The Mendota

The man pictured above, Private Merton R. Johnson, KIA Korea, 1952, was part of the diaspora caused by the 1862 Dakota War. He was one of the lost sons of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota, a remarkable community based since historical times in Mendota, Minnesota.

So I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about the post a few days ago; many of you seem to think I should write a book based upon the red thread that winds through this ancient town, M’dote.

Ancient, some of my European readers may say. Yes, truly ancient in any sense of the word. M’dote was used since time out of mind by the Sioux nation as a meeting area, where the seven council fires of the Lakota and Dakota peoples would meet.

It was an easy to find and agreeable location, the spot where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers ran together. In historical times the game was abundant, the fishing was good. It was an excellent spot to meet.

The trouble started in the late seventeen hundreds. Now, the Dakota could not be described as a peaceful people; they had a long warrior tradition. When the white man first came to M’dote, they were engaged in fighting with the Obijwe people. The Obijwe, or Chippewa, were trying to move west in response to whites moving onto their lands. It was understandable, but the Dakota weren’t cool with it.

In fact, the sub-tribe that lived in M’dote, the Mdewakanton, were known as the “keepers of the Eastern Gate,” so warfare with the Obijwe was inevitable.

The first whites to arrive were the French; they assimilated into the tribe and intermarried.

The Americans were different. They set up a fort in the early eighteen hundreds and sought to make peace between The Dakota and Obijwe. They were mostly successful, but they didn’t arrange the peace out of the goodness of their own hearts. No, they wanted the land.

As the years passed, there were a series of treaties signed, each was broken in turn.

The settlers from the east, first hundreds, then thousands, built homes and fences upon the land of the Dakota. The sacred bison was hunted out, along with the other large game. The natives were pressed into an ever-dwindling space, and eventually they ran out of food.

The promised annuities, payment for their lost lands, were withheld by unscrupulous US Government officials. The Dakota were out of options. No food, no money, and now no land.

They fought. Many were killed, innocent and guilty.

It was the United States’ version of Bosnia-Herzegovina, internecine brutal warfare that pitted brother against brother and whites versus the natives.

Placed against the vicious bloodbath of the US Civil War, casualties were relatively light compared to fights such as Antietam back east.

However, the trauma of the burning, the raids and reprisals, the executions and bounties, and finally the concentration camps, lasted nearly one hundred years.

The Dakota were crushed by the US Army. The Mendota Mdewakanton fought on both sides; as with any civil war feelings ran high and people were forced by circumstance to make fateful choices. Whether the decisions were right or wrong I will not say; having served in combat, I can imagine that many later regretted the choices they made during that terrible August of 1862.

The war ended. Those of Native blood were herded into camps, hundreds died of neglect, exposure and disease.

The execution of 38 Dakota fighters on a specially made gallows capped off the whole miserable exercise.

Most Dakota were expelled from Minnesota, except a couple of hundred who were allowed to stay. These few were perceived to have helped the whites, or they had stayed neutral.

They had to keep their heads down, though, and they couldn’t stray outside of their little community in Mendota or they were liable to be scalped.

Scalped. In other words, legally killed, and a chunk of their head with hair attached turned in for a bounty paid in gold. Gold paid by the government of Minnesota, officially.

No dignity was afforded the losers of the war; the hatred was extended to those who served with the whites. All were guilty by reason of blood. For decades, the poisonous apartheid, the treatment of the Mendota as second or third class citizens held.

Some returned from further West, after the final defeat of the Sioux at the bloody and shameful Wounded Knee. The locals intermarried with their old enemy, the Obijwe. Their customs and language were forbidden by law. Their children were shipped off to special schools for Natives; a saying went that “you had to kill the Indian to save the man.”

Many fled to other parts of the country. Places so far removed from Minnesota that they could start anew. They could hide their heritage, forget the past. These descendants grew up in a world where in a game of “Cowboys and Indians” the Indian was always assumed to be the bad guy; where it was better to lie about your heritage than to admit the truth.

But even these forgotten descendants of that fierce warrior folk, the Dakota, held to their tradition.

They did not shy from a fight. Where the United States fought- they waged war with distinction and valor.

But the diaspora never really forgot their Minnesota roots. Their warrior tradition.

The Mendota who stayed toughed out the bad decades, the prejudice, the official and unofficial racism. They stayed cohesive; they did their best to maintain the old ways.

In 1934, the US Government finally allowed the Natives to speak their own language and follow their own customs.

Nice of them, really.

As the years went on, the old hate died along with the generation that fought the Indian Wars. Finally, no one remembered. The skull of Little Crow, the war chief of the Dakota during the 1862 War, was finally returned to his family.

It had been displayed as a grisly public trophy for over one hundred years.

One hundred years.

In the nineteen nineties, the Mendota came together and decided to formalize their long tradition- they were a tribe, it was past time to reorganize and commemorate the old family and tribal bonds. The survivors in Mendota formed the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community, and they opened membership to those who were descended from the tribe, wherever life might find them.

Fast forward to the present day. The Mendota look forward to holding the annual wacipi, or “pow-wow” after the dreadful 2020, and they continue to celebrate life and the turning of the great wheel.

I found this community by fate, I suppose, and I have uncovered their amazing story over the past several months.

These scrappy and courageous people want nothing other than to honor their ancestors and keep their traditions alive. I think that they are a worthy cause and put my money where my mouth is.

It would be an honor to write a book based upon their story.

But not yet. First I have a mountain of other stuff to do. Also, to write the story I have to visit distant Minnesota, I need to walk the banks of the Mississippi. I need to see where the battles were fought, I need to visit with the tribe. In short, the human touch is vital in this most human of stories.

I plan on visiting Mendota for my first ever wacipi this September.

The Mendota. A remarkable people; a fantastic and true story.

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