Lincoln, A Native Narrative

Before the fall of 1862, 37-year-old Ehanamani – the son of a spiritual leader – had a certain future as a traditional, Santee Sioux man. He was a good hunter, seen as favored by the spirits, and the path before him was as clear as his bloodline.

Then, the Minnesota Uprising happened.

“In the months of August and September, there were between 500 and a thousand settlers and soldiers killed,” says John LaVelle, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico. “Some counties were completely depopulated of whites. It was a war to drive white people out of Dakota Territory.”

Within two months, the Dakota War, also known as the Great Sioux Uprising, was over. The rebellions finale: 38 Santee Sioux men hung from the neck, in the largest, official mass execution in U.S. History.

Ehanamani should have been among those executed.

“He was awaiting execution when he was effectively pardoned by President Lincoln,” says LaVelle. “[Lincoln] personally reviewed the trial records of those who were condemned and had a standard for who should be executed and who should not.”

Lincoln’s standard: If there was clear evidence that the individual participated in the killing of civilians, they would be executed. If there was no evidence, the individual would escape the noose. “Under that standard, Lincoln determined that my great-great-grandfather should not be executed,” says LaVelle.

Out of 303 Santee men originally slated for execution, only 38 hung. However, those “pardoned” were sent to prison, and within three years, almost half of them died from sickness or starvation.

“But Ehanamani did survive and was returned to Santee, Nebraska and became an ordained minister and began preaching,” says LaVelle. “He was one of the very first Dakota pastors and started the Pilgrim Congregational Church, and it was very popular and had lot of Santee members. So he was a minister for 35 years until his death in 1902.”

It was because of Lincoln that Ehanamani’s life was spared, and the reason John LaVelle is alive to tell his story today.

“He recognized these were men, that these were not devils or animals or blood-thirsty savages. He knew they were being dehumanized in how they were described, and used the word ‘men’ to show they were human beings,” says LaVelle. “Some say Lincoln ordered the largest mass executions in U.S. history, but he also facilitated the greatest mass pardon in U.S. history, and it was a pardon of Indians.”

Abraham Lincoln is known as the winner of the Civil War, savior of the Union, and freer of slaves. However, in Indian Country, his legacy is less well known as are his motives. What we do know is that America’s 16th President was a paradox, capable of both great ruthlessness and remarkable humanity. His legacy continues to fascinate, with him having navigated multiple battlefronts while confronting an uncertain future through the mediums of war and Western expansion.


Before the uprising of 1862, the Santee Sioux had ceded much of their land in southern Minnesota through a series of treaties. They ended up with a sliver of reservation along the shore of the Minnesota River and were no longer allowed to hunt or gather food off the reservation. With no way to feed themselves, the Santee became dependent on annuity payments made by the government that could be used for provisions from local Minnesota traders.

Those annuity payments were part of the “Indian System” and while intended to help tribes transition from hunters to farmers, they could also be tapped by Indian agents, contractors, and traders in what can be best described as a system of institutionalized corruption.

“A lot of the Indian agents and superintendents all got rich,” says David Nichols, author of Lincoln And The Indians: Civil War Policy And Politics. “An Indian Agent would get paid around a thousand dollars a year, but one guy made off with $17,00 in two years, and another one in three years went away with $41,000.”

Adjusted for inflation, $17,000 in the 1860’s would be worth well over $400,000 by 2014 standards.

According to Nichols, one Indian Agent stole $870,000 out of a safe in the Interior Department, while another paid his daughter to teach at a school that didn’t exist. In Minnesota, a fur trader named Henry Hastings Sibley put in claims for furs sold to the Santee Sioux for $145,000, then promptly used the money to become the first governor of Minnesota. Incidentally, the state’s second governor was Alexander Ramsey – the Indian Agent who approved Sibley’s claim. “1862 was a bad year for crops and there was an experiment being forced on the Indians to become farmers,” says LaVelle.

“There were starvation conditions, so the Sioux leadership were pressuring the traders who had food supplies to allow for those foods to be distributed to the people on credit,” he says. “That they would be paid when the money came from Washington. Well, there was rumor that there would never be money paid to the Sioux because of the Civil War.”

Traders were reluctant, and during one notorious negotiation, a trader by the name of Andrew Myrick informed Sioux leaders that if they were hungry they could “eat grass or their own dung.”

