More Hidden History: Lincoln, the Dakota Executioner

Posted: February 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

Chris Mato Nunpaby Chris Mato Nunpa, PhD
retired Associate Professor of History at Southwest Minnesota State University and author of the upcoming (Sept. 2019) The Great Evil: Christianity, the Bible, and the Native American Genocide


Who is a hero? Who decides? Well, in practice, the victor decides. What happens if a descendant of the vanquished, perhaps, a person whose ancestors were enslaved, says, “No, So-And-So is not a hero. He owned slaves!” For example, George Washington is a hero in the eyes of most Euro-Americans. But Washington was a white supremacist, a racist, a murderer, a destroyer of entire Indigenous towns, and an owner of hundreds of slaves.

What is to be done? For the past 527 years, since the arrival of the western Europeans, the ancestors of U.S. Euro-Americans, nothing good has been done. For the past 243 years, the United States has been in existence, and nothing good has been done. The old saying applies: “After all is said and done, more is usually said than done.”

Indigenous Peoples have a lot of questions about who is now considered a “hero” in U.S. history. There are reasons for these questions. For example, white conquerors stole 3 billion acres of land, land which now comprises the continental U.S., from Indigenous peoples. Are these land-stealers  “heroes”? The Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. made 400-plus treaties with the conquerors, and the conquerors broke all of them. Are these treaty-breakers “heroes”? There were approximately 16 million people in what-was-to-become the U.S. around 1492. In 1900, four centuries later, there were only about 250,000 Native People left alive to be counted by the U.S. Bureau of Census, a 98.5% extermination rate. Who perpetrated this “extermination”? Who perpetrated this Genocide of the First Nations Peoples of the U.S.? Are these perpetrators of Genocide “heroes”?

The Great Evil front coverNow, we come to the question of Abraham Lincoln, “Honest Abe.” Why is Lincoln considered a hero by most U.S. Euro-Americans? Why is this man’s face on Mount Rushmore, degrading land sacred to not only the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota People, but also to other Native peoples? Why is there a Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC? Lincoln was the U.S President who guided the United States through the Civil War, a war fought primarily over the issue “Is it wrong to own human beings as slaves?”

A contributing possible reason is that Lincoln was kind and considerate to the soldiers of the Confederacy after the South was defeated. They were not punished, let alone hung, for being traitors. Another possible reason is that Lincoln made a great speech, the Gettysburg Address, a speech that has stood the test of time. Still another possible reason is that Lincoln was president as the nation, the U.S., was expanding, and he facilitated this process of expansion.

All of this explains why most Americans consider Lincoln a hero. But not all Americans do.

The Dakota People do not consider Abraham Lincoln a “hero”; they do not consider him an admirable man. One reason is that Lincoln was an “Indian fighter.” Whether he killed a lot of Native People, or whether he killed only a few, or whether he killed no Indigenous people makes no difference. It is the fact that he was complicit in massive land theft, an eventual three billion acres worth.

Right from the beginning, 527 years ago, what I call the “Great Evil,” began. Massive land theft was part of this “Great Evil.” The formation of the United States was part and parcel of this Evil. The original 13 colonies were formed from stolen lands and the killing of Natives. George Washington, and the other “founding fathers,” were already thinking of empire, which meant that they were intent on stealing Indigenous lands for their imperialistic agendas – land theft, land speculation, personal wealth, and power.

Richard Drinnon has a book titled Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating & Empire Building, which is about this dynamic of land stealing, hatred, and murder —  or, to put it more bluntly, the Genocide of the First Nations Peoples. The first, of the “Four Common Motives of Genocide,” developed by Frank Chalk and Kurt Johnassohn, in their History and Sociology of Genocide, is: “to eliminate groups of people who the perpetrators imagine are threats.” The “groups” to be “eliminated,” in this case, were the Indigenous Nations who were “imagined” to be “threats.” The “perpetrators” were the United States of America and its Euro-American citizenry.

One truth that seems to be extremely difficult for Euro-Americans to grasp is that the “settlers” weren’t “settling” anything: they were stealing Indigenous lands. Further, the Native Peoples who resisted this land-theft were fighting just as anyone would do to defend their land against thieves. I think if white people would put themselves in the same position as the Indigenous Peoples were, perhaps they might understand this basic truth. And they might also understand that Abraham Lincoln was in league with the land thieves.

Another reason why many Dakota/Lakota/Nakota, and other Indigenous Peoples, may not consider Abraham Lincoln a hero is the fact that his face, among others, desecrates lands considered sacred by First Nations Peoples. Most Native Peoples, if not all, believe in the concept of “Mother Earth.” For the Oyate, the “People” (Dakota/Lakota/Nakota), this would be Ina Maka, “Mother Earth,” and/or “Unci Maka,” Grandmother Earth.” The physical land represents the spiritual being, Ina Maka, and is, therefore, sacred. Yet, the faces of Lincoln, along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt, deface and desecrate what is called Mt. Rushmore, the Shrine to Democracy. For most Native Peoples, this “shrine” is a farce. The men whose faces desecrate Mt. Rushmore are murderers of First Nations Peoples.

The third, and last, reason (at least, for this writing) why Dakota People do not consider Abraham Lincoln a hero is that he signed the order for the largest mass hanging in U.S. history: the hanging of 38 Dakota patriots on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota. These men ought to have been treated as prisoners of war, not as war criminals. The Dakota had declared war, and had given their declaration to Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley, respectively the Minnesota territorial governor and the territory’s delegate to the U.S. Congress. The Dakota had intended to drive the conquerors out of the Minnesota River Valley, and out of Dakota homelands. This is what the Dakota were faced with: on September 8, 1862, Ramsey had said, “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of Minnesota.” (“Sioux” not incidentally is a disrespectful term that means “snake.”)

What transpired on the fateful day, December 26, 1862, was “legalized murder,” according to Roy Meyer (a white man), and a “military injustice,” according to a female law professor (also, white) at the University of Minnesota, Carol Chomsky. However, because of the blood lust and racial hatred of the Euro-Minnesotans, Lincoln made a political decision: instead of hanging all of the captured Dakota men, who had been tried in a military kangaroo court, he decided to hang only 38 of them.

This is why the Dakota People of Minnesota consider Lincoln “The Dakota Executioner.” Lincoln is on the U.S. five-dollar Bill. Every time a Dakota person spends a five-dollar bill, s/he is reminded of what happened 157 years ago in Mankato, Minnesota, a site of Genocide. Lincoln is a hero neither to the Dakota People of Minnesota, nor to those Dakota People who were forcibly removed, “ethnically cleansed,” from Dakota homelands on May 4, 1863 and who now reside in other states and in several provinces of Canada.

Some remember Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. He should also be remembered as the Dakota Executioner.


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