This Date in Native History: Massacre at Whitestone Hill

Courtesy Kat Eng LaDonna Bravebull at Sacred Stone camp along the banks of the Cannonball River. She is a direct descendant of Massacre at Whitestone Hill survivor Nape Hot`e Win (Mary Big Moccasin).

Theresa Braine

Massacre at Whitestone Hill happened before Wounded Knee or Sand Creek

Twenty-seven years before Wounded Knee and a year before Sand Creek, on September 3, 1863 at Whitestone Hill in present-day southeastern North Dakota, an equally heinous massacre was maliciously inflicted on a peaceful Native American encampment. Like its two more famous successors, the massacre at Whitestone Hill was courtesy of the U.S. Army.

A statue to a U.S. Army Civil War era cavalryman heroically bestride his horse overlooks the ravines and gullies of the Whitestone Massacre site. Every year in early summer, a military ceremony honoring the “brave” cavalry commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Sully commemorates the butchery enacted 154 years past in the ravines below.

An official North Dakota State Government website sets the stage for the infamy: “… the Dakotas had crossed the Missouri River and joined up with some other bands to resume their late summer hunt. They needed to put up a good supply of meat for the coming winter. The hunt was successful. They had about 400,000 pounds of bison meat drying in camp by the first week in September.

“The village included between 300 and 400 tipis, or lodges, housing about 3,000 people of the Yanktonais, Santees, Sissetons, and some Teton Lakotas. There may have been some Wahpekutes and one or two Crow families there as well. The leaders included Mato Nopa or Two Bears, Medicine Bear, Little Soldier, and Big Head (Pahtanka).”

The website also states that: “Upon seeing the approach of the soldiers, “Pahtanka tried to surrender by waving a white cloth. Though the Dakotas had been peacefully hunting, and did not fight, soldiers killed some old men, women and children in the camp.”

LaDonna Bravebull, Inhunktonwan, Hunkpapa and Blackfoot, is a past tribal historian for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a direct descendent of Massacre at Whitestone Hill survivor Nape Hot`e Win (Mary Big Moccasin). Bravebull also served as an advisor to the North Dakota historical commission for the Whitestone Hill historical site. Her view, which is widely accepted, is that Whitestone was a vindictive retaliation for the Dakota Uprising, which led to 38 Dakota men being hanged in Mankato, Minnesota the previous year.

“My great-great-grandmother Nape Ho`te Win survived the largest and bloodiest conflict ever on North Dakota soil. Nearly 400 of our people were killed in the Inyan Ska (Whitestone) Massacre. In 1863, nearly 4,000 Yanktonais, Isanti (Santee), and Hunkpapa gathered alongside a lake in southeastern North Dakota for an intertribal buffalo hunt to prepare for winter. We had everyone gathered for a big fair,” Bravebull said. “We had a buffalo calling ceremony—it was a time to give thanks, pray, meet relatives, arrange marriages. Most important, it was a time to prepare food for the winter months.”

Historians claim quite a few refugees from the 1862 uprising in Minnesota were in that camp. Brave Bull does not dispute the claim, but says they were mostly women and children. “My great-great grandmother’s father, Oyate Tawa, was one of the 38 Dakota hanged in Mankato less than a year before.”

“Mankato remains the largest mass execution in our country’s history,” said Brave Bull, and she believes Sully’s soldiers came to Dakota Territory looking for the Santee who fled to inflict further retribution.

In Yes! Magazine last September, Bravebull recounted:

As my great-great-grandmother told the story, the attack came the day after the big hunt, when spirits were high. The sun was setting and everyone was sharing an evening meal when Sully’s soldiers surrounded the camp on Whitestone Hill. In the chaos that ensued, people tied their children to their horses and dogs and fled. Mary (Nape Ho`te Win) was 9 years old. As she ran, she was shot in the hip and went down. She laid there until morning, when a soldier found her. As he loaded her into a wagon, she heard her relatives moaning and crying on the battlefield. She was taken to a prisoner of war camp in Crow Creek where she stayed until her release in 1870.

Before the bloodthirsty Colonel John Chivington at the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, before the revenge hungry 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee, there was Brigadier General Alfred Sully of the 6th Iowa and 2nd Nebraska Cavalry, an eager enforcer of the “scorched earth” policy of his superior, General John Pope in Minnesota to rid the region of Native peoples.

Wikipedia, which, after some internal debate, fell on the side of referring to the massacre as “The Battle of Whitestone Hill, still reports that “… the next morning the camp was empty of Indians except for the dead and a few lost children and women … Sully ordered all the Indian property abandoned in the camp to be burned. This included 300 tipis and 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of dried buffalo meat, the winter supplies of the Indians…”