FORT THOMPSON, S.D. ? Delegations of Dakota gathered at Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River June 1 to dedicate the Spirit of the Circle Monument to more than 1,300 people who died over a three-year period nearly a century ago at the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota.
The victims of malnutrition and exposure had been placed in a location that was completely foreign to their way of life and that produced little or no food.
This story, not all too uncommon in Indian history, occurred when the Dakota people were removed from what is now Minnesota in 1863. The removals followed an uprising in 1862 in retaliation for poor treatment and government cheating on food annuities provided in the 1858 treaty that ceded all land except for 10 miles of shore along the Minnesota River. The Dakota along the Minnesota River reluctantly led by Little Crow attacked homes and settlements of the European settlers, looting and killing many.
What the government and non-Indian world called the Sioux Uprising came after traders held back up to one-half of the annuities for payment of debt in 1861. It was a year plagued by insects and a hard winter, and many Dakota were forced to eat roots. In August 1862 government workers at Redwood Falls became targets of retaliation and a general war ensued.
After the hostilities were crushed, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato on the signature of President Abraham Lincoln for their role in the fighting.
“The 38 who died are our heroes. They tried to preserve a way of life for our people,” said Roger Trudell, chairman of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, at the dedication.
“Our history hasn’t changed a lot. Our people still suffer, still try to get equal rights with everybody else, and there will always be a continuous struggle to maintain our land, our rights to our culture, our traditions, and our heritage,” Trudell said.
“This is cottonwood soup day,” said Duane Big Eagle, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.
“The prisoners were removed from the state of Minnesota to a location just 28 miles south of here called Chamberlain. The final stop for this band today is called Fort Thompson. There will be a stone uncovered that will be set in place in dedication to much hardship and all those that passed away and for those relatives who are here today,” he said.
Big Eagle told the large gathering that the boat that brought the prisoners to Crow Creek came up the Missouri River and stopped at American Creek near Chamberlain. The men who drove the freight wagons with provisions for the prisoners sold the food on the way to Crow Creek. The only food the first group of Dakota prisoners had to eat was water mixed with flour cooked in a dug-out cottonwood tree; this was cottonwood soup.
“Look at this as a new beginning, a recognition that in spite of everything this tribe has survived and will continue to survive,” said Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, whose reservation is across the Missouri River from Crow Creek. Jandreau said that all people present could claim some blood from the people who came to Crow Creek.
“We can put our hearts and minds together and tell America who we are as a nation of people. You have done a great deal to start that when we honor one another in such a way,” Jandreau said.
The monument is located on top of Big Bend Dam on land donated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. An irony noted by many at the dedication is that Big Bend and Fort Randall Dam further south on the Missouri River formed lakes above the huge hydro-power facilities that caused the Dakota to be relocated once again. Old Fort Thompson was relocated to higher ground, as were many people, and their most productive ground was covered with water.
Members of the Dakota band that came to Crow Creek in 1863 were part of the Isanti or Santee Sioux. The descendants are now located in Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota. Many moved from Crow Creek to Santee, Neb., and then returned to Minnesota where four communities can trace their ancestors to the Santee Rolls.
Members of the Gordon Weston Indian Veterans Post at the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in South Dakota campaigned for a memorial for their ancestors who perished on the way to Crow Creek or after their arrival.
Sam Allen, councilman at Flandreau, and Martin Bernard came up with the idea 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until the past three years that the memorial took on life. A prayer staff was created containing 38 feathers representing the 38 men who were hanged in Mankato. It is present at every ceremony conducted by the VFW post.
The hereditary chief, Earnest Wabasha, was contacted about the memorial and he thought it was a good idea. Wabasha is from Morton, Minn.
“Everyone we talked to liked the idea. Now I feel happy and proud that it is happening,” Wabasha said.
Bernard said the idea is to educate people about what happened at Crow Creek and how the tribe scattered. The monument is located on the highway that crosses the Big Bend Dam. Thirteen flag posts stand at the north side of a medicine wheel. In the middle an engraved stone from Minnesota marks the location to which the Dakota people were exiled.
“I look around today and see descendants of Little Crow, Red Wing, Wabasha and Big Eagle. I think our chiefs are still around in the descendants. When I was growing up in Santee I never heard of Crow Creek, no one ever talked about it,” said Rodney Steiner, a Santee Sioux member from Kansas City, Mo., who helped organize the memorial.
“In the 1950s when my family received a check for some land that was sold up here. I asked my mother where Crow Creek was and she said it was just a bad place no one talks about it. We don’t even want to talk about that place.
“Women would have to sift through horse manure to find enough grain to make soup. The soldiers raped them and the women were called filthy hags. I learned that rape victims seldom talk about it, and that’s why they didn’t talk about Crow Creek. That’s why this is a bad place,” Steiner said.
Steiner said he was raised around 16 women that were strong and loving and that their strength came from the Crow Creek experience.
“I am proud to be a Dakota, especially today,” Steiner said.
Cora Jones, Great Plains Area Director of the BIA, is an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Tribe. She said her great-grandmother was interred while her great-grandfather was one of the more than 300 originally sentenced to be hanged. She said his sentence was commuted so he spent 12 years in prison.
“So I have very strong feelings about this place and about the people and about the history and about the Santee,” she said.