Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The 'Fool Soldiers' of the Lakota

Recently I visited the Minnesota History Center with my friends Julia, Jim and Edgar. Currently on display at the Center is an exhibit on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which includes information on the little known story of the 'Fool Soldiers' of the Lakota. I'll get to their story in a moment, but first a little background information.

The Dakota or Sioux are Native American and First Nations people in North America. They comprise three major divisions based on Siouan dialect and subculture: the Santee or Eastern Dakota; the Yankton and the Yanktonai, or, collectively, the Wičhíyena or Western Dakota; and the Teton or Lakota, who are the westernmost Sioux. (Crazy Horse, whom I've written about previously, was of the Oglala band of the Lakota.)

The original Lakota/Dakota homelands were in what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. The Sioux traveled freely, however, and there was also significant Sioux presence in the modern states of Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, and northern Illinois, and in south-central Canada. Today, most Sioux people live in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Saskatchewan.

As to what's been called both the Sioux Uprising and the Dakota Conflict, here's an excerpt from the Minnesota History Center's website:

When you visit the "U.S.-Dakota War of 1862" exhibit at the History Center, you'll examine the evidence, hear heart-wrenching stories and learn about the broken treaties and promises that led to this disastrous chapter in Minnesota history.

The war ended with hundreds dead, the Dakota people exiled from their homeland and the largest mass execution in U.S. history: the hangings of 38 Dakota men in Mankato on December 26, 1862.

2012 marks 150 years since the U.S.-Dakota War. It was waged for six weeks in southern Minnesota over the late summer of 1862, but the war’s causes began decades earlier and the profound loss and consequences of the war are still felt today.

One of the aspects of this conflict that I find particularly interesting concerns a group of Lakota men known as the "Fool Soldiers." At the Minnesota History Center's exhibit their story is highlighted in the display at right, one which also focuses on the plight of three white women and eight children from Lake Shetek, Minnesota who on August 20, 1862 were taken captive by Santee Chief White Lodge and his band.

Following is how writer and educator Alicia Bayer recounts the rescuing of the women and children.

In November, word of the captives reached a group of young Lakota men. These men had formed a group based on non-violence and helping all people, leading some others to mockingly call them "Fool Soldiers."

The Fool Soldiers decided to make the journey to the Santee camp to negotiate a trade and rescue the hostages. Since they believed in non-violence, they gathered and bought supplies like blankets, coffee and sugar to offer in return for the women and children.

The Fool Soldiers made the dangerous trek to the camp and spent three days negotiating for the release. When they finally succeeded, they were left to journey back with only one horse (the others had been added to the trade) in bitter cold and snow. They had very little clothing and few supplies for either themselves or the rescued captives.

The Fool Soldiers carried the smallest children and put one injured woman on their only horse. One soldier gave his moccasins to the other woman because she was barefoot. They were later able to trade a gun for a cart to put the children in, but it was too heavy for their horse to pull so the Fool Soldiers took turns pulling it themselves.

The journey was dangerous, as they had to be on guard against those who considered them enemies from all sides of the conflict (including U.S. forces who might see them as kidnappers) and they also were battling brutal cold and ice. They succeeded, though, and returned the captives to Fort Randall.

Following the rescue (and a later rescue of starving Lakota on Medicine Creek), they were not greeted as heroes by either side of the conflict. When they arrived at Fort Randall they were imprisoned by the U.S. until the end of the conflict, and it is believed that two of them died while in the stockades. Once released, they were ridiculed and shunned by many in their tribe and their log homes were whitewashed. They eventually anonymously relocated to other areas.

This story would make an excellent film, don't you think? A well-made documentary is already available (left), but I'm thinking a well-made drama is also in order – one that powerfully and beautifully captures all the courage, inspiration and tragedy of this story. Such a film is needed as the story of the Fool Soldiers' bravery, sacrifice, and commitment to nonviolence just isn't very well known to the general public. And I think it should be as, for one thing, we don't hear enough stories that embody such a combination of inspiring qualities.

Above: The monument in Mobridge, South Dakota that commemorates
the Fool Soldiers' rescuing of the Lake Shetek captives.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Nonviolence: An Introduction
Waging Nonviolence: People-Powered News and Analysis
Friends for a Non-Violent World

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Crazy Horse: 'Strange Man' of the Great Plains
"Something Sacred Dwells There"
A Visit to the National Museum of the American Indian
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
Michael Greyeyes on Temperance as a Philosophy for Surviving
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paul Coelho
John Dear on Celebrating the Birth of the Nonviolent Jesus
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel

Opening image: "Heritage" by James Bama.


Patti said...

Very interesting. Sounds like a trip to the History Center might be on my agenda.

Clarence said...

If we could only create American heroes like this in our present culture...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I loved history in school but we heard very little about the American Indians. It was a blank spot in my learning. We learned lots about the explorers and the settling of the United States but the Indians were invisible it seems.


Terry Nelson said...

Thanks for this story, I had never heard of this before now. It would make a very good film.

Gary Ashley said...

Martin Charger the leader of the Fool Soldier's was the grandson of Merriweather Lewis from Lewis and Clark his father was a hunter and scout for G.K. Warren and Jim Bridger. His descendants still have the letter the government gave him giving him freedom to ride through out Dakota territory it's kind of a inside joke to the family.

Gary Ashley said...
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