On May 4th, 1863, more than 1,300 Dakota Indians — mostly women and children, with some old men among them, were exiled from their homeland in Minnesota. were dumped out on a dry prairie in the middle of Dakota Territory, guarded by soldiers and battered by the summer heat.
“The country…is totally unfit for any human habitation,” wrote a school superintendent who was appalled that the Indians were being forced there. “It is a desert, destitute of timber…It never can be made fit for agriculture. It is a vast plain of sand without water, without grass, without timber.”
It was called Crow Creek. In the minds of the descendants of those who survived it, is the name of a nightmare from a time when the United States wanted to exterminate the original people of Minnesota, and to let them wither, starve and die out of sight, out of mind, left on the edge of life. Within weeks, they began to sicken and fall, from heat, from starvation, from disease, from abuse meted out by their captors. It all went according to plan. The Dakota, refugees from the brutal six-week war that had scourged the Minnesota countryside in the autumn of 1862, were not being sent away to find a new place to live. They were being sent to die.
“The power of the government must be brought to bear upon them,” a government agent wrote at the time. “They must be whipped, coerced into obedience. After this is accomplished, few will be left to put upon a reservation, many will be killed, more must perish from famine and exposure, and the more desperate will flee and see refuge on the plains or in the mountains… A very small reservation should suffice for them.”
Hundreds did, until the government finally took pity and sent the survivors to a more hosp[itable home on the Niobrara River, in Nebraska. Their
in Santee, Nebraska, Crow Creek, South Dakota, Davenport, Iowa and Canada. After suffering a bitterly cold winter like enemy combatants stuck in a concentration camp, these mostly women and children survived, but their pain of being exiled from Mni Sota Makoce was just beginning.
Those who returned could be shot on sight, or hung. Their crimes: fighting to keep their land and way of life while white settlers expanded their farms and homesteads on the prairie. Angela Cavender Wilson, also known by her Dakota name Waziyatawin, feels the pain on an individual level. One of her grandmothers was here. She thought by marching to honor her memory, the burden would ease. But, she says, it never gets any easier.
“Every time we come to this place (Fort Snelling), every time we hear the stories, the tears come and so does the rage,” she told the crowd gathered at Fort Snelling for the ceremony.
Today, Dakota women returned from those places of exile to honor their grandmothers memory.They came to honor their spirits and welcome them back home to Minnesota, the place where the water reflects the sky.
Between 50-100 people gathered at Fort Snelling State park on a cloudy spring day to mark the day with a ceremony, a pipe and the drum. Women spoke to the mixed crowd about their ancestors who were marched from Morton, Minnesota to Fort Snelling, their voice cracking and trembling with emotion that one would feel for a recently deceased loved one.
For many Dakota, the events of 1862 and 1863 are still painful and the anger is just right below the surface. Waziyatawin says that many Dakota feel a sense of shame, thinking it was their fault. Maybe if they hadn’t fought, she said, the Dakota wouldn’t have been exiled or their women and children marched to Fort Snelling. She explains that it was about the land and the actions of white settlers was nothing short of genocide.
“ White people wanted our land and they would do anything they could to get it,” she said as her voice shook.
Ramona Stately, one of the Dakota from Shakopee, Minnesota, remembered her great, great grandmother. She had four children with her as she walked the 150 miles to Fort Snelling and one newborn child. She made the journey not knowing what the future held for her youngest child. She knew her name meant She Radiates in her Path Like the Sun. Ramona also knew that when her ancestor arrived in Davenport, Iowa along with the others, the rolls only counted her plus three.
“I can’t imagine the grief and hardship she must have endured,” she told the crowd.