Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 1, 2014

Mohawk John Kane 'America's Greatest Public Execution'

America's Greatest Public Execution

By John Karhiio Kane (Mohawk)

The story of the executions in Mankato, Minnesota that would be the final chapter of the Dakota War of 1862 seems to always miss the mark, at least for me. 

Thirty-eight Dakota men hanged the day after Christmas on an execution order signed by Abraham Lincoln has been characterized many ways even as this story, hidden from American history, began to gain attention leading up to the 150th anniversary last year. But, to be clear, most of this awareness is still only among a very small number of us.

But before I weigh in with my thoughts on the largest court/Presidential-ordered mass execution in the history of the United States, let's go back to last year.

Last year, the much-celebrated "Lincoln" movie was all the rage. No, I’m not talking about the vampire slayer movie. I’m talking about the "real" Lincoln story, the one that took place during the same time period that this "Indian" problem occurred in Minnesota. Of course, nothing of the Dakota 38 or Mankato is in the film. Apparently the image of 38 Native men dangling at the end of a rope while the good people of Minnesota wrapped up their Christmas celebration with what was described even then as "America's greatest public execution" was not sensational enough for Hollywood.

And as the 150th anniversary of the hangings drew near and came and went, barely a murmur was heard in the mainstream national media. But mere days after the anniversary of this horrific event, the media flocked to the National Archives building in D.C. to cover the free special displaying of the Emancipation Proclamation, all part of the 150th anniversary of its signing. No one ever suggested or even hinted at the hypocrisy of Lincoln's hand laid on the Execution Order for the hangings on December 26, 1862 set against his "Proclamation" just six days later.

Scholars will fall and have fallen all over themselves debating the "Great Emancipator" but let's look at the “Great Executioner” and "America's greatest public execution."

The trials where almost 400 "Indians and Half-breeds" stood as enemy combatants in a military court resulted in 320 convictions with 303 sentenced to death by hanging. Those condemned to death were characterized as murderers and rapists, although the latter seems to have been a gross exaggeration if not a complete fabrication. The trials lasted only a week with many individuals before the court for just 5 minutes. No defense was presented, no counsel provided and almost all were convicted on the word of a single accuser.

For the decade leading up to the Dakota War of 1862, the United States refused to make on time or appropriate payments for lands that were continuously encroached upon or otherwise swindled through treaties, congressional acts or outright theft. This was not a failure of U.S. policy. This WAS the U.S. policy.

Sixty years before the Dakota executions, it was Thomas Jefferson who not only laid the groundwork for the removal policies with the so called "Louisiana Purchase" — a scam sold to the Southern states as a place to “remove” the "Indians" to — but also actually encouraged running Native people into debt to further destroy them.

Thirty years before the executions, it was Andrew Jackson who fulfilled Jefferson's promise and drove thousands of Native people to their deaths in the forced marches of the Trail of Tears. Payments for the theft of Cherokee land would come years after the death marches.

It was now Lincoln's turn. The removal policy of Jefferson and Jackson combined with Jefferson's debt-to-destruction plan was perfect for the time. Disregard for timely payments and delivery of food to the Dakota exacerbated the tensions that exploded in 1862. Traders preyed on the slow-to-pay practice of the "Indian Agents" and had the Dakota so far in debt that the traders cheated them in their trades and ultimately managed direct payments from the agents so that no money ever made it to the Native people themselves and in many cases no goods either. Food distributions that were bound by treaty either never came or came spoiled and rancid.

Displaced and starving, the Dakota finally lashed out in the summer of 1862. The Dakota spent the next several months attempting to drive the White settlers from the Minnesota River valley. Lincoln would make claims that 800 men, women and children were killed in the conflict, although no official record backs up that claim.

Many of the websites and publications addressing this issue including those hosted or produced by Native organizations, suggest that Lincoln intervened in the death sentences and reviewed the trial records. Lincoln's role here is often described as humanitarian. The fact was that Lincoln was required to issue the execution orders but was more concerned about perception, domestic and abroad. He ordered the records of the proceeding with a plan to only execute those convicted of murder combined with rape to avoid the international fallout of an execution order for 303 human beings.

Disappointed to learn that the rape claims were wildly exaggerated and that only two were convicted of the combined rape and murder charges and knowing he needed to give the good people of Minnesota more than just a double hanging, he persisted. By using his own standard for distinguishing a massacre from a battle, Lincoln then was able to bump the number up to 39, ordering their executions for participating in massacres. One of these would join the remainder of the 303 originally sentenced to death and the others convicted of lesser crimes, avoiding the gallows but still to only die in prison anyway. In total, more than 1,000 Dakota were imprisoned.

Most would never see a trial. Those who did not die in prison were expelled to Nebraska and South Dakota to live on the concentration camps called reservations. The Dakota claims to Minnesota lands would be abolished by the U.S. Congress.

The next 30 years would see, most notably, the Sand Creek Massacre (1864), the failed attempted massacre by Custer at the Little Bighorn (1876) and the Wounded Knee Massacre, which occurred 123 years ago on December 29, 1890. This event took place 28 years to the week after Abraham Lincoln signed the Execution Order for the "America's greatest public execution" and the Emancipation Proclamation.

By 1890 the Native population of California had been reduced from an estimated 300,000 (in 1850) to 15,000. This 95 percent "reduction" was not the result of disease or natural disaster. It was U.S. policy. It was not a U.S. failure. It was a U.S. success story. While Lincoln "proclaimed" the freedom of the Black man as a strategy to cause slave revolts in the South, Native boys and girls were being bought and sold to the West. Boys were bringing $60 for slave labor while girls were getting $100 and more as sex slaves.

The next 100 years would see residential schools where Native identity and lives of our children would be snuffed out in the policy of "Kill the Indian and Save the Man." Some schools would show a 50 percent mortality rate. These schools would be the beginning of the "Indian" child market that continues today in the foster care and adoption programs of the U.S. and Canada.

So don't for a second think that the Dakota War or the executions at Mankato were failures of American justice or policy. Don't think for a second that “Honest Abe” was just in a tough spot in 1862 but emerged as an American hero. Lincoln did what they all did — he lived up to the name Rahnatakaias, “Town Destroyer.”

– John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national expert commentator on Native American issues, hosts “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” ESPN Sports Radio WWKB-AM 1520 in Buffalo, Sundays, 9-11 p.m. Eastern Time. He is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany. John’s “Native Pride” blog can be found at He also has a very active "Let's Talk Native...with JohnKane" group page on Facebook.

John Kane's column first appeared in Two Row Times, thank you!

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