Part five in a seven-part series on European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display by Zabelle Stodola, professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The series begins here.
Part 5: Sarah Wakefield’s Story
The Minnesota Historical Society is currently in the final stages of assembling its Dakota War of 1862 exhibit, but one item that will not be included is a famous hangman’s noose. It is said to be the actual noose used to hang Chaska (We-chank-wash-to-don-pee), a Dakota man who protected captive Sarah Wakefield and her two children during the six-week war.[i] Chaska was not on the final execution list, nor was another man named Wasicun; neither should have been hanged. A soldier on duty that day said he stole Chaska’s noose and the attached length of rope and kept them for seven years before donating it to the Minnesota Historical Society.[ii]
Shortly after the execution and theft, Sarah Wakefield was outraged when she learned that her protector had been killed. She wrote a captivity narrative titled Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees partly to exonerate him and partly to explain her sympathy for Dakota people (something that seemed misplaced to most of her contemporaries).[iii] Recently, the Minnesota History Center invited Sandee Geshick, who is Dakota, to view artifacts being considered for potential display in the exhibit. When someone asked her how she felt when she saw the noose, she replied, “Well, how would you like to see an ax that your mother was bludgeoned with?”[iv]
In the last two installments, Zabelle begins to pull together the themes connecting these objects and their museum-owners’ dilemmas about public display. A PDF of the full article will be linked in Part 7. CRZ
Notes to Part 5
[i] For an excellent overview of Wakefield’s story and the noose controversy see Curt Brown, “150 Years Later War’s Wounds Still Cut Deep,” Minneapolis Star Tribune (29 January 2012), available at http://www.startribune.com/local/138264074.html?page=2&c=y.
[ii] For a further discussion of the evidence surrounding the noose and other US-Dakota War artifacts, see Carrie Reber Zeman, “A Veiled Cabinet of Curiosities: A Preliminary Report on Minnesota’s 1862 Gallows Artifacts,” 26 April 2012, available at https://athrillingnarrative.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/execution-artifacts-report.pdf.
[iii] See Derounian-Stodola, War in Words, 65-76. Thank goodness, one item that I have not seen mentioned of late as a possible exhibit item is a watch chain woven from one of Chaska’s braids that John F. Meagher cut off after the execution. He donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1887. I discuss this atrocity on pages 72 and 73 of The War in Words. Zeman’s report “A Veiled Cabinet of Curiosities” (see above) discusses the watch fob at length and indicates that it has not been seen since the 1920s.
[iv] Quoted in Scott, “The No-Win War.”