Sheldon Wolfchild from the Lower Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota says few Americans understand what caused the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. And as an advisor to the Minnesota Historical Society's exhibit commemorating that moment on the state's history, he said he recognizes that emotions run high on all sides.
Still, he's firm on this: The Dakota people didn't cause the war.
"I have to apologize if I get a little rambunctious here because this touched the heart and soul of our Dakota people," he said one recent morning as visitors stood shoulder to shoulder, silently taking in the exhibit in St. Paul. Eyes were fixed on panels describing the starvation of the Dakota, the violence inflicted on white settlers and then the executions of Dakota in Mankato.
"My grandfather Medicine Bottle was hung at Fort Snelling," Wolfchild said.
THE US-DAKOTA WAR: MODERN VOICES
• Jan Klein: Remembering white settlers' experiences
• Sheldon Wolfchild: A Dakota view of the war
• William Lass: Historical accounts change through the years
Wolfchild grew up hearing stories about the war, and how Medicine Bottle fought in its battles and then fled to Canada. Vigilantes and U.S. troops tracked him down Manitoba and brought him back to Fort Snelling, where he was subjected to three military hearings that lacked any eyewitnesses to his actions, and featured only hearsay testimony.
Medicine Bottle never denied fighting in the war, Wolfchild said, but the man did not kill women and children — crimes led to the execution of 38 other Dakota. Still, three years after the end of the 1862 war, he and another Dakota chief, Shakopee, were convicted and executed in 1865. Their bodies were later stolen and sold for medical dissection.
Blame for the war, he insists, lies at the feet of what came to be called the "Indian system," which encouraged crooked white traders to sell the Dakota people goods on credit at inflated prices. The traders cashed in when the Dakota received government payments.
The History Center exhibit explains the swindle, but Wolfchild says more needs to be explained: Some historians point to poverty and starvation as reasons why Dakota attacked white settlers in the fall of 1862, but the "Indian system" started long before then.
Wolfchild pauses and points to an example in the exhibit, a little known Supreme Court ruling that laid the groundwork for the federal government's strategy to move Indians off their land.
"That ruling said that the Indian people are only entitled to be of occupancy on their land, they do not own the land."
And nearby, Wolfchild points to a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln and says the Indian system started at the top: "He put in the positions these people to allow this Indian system to happen."
Historians say some white elected officials deplored the system's deceitful treaty negotiations, rampant corruption and removal of Indians from their lands. But documents make clear there was no political will to reform the strategy.
Minnesota State University Mankato emeritus history professor William Lass says the system generated obscene profits for nearly everyone involved, so it continued despite the fact that President Lincoln and Congress were repeatedly told the system bred corruption that would have consequences.
George Day, who was appointed by Lincoln to investigate the conditions in Minnesota, wrote to the president early in 1862 saying, "The whole system is defective and must be revised or, your red children, as they call themselves, will continue to be wronged and outraged and the just vengeance of heaven continue to be poured out and visited upon this nation for its abuses and cruelty to the Indian."
Wolfchild says missing from the history center's exhibit is an even more strongly worded warning letter from missionaries telling Congress how the war could be avoided. That letter should be prominently displayed, and viewers should not have to search on their own for the document, he says, sputtering with frustration at an exhibit he considers small and incomplete about a defining event in Minnesota history.
"This little exhibit where you have to get up close enough to read what the writings are, that's just a shame," he said.
The exhibit and an accompanying time line on the Historical Society's Web page explain what happened leading up to, during and after the 1862 war. Federal troops and Minnesota volunteers rounded up 1,600 Dakota, mostly women, children and older men and marched them to an internment camp next to Fort Snelling. After a deadly winter they were placed on river boats and banished to barren reservations in the Dakota Territory. A bounty was offered for finding others, which led to the capture of Medicine Bottle and Shakopee.
Wolfchild's effort to tell the story of the causes of the 1862 war started with his return in 1997 to the Lower Sioux Agency in Minnesota where he was born and raised. After 30 years as a commercial artist and actor in California including work at Disney Studios, he says he came back to help his sisters find lost documents to show they qualify as enrolled members at the Lower Sioux Agency. Since then he's become part of a much larger effort, a lawsuit to win recognition for himself and thousands of other Dakota who say they've been unfairly denied money from gambling operations run by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota.
He isn't waiting for others to tell what he regards as the whole story of what actually caused the war — he's produced three documentaries tracing the roots of how European conquest affected American Indians that make their debut in October.
Wolfchild also favors reconciliation among all sides in the 1862 war — once the full story is known: "Let's all heal together about this," he said. "Let's look at the real truth in history that's never been told."