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Dakota War: She would tell us to draw strength from what they suffered

Shirley Greising and Betty Smith, both of Rochester, and Pam Delk, of Manassas, Va., provided these excerpts from a story by their cousin, Kathryn Akipa, who lives near Sisseton, S.D. The narrative, written in June 2006, is entitled, "A Memory Walk: A Family Story of a Young Woman's International Escape to Safety from the 1862 Uprising of Minnesota." Special thanks to Mette Greising for help in preparing this for publication.


All my life I have heard the stories of "Ehanna Woyakapi" (Speaking of Long Ago), the stories that can be dated by the white man’s calendar. These stories go back hundreds of years and are populated by my ancestors, whose personalities are as diverse and as real to me as characters on a weekly TV show for some.

When I was a child, my grandmother, Evelyn Crawford, would have us sit on the living room floor of her wood frame house on Sunday evenings, on the prairies of eastern South Dakota. She would sit on the only chair with armrests by the wood stove, fold her hard-worked hands over her belly, cross her brown cotton-stockinged feet, close her eyes and slightly tilt her head back, and with her words, Kunsi (the Dakota word for grandmother) would begin to take us into the world of our ancestors who went before her.

She introduced us to Pte Wakan Najin, Standing Medicine Buffalo, her great-great-grandfather, who was chief of the Ihanktonwan (Yankton) band of Nakotas to the south. We learned of how he gave his beloved first-born daughter, Winona, to a French fur trader from Montreal, Francois Jetty, in the highest form of marriage in the Dakota culture, a political union. This type of marriage was an agreement between the chief and the other male, and it usually ensured some aspect of life, or continuance, or peace for the (Dakota) band.


In my great-great-great-grandmother’s case, her marriage was to ensure the gun trade to the Nakotas during that period, the late 1840s. She was honored by the tribe, because she was seen as giving up her life and her choices for the benefit of the Oyate (people), the highest kind of sacrifice a Nakota woman could make.

Kunsi told of how her great-grandmother Winona and her new husband Francois moved up from what is now southern South Dakota to the Yellow Medicine River area of western Minnesota Territory, where Winona had Dakota relatives. In the next 10 years, they had a girl, Yellow Eyes, and a boy, Francois.

Uprising at Lower Sioux Agency

In the spring of 1862, tensions worsened with the white immigrants clamoring for the verdant Dakota homelands of Minnesota. The Dakotas were told to remain in a confined area; were told not to go out on to the prairies to hunt the buffalo, and were to report once a month to the Indian agent at Redwood Agency for annuities of flour, sugar, coffee -- food items that the Dakota did not know.

The government put the Dakotas into a starvation period from May to August. During this time, the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 occurred, because the young braves could no longer see their wives not being able to produce milk for the babies, their children starving and their elders fading from weakness.

Early on the morning of Aug. 17, 1862, Winona got up at dawn and prepared breakfast for her husband, who had also risen at dawn to harvest his hay. He had just returned from the field about 8 a.m. when, as he was about to sit down to eat with his back to the door of their small cabin, the door burst open. It was Winona’s uncle, Sunka Sa (Red Dog), who announced, "The Indians are on the warpath and are down the road from your cabin. Get out NOW. They are killing all the white people. It’s a bloodbath out there."

Francois said, with his French Canadian accent, "But I have just sat down to eat!" Red Dog said, "Well, stay and eat and die full, or get out with your life now." He then left to warn other neighbors. Francois went out on the porch; the smell of fresh-cut hay filled the air. The dogs in the area were barking wildly in the early morning sun, and he could hear the war cries of the braves of his wife’s people getting closer behind a stand of trees down the trail leading to his cabin.

He slammed the cabin door, jumped the table full of what would have been his last breakfast, threw open the rear cabin window and ran off. According to the family's oral tradition, he would only see his wife and daughter one more time, and his little boy, not until adulthood.¨


Moments later, the warriors burst into the cabin and demanded the white man and his half-white children who lived there. The fact that these children were half Indian did not at that moment matter; they were seen as part of the blight of the white people that was now so heavily upon the beautiful Dakota homelands.

Winona stepped bravely into the doorway to face the warriors, pushing her children behind her in a protective movement, and said, "If one hair on the heads of these children is harmed, you will have Standing Buffalo to answer to." She began to point out to the warriors one by one, indicating, "I helped your mother when such and such; I assisted in the birth of your sister’s baby; your grandmother and mine…" she went on, letting the angry Dakota men know she knew who they were. They cast their angry gazes downward, backed off from the doorstep and warned, "When, not if, we come back and find these children here…" Then, the leader gave a sign placing his right thumb below his left ear, drawing it quickly under his throat to his other ear. They backed off and left, knowing that the running Frenchman could not be far.

