For two hundred years the Dakota and whites lived side by side among what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of animals to hunt and trap. This and the fur trade helped bridge the cultural gap, but two separate and distinct views of the world they lived in was a stern reality.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
No Dakota Soldiers for Lincoln
“What was frontier to whites, the expanding edge of possibility, was to the Dakota just the opposite: the center of their world, growing smaller. Farms that signaled civilization to settlers were to many Dakotas, even to some who kept small acreages, a tool designed to fence them in, the symbol of a permanent halt to centuries of seasonal migration.
White churches brought a message of peace but were unable to absorb other beliefs, always suspicious and dismissive of the complex polytheism of the Dakota spirit world. Whites wrote everything down, mesmerized by tables of numbers; Dakotas lived by a language of spoken tales, remembered and repeated across hundreds of years.
Most of all, whites loved hierarchy, each man occupying a rung on the ladder that eventually rose to a single individual in the White House, while Dakotas operated within a shifting, dispersed power structure that defined leadership as the ability to guide a village, band, or tribe toward consensus.
Minnesota was still an infant State, only four years old but brimming over with belief in Manifest Destiny, living an irony typical of the western experience: the only true “Minnesotans” in 1862, the people who had been there first, the people whose language had given the place its name, didn’t care what it was called, where it began or ended, or how it had been made into a State.
For more than a year, white men had been killing other white men far to the south and east. A few Indian agency employees had offered to raise companies of Dakota soldiers for the Union army, but these offered had been quickly rejected at the State capital.
Many [Dakota] wondered why President Lincoln had already issued three calls for volunteer soldiers . . . unless a great many Minnesotans had already been killed. “The whites must be pretty hard up for men to fight the South,” said Big Eagle, “or they would not come so far out on the frontier and take half-breeds or anything to help them.”
(38 Nooses, Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Scott W. Berg, Pantheon Books, 2012, pp. 9-10)