Dakota 38+2: How the largest mass hanging in the United States continues to impact the lives and health of Dakota people today.
On the morning of December 26th, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, under the orders of President Abraham Lincoln. They were hung from a scaffold specifically designed for the execution and killed in front of an estimated 4,000 people who lined the streets of Mankato to watch the hanging. Historical accounts document that the men held each other’s hands and sang a Dakota song in the moments leading up to their death.
The mass execution, the largest in United States history, resulted from the Dakota War of 1862. The war began over broken treaties by the U.S. government and settlers. The Dakota people had the vast majority of their homelands taken and were confined to an area that could no longer sustain them. Treaties promised annuity payments in exchange for ceding land, but by the summer of 1862, annuity payments had not been made and people began to starve. Conditions became dire as traders refused to sell credit to the Dakota. Trader Andre Myrick is famously quoted for saying, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.
On August 17th, 1862, four young Dakota warriors, who were desperate to feed their people and angry at the horrific living conditions and deception they had been subjected to, went in search of food and killed 5 white settlers, igniting the war. Over 500 settlers died; the number of Dakota killed was never counted. The actual war lasted only 37 days but would carry profound consequences that would forever alter the lives of generations of Dakota people.
Dakota leaders surrendered to Colonel Henry Sibley on September 26th, 1862, under the promise that only those who attacked settlers would be punished. Over 2,000 Dakota men were taken into custody, more than double the number that is estimated to have participated in the war.
Sibley promptly assembled a commission of military officers to begin trying Dakota men accused of participating in the war. The commission sentenced 303 Dakota to death and 16 to prison terms. The trials were fraught with injustices, conducted in a foreign language to the Dakota, and moved at a rapid pace, some lasting no more than five minutes.
President Lincoln had the ultimate say in the fate of the 303 men sentenced to death. Lincoln reviewed the trail transcripts approved 39 executions, though one was later suspended. Two Dakota leaders, Medicine Bottle and Shakopee, were later found and captured near the Canadian border. They were brought to Fort Snelling and hung there on November 11th, 1865.
Over 1,700 Dakota people, mostly women and children, who were not sentenced to death or prison were rounded up at the Lower Sioux Agency and forcibly marched to an internment camp at Fort Snelling. Along the way, Dakota people were attacked by mobs of violent Minnesotans, who threw stones and beat elders, women, and small children. The surviving Dakota spent the winter at Fort Snelling, where they suffered from exposure, disease, and brutal living conditions. An estimated 300 died while in the camp.
In the spring of 1863, Minnesota voided treaties with the Dakota and passed the Dakota Expulsion Act, a federal law that makes it illegal for Dakota to live in Minnesota. Although it is no longer enforced, the Dakota Expulsion Act has never been repealed.
The remaining Dakota men who has been convicted of war crimes were taken to Davenport Iowa, where they were imprisoned for three years before being exiled. Those who were interned at Fort Snelling were put on to steamboats and sent to a reservation in Crow Creek, South Dakota. The vast majority of Dakota still live in exile today, in places such as Nebraska and South Dakota. Many Dakota also fled and sought refuge in Canada.
The Lasting Impacts of 1862
My father, Melvin Lee Houston, lives in Nebraska, on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He and countless other Dakota people are still paying the price for the events of 1862 and continue to be impacted by the trauma inflicted upon our ancestors.
“When we were removed from Minnesota, our lives changed forever. Our ways of life, language, foods, and culture, all of that is place based and rooted in Minnesota. The trauma we experienced, and our exile continues to impact our lives – physically, mentally and spiritually to this day.”
Beginning in 1492, Native peoples have been subjected to extreme trauma, colonization, violence, and oppression that carry lasting impacts across generations. The cumulative emotional trauma that has been passed from one generation to the next is what researchers call “historical trauma.”
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota), describes historical trauma as, “collective and compounding emotional and psychiatric wounding over time, both over the life span and across generations.”
Mass execution, forcible relocation, and imprisonment in internment camps coupled with cultural genocide constitutes massive group trauma for the Dakota. This trauma is still playing out in the physical, mental, and emotional health of Dakota people today.
