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On "A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862"

A Note on the Sioux Rebellion of 1862-1863

[Though there were many sources of local history that could have informed Wright of the so-called "Sioux Rebellion" it seems likely, given the time when the poem was written, that he may have learned details of the story from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). The synopsis that follows is based on the narrative as Brown relates it.]

The uprising occurred in south central Minnesota, in the area along the Minnesota River, in a narrow2 strip of land into which the Santee Sioux had been crowded through a series of treaties that have been described by scholars as "deceptive." The area was the easternmost border of the Sioux nation, and thus it represented one more region that had come to be coveted by settlers arriving from the east and from Europe. As in the Black Hawk wars some thirty years earlier and some three hundred miles southeast (in upper Illinois and lower Wisconsin), once the "rebels" were pacified, the land would be open for seizure and cultivation.

Little Crow (his Mdewkanton tribal name, Tshe-ton Wa-ka-wa Ma-ni, has been translated as "The Hawk That Hunts Walking") was the somewhat reluctant 60-year old leader of a group that had been radicalized when government annuities promised under the treaty agreement had failed to arrive on schedule, and bureaucrats refused to make available on credit provisions that had been sent to warehouses for sale to Indians. With tribal lands reduced by ninety percent, the Sioux had lost hunting privileges and had become dependent on supplementary food; the threat of starvation was real. Since this was July 1862, the disruptions of the Civil War no doubt complicated all governmental transactions. But the confrontation exacerbated racial tensions between natives and colonizers. One trader, Andrew Myrick, told Little Crow that if the Indians were hungry, they should "eat grass or their own dung."

Shortly thereafter, in an unrelated incident, four young Sioux braves, hunting near their tribal lands at night, had fallen into a disagreement over whether to steal eggs from a settler’s farm. When one brave accused another of cowardice for refusing to steal, he met the challenge by invading the household and chasing the owner to another farm, then slaughtering the occupants, three men and two women. This incident would clearly have major repercussions, and while some Indian leaders counseled peace, the majority believed that a confrontation seemed now inevitable. Little Crow agreed to serve as their leader. Next day a band of Sioux attacked the agency and captured ten women and children and killed twenty, among them the trader who had insulted them earlier. "Myrick is eating grass himself," the Sioux were reported as saying.

Sioux forces under Little Crow attacked Fort Ridgely near New Ulm, Minnesota, throughout the rest of August but without success. Meanwhile, a contingent of soldiers – 1400 men from the 6th Minnesota Regiment – arrived in September, under the leadership of Colonel Henry Sibley, a trader himself who had earlier insisted that the Sioux owed him $145,000 (out of the $475,000 the government had offered the tribe). After mediation by a negotiator, Alexander Rsmsey, who was now governor of Minnesota, this claim had been accepted, along with the claims of many others, which meant that the Sioux had seen their original monetary settlement much diminished by prior claims of settlers.

Col. Sibley and Little Crow exchanged messages in early September, hoping to end the bloodshed, but the negotiation was undercut by another tribal leader, Wabasha, attempting to open his own lines of communication with the soldiers. The Sioux were now split, and Little Crow, with his contingent, headed westward. Under a flag of truce, Sibley entered the Santee camp on September 26 to take delivery of captives, but also announced the natives should consider themselves prisoners of war. A military tribunal decided to sentence 303 of the Sioux to death by hanging. When Sibley asked for authority to execute this group from his commander, General John Pope, Pope passed the request along for processing to the President, assuring the governor that "The Sioux prisoners will be executed unless the President forbids it, which I am sure he will not do."

But Lincoln refused to authorize the execution. No doubt mindful of the moral issues that would surface after the Civil War, he turned the trial records over two lawyers whose task was to distinguish between those who had led a rebellion and those who had been soldiers following the orders of their superiors. His decision was not well-received. Those who bore the brunt of local anger appeared to be the 1700 Santee who had been declared "prisoners of war." The majority were women and children; they were transferred to a military fort until the decision of the Washington lawyers.

The lawyers ultimately concluded that thirty-eight Sioux braves were guilty. They were hanged in a mass execution on the day after Christmas in 1862.

A disadvantage of such long-distance analysis was that errors could be made. Among the natives who were hanged were several who insisted they had not been leaders of the rebellion and had indeed helped settlers escape. One of the Indians sentenced to a prison term had in fact admitted to a leadership role. These were not all the errors made, moreover: of the thirty-eight who were hanged, two had been erroneously executed – their names were not among the condemned.

Little Crow and his followers had, in the meanwhile, retreated to various locations in the west and the north, at one point attempting to secure cooperation from the British. Little Crow’s grandfather had been allied with the British in the War of 1812. But he and a remnant of his band returned to their tribal grounds in the summer of 1863. With his sixteen year old son, Little Crow was picking raspberries near Hutchinson, Minnesota, when settlers shot at him. The Governor of Minnesota had placed a bounty of $25 on the head of all Sioux Indians.

Little Crow died, his son later explained, almost at once. His son was later captured and sentenced to die, but military authorities commuted his sentence to a period of imprisonment. Little Crow’s scalp and skull was, at one time, on display in St. Paul. And those who had shot him were presented with a $500 bonus.

After this rebellion, the treaties with this branch of the Sioux were declared null and void, and remnants of the tribe were relocated to a new reservation far in the west by the Missouri River.

from James Seay, "James Wright’s Collected Poems" (originally a review in Georgia Review in 1973), now rep. in Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982), p. 118-120, and Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, eds. James Wright: The Heart of the Light (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1990), pp. 25-252

Another related theme [evident in these collected volumes] has to do with Wright’s compassion for what [W. H.] Auden, in his foreword to the first edition of The Green Wall, called "social outsiders" – criminals, prostitutes, drunks and social outcasts in general. …

A similar empathy is found in Wright’s poem dedicated to the criminal Caryl Chessman, "American Twilights, 1957," and again the subsuming vision is one man’s aloneness. …

In the new poems the focus of his attention in this particular thematic context has widened to include blacks and Indians. There is, however, a slight shift in his attitude in the new work. He seems less willing to give himself over so totally and subjectively to history’s victims. "I had nothing to do with it. I was not here. / I was not born," he says in the opening of "A Centenary Ode …," but at the end of the opening section we see his tone is actually half-ironic: "it was not my fathers / Who murdered you. / Not much." His admission, "If only I knew where to mourn you, / I would surely mourn," brings the tone of the poem closer to that of previous work, but still there is a general distancing in this and in other new poems that was not always evident in the past. This tonal variation is consistent with the overall extension of stylistic range which I noted earlier in my discussion of the technical aspects of his new work. (In fact, in the new poems Wright has even found room for humor, which is a rarity in his work – one poem consists merely of the title: In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems" at the top of a blank page. It reveals a quality one has always suspected in Wright but never had proof of.)

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