Winona knew they were giving her children a chance to escape. She quickly rolled up the flour sack tablecloth she had set for her husband, threw whatever food items she had into it, and tied it into a knot. She readied the children and rolled up blankets which she tied to the family dog, who was mercifully spared by the braves.

Escape to Canada

And then she left for Canada -- "Onajica Makoce," the Land of Refuge. She got as far as she could, late into that first night. She slept by day, hiding her children in rabbit and deer thickets, and traveling by night. When she crossed the Red River, the Wild Rice and James rivers, she tethered her children to her and pulled her only weapon, a knife, from her skirt belt and put it between her teeth, so as not to lose it. She swam and the dog carried their belongings.¨

At one point during the day, as they were hiding in the brush, a cavalry man’s knee-high boot was less than three feet from where she lay covering the mouth of 4-year-old Francois. She could see the American’s hip dagger hanging to below his knees. He was so close, she could have reached out and touched his black shiny boot. She knew Francois wanted to cry and didn’t understand, but she held his mouth fast to prevent him from giving their location away. Yellow Eyes lay motionless next to the family dog, who seemed to understand. In the tenseness of the moment, her eyes were riveted on her mother’s face, reading every movement of her expression. At length, the American soldier walked away to a rise on the prairie. He went over and was seen no more.

¨Winona lived with relatives that winter at Mde Wakan (Spirit Lake), below what is now the mission at St. Michael’s, N.D. Her goal was to catch up with Tatanka Najin (Standing Buffalo) and his band in the spring. Her cousin Sunka Ska (White Dog) hunted and fished for her and her children until the lake froze over. In his culture, Winona was his sister, and because she was without a husband, he needed to provide for her and her children. He knew they wouldn't starve now and he dutifully returned to the troubled Minnesota homelands.

Tatanka Najin was captured by the government and his was the first name listed among the 38 Dakota men who were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, a retaliatory move against a people starving and fighting for the right to hunt for their own families. It was the largest mass execution in history of the United States. Abraham Lincoln signed off on the execution of Winona’s cousin who saved her that winter, so she and her children had enough to make it to southern Canada by the spring of 1863.¨ ¨She stayed in exile for three years in Canada to save her children.


Francois (Frank Jr., as the Americans called him) ended up staying with a Metis family who dearly loved him and eventually raised him as their own. Originally, it was agreed that Ista Zi would also stay, but after her mother had said her goodbyes and left with the family dog, Ista Zi stole out of the Metis home with no one detecting her. Although pangs of guilt gripped her for her little brother, she knew he would be safe, and it was nothing compared to the ripping pain she felt at the thought of not being able to be with her mother, no matter the circumstance. She had just "lost" her father, and possibly losing her mother was too much for this 9-year-old to bear. She traveled west, the direction her mother was taking. She caught up with her about five miles from the Azures' (home), and it was much too far to return. Winona let her daughter stay. ¨

Lives were changed forever

€¨When Winona felt it was safe to return to the United States, she walked back to South Dakota with Yellow Eyes, who was 13 at the time, to where the Dakotas had been exiled, the Lake Traverse Reservation, where I now live.¨

From that time on, Winona considered herself a widow. Her husband survived his ordeal and went on to marry another woman. He became a known Indian fighter, had many children and died in Montevideo, Minn. Winona's son Francois stayed in the Mde Wakan area of what became North Dakota, where many Sissetons, Wahpetons and Yanktons were exiled after the war. He married and had many children.

Yellow Eyes went on to marry a brave, Maza Koyag Inajin (He Who Rises Up Clothed in Chains), whose death sentence was commuted after the uprising of 1862. They had children and they raised her orphaned granddaughter, Evelyn, who told me this story.¨

Winona, who later was known as Annie Jette William Siyakka, lived the rest of her life in Sisseton, S.D., after her treks through Dakota Territory and Canada. We always call her Annie Hunka, for beloved grandmother.

Grandma would tell us, when the winter winds were blowing and the boys had to chop wood, or when they complained about having to pump water from the icy pump down the hill, to remember the hardships of our ancestors. What we faced was nothing compared to what they faced so we could be here. She would tell us to draw strength from what they suffered.

We still do.

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