Recently, the New York Times ran an article about a mass execution of members of the Dakota tribe 150 years ago. Thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hung for their loyalty to their leader, Little Crow. The men were accused of killing approximately 490 settlers, including women and children, in Minnesota. The reason for the recent opening of the case is because one of the men was wrongfully executed. According to historians, President Abraham Lincoln pardoned the Indian known as Chaska because soldiers “simply grabbed the wrong guy”. As the 150th anniversary of the execution approaches, the case is being reexamined, with plans for museum exhibits, symposiums, monument dedications and even a symphony to bring attention to this man’s wrongful death. Supporters are calling for a federal pardon to right this historical wrong.
Evidence shows that the Dakota were near starvation due to lack of food and resources as a result of broken peace treaties with the settlers. The tribe attacked and 303 Dakota were sentenced to death. However, President Lincoln noted a lack of evidence in the trials and reduced the number to 38. Chaska was mistook for another Dakota, Chaskey-Don and put on the execution list. Although this may have been the case, Chaska was also rumored to have taken a white woman and her children prisoner. Oddly, when questioned about her captor, the woman defended Chaska and there was rumor that the two were in love.
This evidence is particularly important, even today. Although as a society we have made large strides in accepting interracial marriage, this fact may hold the government back from issuing Chaska’s pardon because it was still a serious crime against the settlers during this time in history. Ironically, Native Americans have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage today.
I was greatly surprised to find this article and the attention that Chaska’s case is being paid after all this time. Although it is impossible to change the past and near impossible to correct wrongdoings from 150 years ago, a simple gesture such as a federal pardon for an innocent man is feasible. Talks of holding the government responsible for hundred year old treaties over land would be very impractical today. While the government should recognize their wrongdoing, by taking back land with the purpose of redistributing it to the “rightful” owners would simply repeat history and create more problems then it solved. The government should take this small opportunity to acknowledge a previous wrongdoing which would, as a local Dakota leader put it, it would “shine a light and be a step in the right direction”.