Wherein I wonder about a sentence, learn a lot, and end up with more questions.
The first hymn in church yesterday was titled “Great Spirit God” (one of two translations of Wakantanka Taku Nitawa in our hymnal). The music note said the tune is Lacquiparle, “Native American melody (Dakota) Adapt. Joseph R. Renville, 1842.” This hymnal has a short background note for each hymn. This one said:
“Recollecting the accounts told by his grandfather and others, Sidney Byrd stated: ‘This hymn was sung by thirty-eight Dakota Indian prisoners of war as they went to the gallows at Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in American history.”
That caught my attention! The minister’s introduction mentioned theNative American provenance but not the scene of people singing it while they were being hanged.
When I got home, I looked it up. The note is a pointer to the 1862 Sioux uprising, one of the hundreds of battles in the three-hundred year war of the conquest of North America by Europeans. From the point of view of many native people, especially Dakotas, those executed were martyred freedom fighters, while from the point of view of European and Euro-American settlers they were murderers who brutalized innocent and peaceful settlers. From what I read, it seems likely that the men really were singing as they were marched to their hanging with linen bags over their heads, but what they were singing and what it meant is less clear. Tracking down the story behind the note is a reminder of our brutal and complex multi-voiced history. I’m not sure what it means for us English-speaking Euro-American Christians to sing the hymn. Are we singing a native tune just because it is beautiful and haunting? To broaden our awareness of the multi-cultural scope of the Christian community? To express solidarity with native people? To honor those executed as martyrs to the faith? Is it an act of cultural appropriation for us to sing this tune? Or an act of appreciating people who wanted to link a holy song from their traditional culture with the religion they adopted from their conquerors and wanted the conquerors to appreciate both their traditions and their conversions?
The hymn’s composer, Joseph Renville, was the son of a French father and a Dakota mother who was educated by Catholic priests and initiated the founding of a town at Lac qui Parle [French for “lake that speaks” which sounds significant but seems to have nothing to do with the story] in Minnesota in the 1820s and invited missionaries into it in the 1830s. He died in 1849. Renville is generally credited with turning three traditional Dakota tunes into Christian hymns in the Dakota language, including this one. (Whether the tune was considered sacred before it was made into a Christian hymn is unclear. Some sources seem to imply it was a traditional death or funeral song.) The first English paraphrase of the Christian hymn was made at the request of the national YWCA in 1929 by R. Philip Frazier, a Congregational minister who was the grandson of Artemas Ehnamani, a Santee Dakota who was converted to Christianity while in prison after the 1862 conflict; Philip’s father Frances was also a minister. Philip Frazier and his wife Susie (who edited a collection of hymns) spread the English version so that it is now a popular inclusion in many American hymnals and songbooks. It is perhaps worth noting that the words in English include generic references to God (or Great Spirit) and a Creator with no mention of Jesus or specifically Christian theology.
The occasion for the mass execution was the aftermath of the Sioux uprising of 1862 in Minnesota. The short version is that some Sioux started the war because their annuities were delayed and they were hungry and there was growing pressure on the tribe from European settlers. The uprising started with a small attack but grew and spread; several hundred European settlers were killed. There were Sioux who opposed the war and cooperated with bringing the rebels to trial after they were defeated. There was a formal trial with witnesses. There was also an intervention of President Lincoln, who transmuted the sentences of most of the 200+ but not the last 38, who were supposedly guilty of killing or raping women or children. There are disputes about the guilt of attacks on women and children all of those actually executed, although there is no dispute that quite a few European and Euro-American settlers were killed one way or another. After this event, the Dakota (Sioux) were all exiled from their homeland and sent west, although some have returned to the area as individuals. Below I linked to a number of detailed accounts of the uprising and subsequent trial and execution.
