Why “Our Children Are Dying With Hunger” in 1862

Eleven months ago, for the first time I publicly presented Thomas S. Williamson’s 1856 malnutrition paradigm, suggesting it supported Little Crow’s 1862 claim that Dakota children were “dying with hunger.” One month later I presented a shorter paper  on the same subject at the Northern Great Plains Conference in Mankato.

In between the two presentations, I made my final edits on the copy edited manuscript of A Thrilling Narrative and returned it to the University of Nebraska Press. When I got up to speak at the NGPHC and saw Gary Clayton Anderson in the audience, I thought, “Well, I may as well present this with confidence because it’s too late to change the book now!”

I was relieved these ideas were well-received last summer. And this year, now that people are reading the Historical Introduction to A Thrilling Narrative, I’ve been asked to present twice on Dakota hunger in 1862:

By way of introduction, this is the story I told at my August 21, 2011 presentation at the Pond House in Bloomington: “Why ‘Our Children Are Dying With Hunger’ in 1862.”


 When I was born in 1966, my mom and dad had just purchased their first house. Decorating your home with objects of your own making was the craze. You probably remember: driftwood lamps; macramé owls; hand-painted ash trays.

My dad loved wood working and in the spirit of the day, decided to craft something to commemorate my birth. This is the result. It hung on the wall of my room beside my bed for 18 years.

I was a teenager before it occurred to me that there is something seriously wrong with this picture. Do you see it?

That’s what struck me after a decade and half of staring: this Indian child is hunting a polar bear in a desert.

I took the picture down off my wall and carried it to my mother, who, the family story said, had painted the picture.

“Why in the world did you paint this as a polar bear?” I asked. “If this is a cactus, then this is a desert, right? Or maybe the plains? So how’d a polar bear get there? Shouldn’t this bear be an antelope or a buffalo?”

My mom laughed. “I didn’t really paint the picture,” she said. “When your dad brought it up from the shop, it was already painted. But he had saved the details for me –the black lines. Like I couldn’t imagine a sinister hunting scene hanging over your crib. So I gave the Indian child and the bear smiles, like they are playing. But he was already a polar bear. I just made him a happy polar bear.”

I think in collective memory, the story of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is something like my picture of a polar bear on the desert in the sixteen years this picture hung over my bed: so familiar we have a hard time imagining it any other way. Look at it again.

We tend to see what’s there. It is harder to see what’s missing–like the open space. New histories tend to embellish what we already understand: maybe change the bear’s expression, or perhaps even his color. But not change the bear into an antelope. That would be too unfamiliar.

But look at the reverse.  See how much of this composition is negative space? Big chunks of this picture are missing.

What if we stripped the paint off the Dakota War and reconsidered the polar bears in our deserts? We need to go back and fill in the missing pieces in order to begin seeing the grain of the wood before historians started shaping the story for our consumption.

That process of reconstructing the context of the Dakota War has preoccupied me for fifteen years. I am absorbed by what came before the war –the sheet of plywood from which the story has been carved: its context in Federal Indian policy, and in the nascent Indian Reform movement (embodied in the presence and work of the Dakota missionaries like the Ponds here at Oak Grove.)

Today I’d like us to consider a familiar stereotype: a Dakota child starving to death on the eve of the 1862 war, subsisting as Sarah Wakefield told us, on unripe berries and the pith of marsh grass. The little Indian boy in my picture, perhaps. Except he isn’t smiling; on August 17, 1862 there is no bear meat at hand.

I propose we peel off the paint, reconstruct the period context, and try to leave with a deeper understanding of the causes, the extent, and the effects of malnutrition on the Dakota Reservations 149 years ago.

Let’s start by considering the earliest and most authoritative statement on starving children, Little Crow’s letter to Henry Sibley on September 7, 1862. Then we’ll consider the historical context of Little Crow’s claim of fatal hunger. Next we’ll look at how modern research on malnutrition in developing countries helps us understand what we see in period sources. That will lead us back to reconsider Little Crow’s claim again in conclusion –I hope with new empathy for what the children of Dakota traditionalist may have been experiencing in 1862.

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