S2 E5: Little War on the Prairie

April 12, 2017

Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen heard next to nothing about the town’s most important historical event. In 1862, Mankato was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history – the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors – following one of the major wars between Plains Indians and settlers. In this documentary, originally produced for This American Life, John goes back to Minnesota to explore what happened, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it afterwards.



Image: The Minnesota State Seal, 1858

Download a transcript of the episode.

Key sources for this episode:
Gwen Westerman, Mni Sota Makoce
Mary Wingerd, North Country: The Making of Minnesota

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30 comments on “S2 E5: Little War on the Prairie

  1. I’m trying find the beginning. I was just intoduced to “Seeing White,” and would like to start from the 1st one. I just clicked on #2–thought I was gettin Part 2, instead up pops Episode 35, Part 5. I’ll keep exploring to find sequences in order.

  2. Margaret Nelson Nov 11, 2017

    Thank you for this series and especially this episode. I am so glad to hear of this opportunity to be educated on race. I work with a group of Native Americans. I am of Norwegian descent, so I don’t have a real grasp on the history or culture and this helped immensely. I am aware of the genocide of tribes including the attempt to wipe out their culture through boarding schools. There is so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

    • scott morrison Aug 1, 2020

      Margaret, I am an educator in the D.C./Baltimore area and grew up in Nashville, TN. I have a smattering of Cherokee blood in me (as in if i’d cough it might ‘fall out’ as they say). But if you want to learn WAY more about how we Americans have absolutely destroyed the American Indian’s culture…to a man…then you should watch the PBS series called “How the West Was Lost” that came out a few years ago. It used to be up on Netflix about a year or so ago, but I think you can ‘rent it’ on Youtube.

  3. That 3rd grade teachers telling her students that Native Americans didn’t know how to resolve conflicts by any means other than fighting is tantamount to calling the Dakota savages. Hearing a 3rd grade teacher say that was an absolute gut punch, I hope she uses this series to re-inform her teaching and give her a better understanding of the influence she has to create racist biases in young people. If not, I hope she finds a new job.

    • I so agree with Russ. Along with Officers of the Law, teachers need to be aware of their implicit biases and know how to override them. And like medical doctors, their first charge should be “do no harm”.

    • Elizabeth Tigan Jun 28, 2020

      I also wondered about the teacher here, I hope someone helps guide her gently to a better understanding. Her voice grated my nerves with it’s condescension, but the words she said terrified me because of how they would be received by thirsty 3rd grade ears.

    • scott morrison Aug 1, 2020

      Russ, I felt the same way. Unfortunately, this was NOT a surprise to me. I have heard many white people talk about American Indians and their culture in this manner. I am going to recommend the same series as I did to Margret, above, because it talks about how we whites performed an amazing historical ‘flip’ on our history buy portraying the white settlers as the ‘victims’ of unwarranted Indian hostility. I can recall this kind of ‘history’ being fed to me in TN as a kid AND seeing it in pop-culture on TV and the movies in both TN and the D.C. region growing up during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
      A perfect example of this kind of goofiness is that famous ‘Indian’ actor named Iron Eyes Cody who shed a single tear as he glanced upon the litter that white Americans were leaving on his land back in the 70’s. I grew up with this stereotype in my mind. Well, come to find out that “Iron Eyes” Cody is WHITE!!!! He is actually an Italian American named Espera de Corti and the ad culturally appropriates a standard stereotype of what an American Indian ought to “look like” and worse, it displays him as absolutely powerless to stop the very act of littering that causes him to cry. It’s high time we stop propagating these false tales as ‘history’ and start dealing with the real story.
      Many thanks to the producers and host for this podcast! It is an excellent piece of work! 🙂

  4. Curious if you sent the third grade teacher a copy of the show to listen to…

  5. Solange Cote Aug 1, 2018

    What a roller coaster of emotions. I wept, felt rage, sadness, and shame. The most pressing thought: “who does this to other human beings”. It is beyond my understanding. Thanks for the reality check.

  6. Maria Jan 22, 2020

    Just- thank you!

  7. Logan Jan 28, 2020

    Was Sarah Wakefield not taken in by Chaska (Wechankwastadonpe) and not Little Crow? In her writings “If it had not been for Chaska my bones would now be bleaching on the prairie, and my children with Little Crow.”. I’m confused.