“These were the conditions in place when tensions were rising and there was talk among the Dakota people that they needed to fight back,” says LaVelle.

However, the incident that actually sparked the uprising happened when four young Dakota men returning from a failed hunting trip came across a nest of hen’s eggs on a settler’s farm.

“One of them went to eat from the hens eggs and the other warned him that belonged to the white farmer,” says LaVelle. “In anger, the guy that was going to eat the egg threw it down and smashed it along with the rest and said ‘you are a coward, you are afraid of a white man even though you’re half-starved’ and the other one said ‘I’m not a coward and to prove it, follow me into his house and I’m going to kill him’.”

That was August 17th, 1862. By the next day, the war had begun. One of the first casualties was Andrew Myrick, the trader: his body was found with its mouth stuffed with grass.

On August 21st, Lincoln received a telegram from former Indian Agent and current Governor Alexander Ramsey that the Sioux had revolted and had killed up to 500 men, women and children in a coordinated attack.

“Above all, Ramsey told Lincoln he could not send any of the 5,360 [draftees] he owed to the union army,” says David Nichols. “Lincoln’s war was not going well on August 21, 1862. He desperately needed those soldiers and his response to that was quite harsh. He wrote back: ‘Attend to the Indians. If the draft cannot proceed of course it will not proceed. Necessity knows no law.”

Lincoln quickly dispatched General Alexander Pope to handle the war, and by the end of September, the uprising had ended and 303 Santee men, including LaVelle’s ancestor, Ehanamani, were condemned to death.

But Lincoln intervened. Nichols says he believes all 303 men otherwise would have been executed. “At the same time, I think we have to grant that he decided a blood sacrifice of some kind was necessary if he was going to keep Minnesota on his side in the Civil War.”

In the fall of 1862, the Union was not winning the war. There had been no real turning-point battles, and losing 5,300 Minnesota troops did not help, and there was a real threat that the Union could lose all of Minnesota.

“He didn’t have to pardon them,” says Nichols. “But I’ll tell you, when you’re in the midst of a war where 600,000 folks died, everything is relative, and you’ve got to remember about Mr. Lincoln: This is the President who threw general after general out until they found one that would shed enough blood to win the war – Ulysses S. Grant.”

But for some reason, he stepped in to hand down the pardons in Minnesota.

“We all have reactions to history in different ways,” says LaVelle. “But what I see is without Lincoln having gone with his conscience under the circumstances it would have been the execution of all of them and I would not be here today.”



Look at the legislation Lincoln signed into law: the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, the Railroad Act and finally, the Emancipation Proclamation.

“If you look at the legislation as a whole, it really tells you the story of what he did,” says Sammye Meadows a co-author of American Indians and the Civil War. “He freed the slaves and he opened the West.”

Known as the Railroad Act for short, it’s long title was An Act to Aid in the Construction of a Railroad and Telegraph Line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to Secure to the Government the use of the Same for Postal, Military and Other Purposes. The Homestead Act allowed individuals to grab 160 acres of Government land for free, provided they built a home on it and grew crops.

“Undoubtedly his second priority for his presidency after winning the Civil War was settling the West,” says Meadows. “He fully believed in manifest destiny and American progress and the Indians were in the way but had to be removed by any means necessary, and that’s basically what he set in motion, through his legislation.”

Those that resisted were punished through a policy of concentration. As Lincoln advocated for the development of minerals, railroads and land, Native Americans that would not move to reservations would be pursued by the military.

“In the fall of 1863 you have three things happening,” says Pamela Pierce, producer of the documentary Canes of Power. “You have the Gettysburg Address given where [Lincoln] speaks to the rights of man, you have the beginning of the lockup and forced surrender of the Navajo, and you also have the canes given.”

The forced surrender of the Navajo was only the overture to the Long Walk, while the canes were issued to the 20 Pueblos in recognition of their inherent sovereignty.

“It wasn’t just lip service, it really meant that,” says Pierce. “It was a definite statement by the U.S. Government recognizing the authority and the sovereignty of the Pueblos.”

Lincoln was not the first to issue canes of authority to the Pueblos. Before Lincoln, the Mexican Government did, and before the Mexicans, Spain’s King Juan Carlos I somewhere toward the end of the 16th century or the beginning of the 17th century did so as well. In 1980, New Mexico Governor Bruce King issued canes to mark the 300th anniversary of the Pueblo revolt.

