Even if you’re not from the United States, you may know at least a little about the major wars in U.S. history. Conflicts like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War were events that were important even on a global scale, to say nothing of the two World Wars.
But there are a number of smaller conflicts in U.S. history that even many Americans don’t know anything about. For one of those wars, there are very real consequences that are still being felt today. One of the artifacts from that war has had an interesting journey back home…
The mid-1800s were a time of great change in America. The U.S. added a dozen more states between 1835 and 1865. It was a rapid expansion largely fueled by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” a widely held belief that it was the destiny and duty of settlers to spread across the whole of North America.
Of course, such expansion wasn’t without conflict, considering that there were already people living on much of that land. During that period, there were countless skirmishes between settlers and the various indigenous peoples, not to mention several outright wars.
One such war was the Dakota War of 1862, which took place along the Minnesota River just four years after it had become a state. Ten years prior, the United States signed a treaty with the Dakota people where they gave up large tracts of land in exchange for promises of money, goods, and space to live on a reservation.
But the U.S. didn’t make good on its end of the treaty, with much of the promised compensation never arriving and half of the agreed upon reservation space being taken and divided into townships and plots for settlements. When negotiations failed to get the Dakota people what they deserved, the war broke out.
Short and Bloody
Beginning in August of that year, Dakota fighters made raids and attacks against the settlers near their territory. Over the next month or so, their attacks killed hundreds of civilians and dozens of soldiers before a large army reinforcement arrived in the area, forcing a final battle in which the Dakota were finally defeated, with hundreds left killed and captured.
The 303 captured Dakota would eventually stand trial before a military tribunal for their actions later that year. However, the trials were hardly fair. The proceedings were not explained to the defendants, they had no legal representation, and some trials lasted less than five minutes. All 303 were convicted of murder and rape, but not all of them would be punished.
That’s because President Lincoln himself personally reviewed the trial records to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the U.S. versus those who had committed acts of murder and sexual assault against civilians. He ultimately commuted the death sentences of all but 38 of those convicted. Those men would later die together in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In the several months between capture and trial, the prisoners must’ve expected the worst. One of the prisoners who would eventually be executed was a Dakota chief named White Dog. Instead of giving in to despair or even to bitterness against his captors, he decided to make a gesture of peace.
White Dog made a ceremonial pipe to one of the men guarding him. He carved the pipe out of pipestone, also known as catlinite, while in captivity. It was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation.
White Dog decorated the ceremonial pipe with lead inlay depicting birds, animals, and arrows. It also depicted a large Thunderbird, a legendary creature of great importance to a number of different North American indigenous cultures.
Ceremonial pipes like the one White Dog made were considered sacred objects and were used to offer prayers during religious ceremonies, to make a ceremonial commitment, or to seal a covenant or treaty. It was no trivial thing that he’d given such a gift after the loss of hundreds of lives on both sides of their terrible conflict.
But in the time after the executions, the true meaning and value of the pipe had been somewhat forgotten. It came into the possession of a Boston family in the 1880s and was viewed as more of a piece of art or a collector’s item, rather than carrying the sacred meaning that was originally intended.
“That pipe, as a sacred item, would fall into the category of cultural patrimony: a significant item that the tribe could be using for spiritual practices today, or be properly caring for that item,” said Jill Doerfler, the head of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Changing Hands Again
Then in the spring of 2018, it seemed White Dog’s pipe would continue to be a collector’s item tucked away in some wealthy person’s study when it was to be auctioned off. Several indigenous organizations worked to stop the sale, arguing that the sacred artifact should be returned to the tribe where it would be afforded the respect it deserved.
Huge Price Tag
Unfortunately, they were unable to stop the auction. The pipe was sold for just shy of $40,000. While it seemed that some collector simply wanted the pipe badly enough to pay so high a sum for it, the wealthy auction winner apparently had different plans.
Shortly after the auction ended, the auction winner contacted the tribe and informed them that they had bought the pipe “for the sole purpose of returning it to the Dakota Oyate [people].” The donor, who wished to remain anonymous, was willing to spend that large sum of money, just to return a sacred artifact to those for whom it mattered most.
“We are humbled by and grateful for this honorable act,” said Prairie Island Tribal Council President Shelley Buck, adding “Pidamayaye [the Dakota word for thank you] to the donor for your respect and your generosity.”
Museums and private collections around the world are filled with items like White Dog’s pipe that possess a cultural significance to people besides those who currently own them. Returning those items to the people who value them is usually a long and complex process, if it happens at all.
“Museums have for the last several decades been returning items slowly,” Doerfler said. “This is a very interesting case where somebody obviously saw this coming up for auction. I can’t imagine this happens very often at all.”
Return to Life
And for the Dakota, such items are more than just “things.” “In English, objects are generally inanimate,” Doerfler said. “But in a lot of native cultures, that pipe has its own being, its own entity, and it has to be cared for. So with items like a pipe or a drum, items of cultural significance, the person who is the holder or the keeper of that object has a responsibility to care for it and to utilize it properly.”