Snelling, Minnesota,

where up to 300 died that winter. They were exiled to Crow

Creek, South Dakota, in 1863, but some began to return to

Minnesota almost immediately.

"They continue to come home and this ride represents that,"

Strong said of Minnesota. "We continue to come home. This is our


Wolfchild said he wants authorities to recognize

sacred Dakota sites in the the area that is now the Twin Cities

and its suburbs to help heal the lingering wounds from the

broken treaties, Mankato hangings and exile.

"I would like to be buried where our people originated

from," he said.

(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune and Douglas


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