Not all, but many Pueblos say that leaders carried canes before the Spanish.

“The Spaniards might have picked it up that the cane was the official symbol of authority,” says Joseph Suina, Cochiti Pueblo Governor. “Because it wasn’t just the governor, it was the governor and lieutenant governor, church officials known as fiscales, and perhaps other officials.”

From the Cochiti point of view, the canes are living, breathing entities that guard the community and represent the authority of the pueblo and its governor. They are revered as much as anything in the Christian and traditional worlds.

As for Lincoln’s point of view on the canes, that’s unclear.

“He didn’t give us sovereignty, he recognized that we were a sovereign community and communities at that point in time,” says Suina. “That we lived a life that was very compatible, I suppose, that he imagined that eventually other tribes would hope to do in communities – self sustaining, self sufficient, self governing and very capable of making our own decisions.”

The Pueblos were also settled and farmed, as opposed to tribes like the Navajo that often moved and raided their neighbors be they Native or non-Native. As the U.S. Military pursued tribes throughout the southwest, for some reason Lincoln singled out the Pueblos and acknowledged their leaders, and their sovereignty.

“In some ways, I suppose, we could be viewed in a very positive light: that we had the capability to live the kind of life that he hoped,” says Suina. “On the other hand, in the negative sense, I think we could also be perceived as submitting to the government’s bigger plan of keeping tribes in place so that they could now come in and take land at will wherever they wanted. So there’s two ways of looking at it.”

Another possibility was that Lincoln was fearful the Pueblos would align themselves with the Confederacy. The Civil War had already reached New Mexico and many tribes, like the Cherokee, had already aligned themselves with the South.

“The Lincoln government deserted [tribes],” says David Nichols. “The Confederacy actively courted them and they used Native troops. There was a big battle at Pea Ridge in Arkansas where Indian troops reaped quite a lot of devastation on Union forces. They were willing to let them participate a lot more than the northerners were, initially.”

Cochiti Canes


The canes have hung on the wall of Suina’s home since January of this year, when he became governor. Sometimes governors get extra terms, but usually, there’s change every year. That means the cane from Juan Carlos I may have passed through as many as 400 different governors. Lincoln’s cane: more than 100.

“When I come, at the end of the day, I put my problems at the feet of all those who held the canes before and I can sleep good,” says Suina. “When I go out of here in the morning I hang on to it and ask for the power of patience, love, understanding and peace, and I carry that with me as I go about the duties.”

They are marvels considering what they represent, and how the ideas they do represent – sovereignty, autonomy, freedom – have changed so much since they were issued. Not a day goes by that tribes, including the Pueblos, do not have to fight to sustain sovereignty. In every state that tribes call home, sovereignty is questioned, through gaming, taxes, land, criminal jurisdiction, mineral rights, education, health, and more. What sovereignty is and what it could be is always a question. And what Lincoln actually meant by issuing them, just as murky.

“I have so many things that come into my life, a lot of good things, things that the tribe is able to realize but also a lot of sadness on the part of individuals,” says Suina as he looks on toward the canes hung up in his home. “Personal issues I encounter, people with alcoholism, people dying, cancer – just a variety of things. It’s quite a responsibility. You can easily overload yourself with the heaviness of issues, of problems and stuff, but there’s another side to it too: that’s the goodness that you find in people that you never thought.”

In Indian Country, Lincoln is a paradox. From the Civil War to the Dakota War, from Manifest Destiny to the Canes of Authority, there are often more questions than answers. Lincoln didn’t keep diaries or a wealth of correspondence, we must primarily rely on his actions to get a sense of the man, and from even these handful of events that we have had the space to examine, what can we tell? He was an enigma? Capable of spilling blood to achieve his goals but leery of doing so at other occasions? Indifferent to the assimilation or destruction of the American Indian, yet respectful of some tribal rights?

The man is a puzzle.

“The truly great leaders of human history are multi-faceted folks, and they’re capable of both great ruthlessness and great humanity, all in the same package sometimes,” says David Nichols. “I don’t pretend to understand because I’m not cut from that complicated cloth.”

This story appeared in print in the September/October 2014 issue of Native Peoples.

Tristan Ahtone

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