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In a series of treaties between 1837 and 1858, the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota were forced to cede all their lands. They were confined to a small reservation on either side of the Minnesota River, where whites encouraged them to be farmers. A crop failure in 1861 led to widespread hunger among the people. Federal Indian agents were late with the annuity payments that would have allowed them to buy food, and traders refused to extend them credit.
During the summer of 1862, conditions worsened. The young men favored an uprising, convinced that the American Civil War would distract the U.S. government from responding. Dakota chief Taoyateduta, or Little Crow (c. 1810–1863), knew the uprising was futile, but he nonetheless agreed to lead the men. This is the speech he delivered to the warriors, as recorded by his son.
Though initially successful, the Sioux Uprising was finally put down by an army of volunteers, and the insurgents were tried by a military tribunal. Trials lasted as little as five minutes. The tribunal sentenced 303 Sioux to death.
President Lincoln intervened and assigned clerks to review all the tribunal proceedings. Ultimately, thirty-eight were sentenced to hang. On the day after Christmas 1862, they were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Though Little Crow escaped capture at the end of the uprising, he was shot and killed by a farmer on July 3, 1863. The Sioux Uprising became known as Little Crow’s War
Little Crow, Speech to a War Council, in Hanford Lennox Gordon, The Feast of the Virgins and Other Poems (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1891), 343–344, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Feast_of_the_Virgins_and_Other_Poems/-DrOAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0.
Taoyateduta 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? When he ran away from your enemies, he walked behind on your trail with his face to the Ojibways1 and covered your backs as a she-bear covers her cubs! Is Taoyateduta without scalps? Look at his war feathers! Behold the scalp locks of your enemies hanging there on his lodgepoles! Do they call him a coward? Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children: you know not what you are doing.
You are full of the white man’s devil water. You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffalo left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. 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—ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one—two—ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.
Yes; they fight among themselves—away off. 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 tamaracks2 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 just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day. You are fools. You cannot see the face of your chief; your eyes are full of smoke. You cannot hear his voice; your ears are full of roaring waters. Braves, you are little children—you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon (January). Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.