Dr. Nicole Redvers, ND, MPH, is a member of the Deninu K’ue First Nation and Assistant Professor at the University of North Dakota where she helped co-develop the first Indigenous Health PhD degree program in North America. According to Dr. Redvers, “the scientific literature tells us that trauma has deep effects on our bodies. Notably, an experience of trauma has the potential to alter how are genes are expressed and therefore can affect our disease risk patterns. This alteration in our gene expression has the potential to then be passed down through generations. This means that the trauma experienced by our ancestors still has the potential to affect the expression of our genes today.”
In order to examine the health needs of Dakota peoples, it is essential to understand how historical trauma from events such as the 1862 hanging and Dakota removal, along with U.S. government policies such as extermination, relocation, and boarding schools continue to impact health outcomes.
“Historical trauma in Indigenous communities is a complex state that demands more serious attention within the United States,” said Dr. Redvers. “In my opinion, historical trauma manifests in both direct outcomes as well as indirect outcomes. If we consider epigenetic effects, then there is the potential for seeing physiological changes that can have direct health outcomes. Additionally, we see indirect effects of historical trauma on health such as through substance use disorder, internalized oppression, and a breakdown of traditional ways of life. All of these indirect elements can then have stark impacts on health outcomes for our communities.”
Bringing Our Relatives Home
Many Dakota people are still actively involved in searching for the bodies of the 38+2 and repatriating culturally significant items that were stolen by settlers during the war. After the hanging, the bodies of the Dakota warriors hung from the scaffold on display before they were cut down and dumped in a shallow mass grave near the Minnesota River. By the next morning, almost all of the bodies had been dug up and stolen, mostly by doctors for use as medical cadavers and experimentation.
In 1998, the skull of Marpiya te najin (He Who Stands in the Clouds) also known as Cut Nose, one of the 38 hung, was returned to the Dakota by the Mayo Clinic. William Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, took Cut Nose’s body from the mass grave and used it to study and teach his children anatomy.
“That skull sat on display for over 100 years -it was used as a trophy of war. We also tracked down some of Cut Nose’s skin that was located in Michigan and that was returned,” said Melvin Lee. “We are still missing most of our relatives’ bodies. We believe that Shakopee is in Pennsylvania and Medicine Bottle was last seen in Saint Paul at an auction facility.”
The Mayo Clinic has since issued a formal apology and taken steps towards reparations and healing, but for many the trauma lives on. Franky Jackson, (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), works for the Prairie Island Indian Community as Compliance Officer for the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Program. Franky has been directly involved in the in the repatriation of items and body parts from 1862.
“When we’re dealing with repatriating items such as physical body parts or sacred items, it can be retraumatizing and take a physical toll on you,” said Franky. “The trauma from 1862 is ongoing and it lives on in our people today. There are many items out there from that time that still need to be brought home, from trophies of war such as the nooses used in the hanging, to bodies, and cultural items stolen. These need to be returned to our communities and dealt with appropriately,” he said.
Healing from Intergenerational Trauma
Dakota Nations are reclaiming community health and working to address the cycle of intergenerational trauma through cultural revitalization and culturally based health interventions. It is time for health care institutions to also do their part to appropriately recognize and address historical trauma. “Healthcare institutions are positioned well to ensure they are not complicit in the perpetuation of the intergenerational trauma of Indigenous Peoples,” said Dr. Redvers. “The first step healthcare institutions can take is to recognize and directly acknowledge the history of colonization, genocide, and trauma of Indigenous Peoples in this country. From smallpox blankets, to forced sterilization, to unethical medical research in the living as well as on the remains of our relatives, to structural racism and explicit and implicit bias, healthcare institutions can only begin to bridge trust and reconciliation efforts when truth is acknowledged.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has declared racism a public health crisis and continues an ongoing commitment to partner with communities across the state to address the root causes of racial and health inequities. There is no end point to this work, and it requires building trust, deep humility, and a lasting commitment to listen to communities most impacted by racism and historical trauma.
As Dakota people, we find strength in our identity, culture, and ancestors. “I’m proud to be a Dakota exile. Our ancestors fought and made sacrifices so that we could be here today. Their strength is still with us, and we carry that too, not just the pain and trauma,” said Melvin Lee. In order to achieve health equity, we need allies and institutions to recognize both the strength and self-determination of Indigenous peoples, along with the trauma we have endured that continues to be perpetuated today.