Remembering the martyrs of Mankato

Remembering the 150th anniversary of the execution of 38 Santee Sioux in Mankato, Minnesota.

Unity Riders arrived yesterday at the place where 38 Santee Sioux – or Dakota – men were hung by orders of President Abraham Lincoln on December 26, 1852.

Yesterday’s event commemorated the 150th anniversary of the largest one-day execution in American history. It is a date etched in the memory of the Dakota and other American Indians.

On December 26, 1862, the day after Christmas, 38 Dakota men and two others were executed. The hangings were the result of the Dakota War of 1862, which was to end of the Dakota people from living in the state of Minnesota. President Abraham Lincoln, the freer of the slaves ironically, ordered their executions.

Some 60 riders on horseback, known as Unity Riders, were there to remember the 38 Dakota men. They were to be joined by several hundred people walking to the site today to commemorate the event. The riders range in age from four year olds to one man who is 77 year old, Chet Eagleman.

Last year, Robert Two-Bulls wrote in the Cafe’s Art Blog about a work commemorating this event “Thirty-Eight Tears of Bishop Whipple.

Having a B.S. in American History, with a special focus on the socio-political history of my Oyate the Oglala Lakota and Native American history, I have always known about this tragic story in America; one that is, sadly enough, rarely told or quietly forgotten. When I was invited to be part of this show I knew exactly what I wanted to create and how to portray this story. I remember reading once that executions were presented as a public spectacle, having a circus-like atmosphere. It is true that from the wild-west hangings to the lynchings of black Americans, executions were a cheap form of entertainment. In the case of the 38 hangings, we might consider it the modern-day equivalent of the blockbuster. To put to death all 38 in unison is still mind-boggling, frightening, and is probably a world-record.

I have found that the role of the Episcopal Church in this story is largely left out today for reasons I have not yet explored adequately. As an Episcopal Priest and a fourth-generation Episcopalian, I could not leave the church out. I chose to use my image of the first Bishop of Minnesota, Henry Benjamin Whipple. He is a major figure in church history and was a huge player in Minnesota history. The terrible treatment of the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples by the federal government and settlers culminating in the war, and followed by the executions had affected Whipple and I believe defined the rest of his ministry. I asked the questions: “What was his role?” “Was he a hero or a villain?” Should we consider him culpable in the executions or was he a saint? He had a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln asking him to right the wrongs committed against the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples. Lincoln reviewed the evidence and reduced the number of the condemned from 303 to 38. As a man of the cloth, should Bishop Whipple have lobbied harder with Lincoln to have all 303 sentences commuted? I wonder if he could have tried harder. It may surprise many to learn that of the 38 executed, 37 were baptized (some by the Episcopal Church). And contrary to popular belief, as they walked to the gallows they sang a Christian hymn in the Dakota language and not a “death song.” Might we now consider them to be Christian Martyrs and Saints?

I titled the painting The 38 Tears of Bishop Whipple. The miniature nooses on the painting are real and are adhered to the canvas. The nooses form drops and were highlighted by adding a bit light blue to enhance the notion of tears. Once, I was asked by someone how I felt while I made the nooses. There is one thing I couldn’t imagine and that is what the person or persons were thinking when they tied the 38 nooses for the actual hangings. Were they elated? Were they paid or was it voluntary? Was there a feeling of sweet vengeance? I could only guess, but my own feelings ebbed and flowed with both disgust and horror.

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