By John Biewen
That brings us back to where we began our story, to that farmyard in Acton where the four young Dakota men killed the five settlers.
There are other versions of the story -- one from a Dakota who spoke with the four young men -- that don't include the Dakota men asking for liquor or the target shooting contest. They were coming back from a hunting trip and they were frustrated and hungry, according to that version. The story ends the same, though, with five settlers dead.
"After the Acton Massacre, the four boys rode back to the Lower Sioux Agency. That's where their village was located. They went back to their chief and relayed to him what they had done in Acton," said Anthony Morse. "Their chief called a meeting with more chiefs, and they eventually called a council with all the chiefs of Lower Sioux at one of Little Crow's houses, I believe. There they had their council on what they should do."
Little Crow was one of the chiefs who signed the 1851 treaty that turned out so badly for the Dakota. When the chiefs and some riled-up young men showed up at his house in the middle of the night, Little Crow warned that the white world would come down hard on all the Dakota, not just the four men who'd been at Acton.
A lot of the young warriors said the Dakota should attack first -- enough is enough, let's drive the whites out, they argued.
But Little Crow wanted no part of that. He'd been to Washington D.C. In those days, the government liked to invite American Indian leaders to the capital to show them how powerful the new white man's country was.
LITTLE CROW - A RELUCTANT FIGHTER
Gwen Westerman, my traveling companion, is related to Little Crow, as I mentioned earlier. Her great-great-great-great grandmother was the chief's sister. She said Little Crow -- whose name in Dakota is Ta Oyate Duta -- was one of many Dakota trying to adjust to the white culture, and find a place in it.
"At this time, Ta Oyate Duta was living in a house and farming ... and going to church. Had cut his hair," she said. "He was trying to establish a homestead here because this is Dakota homeland. In the hopes, I think, of being able to stay here."
When the young men started calling for war, Little Crow was against it at first.
"'No. We can't fight. We have a responsibility to stay on this land and live,'" Gwen recounted. "He knew that if the Dakota went to war against the United States, that all of that effort would be lost."
Everyone argued about what to do. Little Crow made a speech that his son -- years later -- recited to a lawyer, who had it translated and written down.
Braves, you are like little children: you know not what you are doing. See! The white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one, two, 10; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one, two, 10, and 10 times 10 will come to kill you. Yes; they fight among themselves -- away off.
Little Crow was referring to the Civil War going on to the southeast.
Do you hear the thunder of their big guns? No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers as thick as tamaracks in the swamps of the Ojibways. Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children.
The young warriors call Little Crow a coward. His response:
Ta Oyate Duta is not a coward, and he is not a fool! When did he run away from his enemies? When did he leave his braves behind him on the warpath and turn back to his tepee? Braves, you are little children -- you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon.
Ta Oyate Duta is not a coward: he will die with you.
Many men in Little Crow's band, along with some from other Dakota bands, decided to go to war. Historian Mary Wingerd calls the fighters a group of rash young men. This is a crucial point that's often missed when the story of the conflict is told in Minnesota.
"It is a complete myth that all the Dakota people went to war against the United States," said Wingerd. "I have a little trouble with calling it a war, actually. I know that is the preferred terminology now, but they would get the idea that all the Dakota agreed they were going to go to war the way the United States would go to war. But in fact, of course that wasn't the case. It was a faction that went on the offensive, and many people, particularly the Sissetons and Wahpetons, were opposed and wanted no part of it."
Many men in those two bands did not fight. Over the coming weeks, the war and peace factions had angry debates and almost went to war with each other. Gwen Westerman says her own family was split, and she's not sure who did the right thing.
"One of my three-greats-grandfathers in 1862 was with Sweet Corn's band out on the prairie, hunting buffalo. Another one of my three-greats-grandfathers was Mazamani, who was killed at the Battle at Wood Lake," she said. "Another of my three-greats-grandfathers was Ishtakhaba, or Sleepy Eye, who didn't want to fight at all. The decisions that people made that allowed them to survive so that I could stand here today, you can't second-guess those."