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Native History: Dakota Uprising Begins With ‘Let Them Eat Grass!’

On August 17, 1862, after a summer of failed crops and diminished lands, the Dakota Uprising began when the U.S. government failed to pay annuities.

This Date in Native History: On August 17, 1862, after a summer season of failed crops and diminished lands, the Dakota Uprising commenced when the U.S. government failed to pay the Dakota’s annuities. Local trader and store owner Andrew Myrick refused to allow credit for food until their payments arrived. “Let them eat grass,” he said.

Already reduced to an over-hunted, small strip of land along the Minnesota River, a starving band of Dakota led by Chief Little Crow decided they had nothing to lose and commenced their attacks. “People were treated so badly and the traders who were supposed to be taking care of them, didn’t,” said Joan Pendleton, 78, who recorded her story through the Minnesota Historical Society. “And that’s what started the uprising.”

Myrick was killed on the first day of the uprising. Trudy Pashe, who learned about the war from stories passed down through her family, said, “My grandfather was Pazoiyopa. From what I understand, Grandpa Pazoiyopa was involved in a lot of battles. They killed some guys and he was the one who stuck the grass in his [Andrew Myrick’s] mouth or something. That’s what I understood.” Pashe recounted in the recordings.

Pendleton wondered why the whites let the situation go so far. “At that time they just took advantage of the poor people who didn’t understand. But the government was promising them and the Dakota took them by their word.”

By the end of the war, nearly 500 whites and 150 Dakota warriors were killed. For close to three years between 1,000 and 2,000 Dakota were incarcerated in terrible conditions in prisoner of war camps throughout Minnesota.

Dr. Clifford Canku, Dakota, translator of “The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters,” said in one of the recordings, “The most saddening thing about the story was that the innocent of our people were implicated just as severely as those who were participants. There was injustice.”

Canku said that on November 2, 1862, the U.S. soldiers rounded up Dakota people at Morton, Minnesota and took them to a concentration camp in Fort Snelling. “Some of our relatives in the Canku family were captured in 1862 and sent to Fort Snelling. They were implicated for being Dakota. Just being Dakota means that you were guilty before any consideration of being innocent. There was nine of our family that were sent there. And then the rest escaped and went to the Plains.”

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President Abraham Lincoln sentenced 38 of the warriors to be hung at Mankato, Minnesota and two more were later hung in Canada. It is said that after their heads were covered and just before the floor fell from beneath their feet, the 38 reached out and took each other’s hands. The mass hanging was the largest in American history.

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“Those not hung were sent to Davenport, Iowa, where they spent the next eight to 10 years at Fort McLellen,” Canku wrote in an email to Indian Country Today Media Network. “Many women and children died of cold, disease, starvation, and many women were raped and inhumanly killed by U.S. soldiers.”

The Dakota were banished from their homeland in Mne Sota, Dakota for sky-tinted water, now called Minnesota. “And how they spread… How they moved around the United States... They moved around and then they came into Canada with Sitting Bull. I was told all these stories like how Grandpa Pazoiyopa hid in Canada and stayed in Canada for fear of going back to be hung,” Pendleton recalled.

“My opinion of the war is it shouldn’t have happened. There’s lots of ways it could have been avoided but I think it was greed,” Peshe said. “There was too much greed and taking advantage. But how do you stop that? You can’t. Some of them had to flee for us and changed their lives for us.”

In an interview with Canku, he said, “My personal idea is that we are a peaceful people, but at the same time, when people are being forced and pushed into a corner, it is the warriors duty to protect the people, and they didn’t shun their duties. They had no recourse, they were doing these things to us as people, and they had to do something about it, and that’s what they did.”

Read the transcripts of the recorded stories of descendants here.