According to the accounts, the executed men were singing what some observers called a “death song” for several days before their execution. Catholic priests and perhaps other missionaries were apparently in the prisons seeking converts. On the day of the execution, the condemned sang as linen bags were placed over their heads and they were marched to the gallows. What they were singing is less clear. Was it Wakantanka Taku Nitawa, the Dakota-language hymn written by Renville in 1842? If so, did they understand this as a Christian hymn, or as a traditional Dakota sacred death song, or both? If they were singing that tune, were they singing Renville’s words, or older words? Were they like the early Christian martyrs who shocked the romans by cheerfully facing death? Were they extolling Christianity or their culture? Or were they mourning their own demise and that of their people? One detailed contemporary account from an anti-Dakota writer in a St. Paul newspaper describes the men’s cheerfulness and singing in the days before their execution as evidence of the fraudulence of their supposed conversions to Christianity. In describing their song as they marched to the gallows, he calls it a “hideous `Hi-yi-yi, Hi-yi-yi’” and describes one singer using the tune in one last expression of defiance as he gestures that his private parts will be found near someone’s severed head. On the other hand, many Dakota were present that day and presumably understood what the men were singing, and the the story passed through many Dakota channels is that they were singing Wakantanka Taku Nitawa. But were they singing it in mourning, in submission to God, or as a cultural anthem and in defiance of their executioners? Or all of these? Regardless of what they meant by their singing, the hymn is sung often on December 26 by native people in Minnesota, especially the Dakotas, in memory and honor of the men who were executed who are now understood as heroic martyrs of the people, as can be seen in the newsletter summarized below.
An audio on hymntime of the haunting melody accompanied by the Frazier English paraphrase of the Renville words
History of the hymn that seems to be an orphan document with no external links on the Chippewa County (location of Lac qui Parle) Historical Society web site; my source for information about Frazier.
Lengthy accounts of the 1862 uprising and the trial and execution in
- Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_War_of_1862 ,
- a web page maintained by law professor Douglas Linder at the University of Missouri-Kansas City about famous trials that includes lots of primary documents
- An article written by Chris Mato Nunpa, a professor of American Indian Studies and Dakota Studies at Soutwest State University in Minnesota about the execution for nativenewsonline.org which publishes events of interest for every day of the year.
- an account in a pro-Indian site that blames the Minnesota governor for the war and the executions
The fact of singing seems to be widely attested. An eye-witness account published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press of the execution by an anti-Native writer (who also includes extensive descriptions of the condemned men saying good bye to their loved ones) http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota/Trials_of_Prisoners.html .
Many other accounts mention the men singing on their way to the gallows, although not what they were singing. E.g. this standard history from the Mankato boosters http://www.greatermankato.com/community-areahistory.php?navigationid=91.
As an example of how this event has become an important symbol, my Internet searches turned up the December 2008 newsletter of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, a 28-page newsletter which is otherwise primarily devoted to pictures of Christmas parties, public service announcements and other upbeat community news. Page 5 is half an “in rememberance” section mentions this an other December events in American Indian history in short paragraphs and half a picture of men aiming rifles announcing that the Indian Veterans Post will have a 21 Gun Salute on December 26th at 10am in remembrance of the 38 Dakotas at the First Presbyterian Church Cemetery.” Page 6 is devoted to listing the names of all 38 men who were executed. Page 26 reprints a letter to a newspaper advocating that Minnesota admit that in creating the state Dakota nation was destroyed and giving an extended critique of the fairness of the 1862 trials, in the process rebutting someone who had claimed otherwise. http://www.fsst.org/documents/Newsltrs%202008/fsst_newsletter_january_2008.pdf
A report from a 1987 reconciliation project in Minnesota mentions that many Dakota believe Lac qui Parle was sung by Dakota at the hanging and also discusses the feelings of different people who have ties to the events, including Dakota who rebelled and those who cooperated with convicting the rebels. Singing the hymn together is mentioned as one part of meetings of reconciliation. http://www.dowlinconsulting.com/images/%20%27%2087%20U.S.-Dakota%20Conflict%20%20.pdf
I encountered a variety of other mentions of the singing of this hymn at community gatherings among the Dakota in December that referenced the memory of the executions.
The additional note on the other version of Wakantanka Taku NItawa in my hymnal says “Probably the best-known Native American Hymn, “Many and Great” is sung with great reverence by the Dakota people in worship, at communion, and for births, funerals, and burials. Renville helped establish the Lac qui Parle mission in Minnesota. Frazier, a Native American, was a Congregational minister.”