Dakota leaders call for pardon of Chaska

Published 8:44 am Saturday, December 25, 2010

By Mark Steil

Minnesota Public Radio News

WORTHINGTON — When the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place following a six-week war along the Minnesota River valley in 1862, at least one of the 38 Dakota warriors executed that day was hanged by mistake.

It may have been a simple name mixup that lead to the hanging. But some think Chaska was executed as revenge for his alleged affair with a white woman.

As the hangings approach their 150th anniversary, some Dakota leaders and supporters want a federal pardon for Chaska. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has said he’ll study the issue.

Nearly a century and a half after the U.S.-Dakota War, the sense of injustice that led to the conflict is still fresh in the voice of Sheldon Wolfchild. The former Lower Sioux Tribal chairman said his ancestors went to battle as a last resort.

Wolfchild said the Dakota had suffered a long list of abuses at the hands of the federal government.

“They were being starved and cheated for years,” he said.

The war started in August of 1862 in Wolfchild’s home area, the Lower Sioux Reservation near Morton on the Minnesota River in the southwest part of the state.

It was a brief, bloody affair. When the war ended after six weeks, hundreds of settlers, Indians and soldiers were dead. The victorious soldiers and settlers called for revenge. Military leaders imprisoned almost 400 Dakota fighters. Some were accused of killing civilians, some of rape, but for many the charge was that they shot at soldiers.

University of Oklahoma Historian Gary Clayton Anderson said a military commission convicted most of the Indians. But Anderson said the so-called trials fell far short of the accepted judicial standards of the day as the Dakota were convicted on hearsay evidence, in individual trials that lasted little more than five minutes.

“It was a travesty, an absolute travesty,” Anderson said.

Among the roughly 300 Dakota sentenced to hang was a warrior named Chaska. But there was a public outcry, with many religious leaders, including Bishop Henry Whipple, protesting the executions to President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln reviewed the evidence and reduced the number sentenced to die to 38. Chaska was among those spared, sentenced instead to a prison term. But when it came time to carry out the executions, Chaska was still sent to the gallows.

“The one Chaska who was executed was the wrong Chaska,” Anderson said.

The most likely reason for the mistaken execution was a name mix-up. Anderson said Chaska was a common Dakota name meaning “first born,” and there were at least five Chaskas imprisoned.

When the names of the condemned were read, the Dakota prisoners did not see anything sinister in the action, he said. That’s because the prisoners were not told that those being asked to step forward were the Dakota sentenced to hang.

“Apparently, the officer just read off the name Chaska, and the nearest Chaska got up and said ‘here I am’,” Anderson said. “And he was grabbed and carried off.”

There is a second theory though. Chaska had protected a white woman prisoner during the war named Sarah Wakefield. After she was released, rumors circulated that she and Chaska had become lovers. Wakefield denied those allegations in a book published a year after the war.

“It has caused me to feel very unkindly towards my own people, particularly those in command at Mankato,” Wakefiled wrote. “There has been all kinds of reports in circulation respecting Chaska and I, but I care not for them. I know I did what was right, that my feelings were only those of gratitude towards my preserver. … I loved not the man, but his kindly acts.”

Wakefield alleged in the book that the soldiers executed Chaska to punish him because they believed the rumors.

Wolfchild said pardoning Chaska would fall short of what needs to be done.

“I think all 38 plus two should be pardoned,” Wolfchild said.

The additional two were Little Six and Medicine Bottle, Wolfchild’s great-great grandfather. Both were executed in 1865 for their participation in the war.

Wolfchild said if the federal government had honored its treaties, the war would not have taken place, and his ancestors would not have hanged.