  8. Muoi Sau Apr 13, 2020

    Very interesting! Thank you!

  9. Brian K Freeland May 22, 2020

    Excellent truthful historical account.

  10. Sandra Hansen Jun 6, 2020

    Great series. Sobering facts.

  11. Diane Jun 6, 2020

    I grew up in Trenton, Michigan, south of Detroit, there was a road near my house named Sibley, I had no idea of this history.

  12. Sarah Pallas Jun 14, 2020

    I went to Mpls area public schools and had 6th grade Minnesota History in about 1965. This is more or less the story we got, even to the grass in the mouth incident. The Dakota (Sioux) were painted in a negative light and labeled savages (a label my classmates mostly rejected), but it was made clear to us that the Indians were being deliberately cheated and starved by the US government and had little recourse.

  13. Mike Sperl Jun 20, 2020

    Incredible! Growing up in Minnesota and going to college at GAC, never knew, or heard of this. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Wanda Kirkpatrick Jul 9, 2020

    Can you give me the name of someone to give me more information on the Minnesota flag. I have a friend that doesn’t believe and can’t find and collaboration to discuss the Indians position on the flag. Thanks

  15. This was incredible. I cannot even comprehend how horrific my White heritage is. The more I learn, the more disgusted I become. This history HAS to become common knowledge. Thank you so much for this series.

  16. Powerful. Wish you included how Episcopal Bishop Whipple of Faribault Cathedral (first cathedral in America) intervened with Lincoln, so 38 were hanged, not 300. The Dakota called him Straight Tongue. A small antidote to the thieving corrupt murderous behavior of so many settlers.
    Excellent series. Thank you.

    • Randy Buist Aug 30, 2020

      Do you have any specific book/sources on this conflict that you recommend? I find this historical conflict and all that surrounds it so interesting — and disheartening.

  17. Randy Buist Aug 30, 2020

    Listened to this episode for the 4th time yesterday. Is slays my insides, and yet it’s so important. It is heartbreaking to know that our government stole so much from the Dakota Indians. As a white male, I am grieved.

  18. Karen Eames Sep 5, 2020

    I thought I had heard and/or read the most horrid histories of this country’s treatment of the native peoples. This history of the Dakotas was totally new to me and equally shocking and disturbing.

    This series needs to be taught in every high school in the US At 70 and a person with a BA in cultural anthropology I am deeply saddened to only be learning this racist history of our country and the myths we have been taught of our founding fathers and other supposed heroes of our nation.

    We have so much to do and our young people will have to be the ones to do list of it – generations will be needed to turn this around.

  19. Cliff Oct 12, 2020

    This site, which was given to Patricia in 2017, does NOT contain Season 1. It only begins with Season 2.

    Where can I find all of Season 1 parts???

  20. Stacey Thaw Oct 19, 2020

    I just started listening to this podcast at the request of a friend. Our founders were men of their times and who were most definitely not perfect. No man is. We are all human and flawed. The words in the Declaration of Independence were aspirational and have allowed us to make great strides in treating all men (and women of course) as equals. We are all created in the image of G-d, and we are all capable of tremendous good, as well as tremendous evil. Why can’t we focus on the accomplishments and the achievements of our country rather than focusing on our past sins? How can we move forward if we are always looking back?

  21. David Reich Nov 5, 2020

    Thank you for laying out this not widely known history of the Dakota War. I wasn’t aware of it. In fact, isn’t that the point for whites? I bought the white version of the history of Native Americans until college, and have been empathetic for Native Americans since. But your project has made me aware that this isn’t enough. Action needs to be taken for the responsibility to be identified and the healing to take place. The Dakota woman and professor’s reaction to the welcoming back of the Dakota to Minnesota is a clue to our path. She and her tribal ancestors were finally recognized for their great loss and the responsibility (not the blame, but the part of the white settlers and all the way up to Abraham Lincoln who approved the execution order). Here, the current Minnesota governor made the amends. This type of reconciliation goes a long way. It has to be made by all of us, including the top white leaders.

  22. Therese Nov 21, 2020

    I am curious at to whether the grade school teacher who was part of this interview later listened to the program and realized how under informed she was with regard to the history ?

    I hope so