IV. Criterion (c): Deliberately Inflicting on the Group Conditions of Life Calculated to Bring About Its Physical Destruction in Whole or Part

The third criterion in the U.N. Genocide Convention--“(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part” --also applies to the Dakota experience in Minnesota and the subsequent treatment of Dakota people following the ethnic cleansing. In this section, I will discuss the conditions of the various concentration camps to which Dakota people were confined beginning in the fall of 1862, and the effects of the punitive expeditions into Dakota Territory from 1863-1865, particularly General Sully's efforts to hunt down the Dakota who fled Minnesota at the war's end.

This criterion may, perhaps, be the most contested because it requires the acknowledgement of genocidal intent (deliberation), something rarely conceded by the colonizers in a colonial context. Unlike Ramsey's call for extermination and forced removal, which is so blatant it is virtually impossible to deny as genocidal, the actions following that declaration, which were designed to carry out his vision of a Dakota-free Minnesota, are subject to more interpretation. A parochial view might, again, allow one to argue for the most benign interpretations of events that would discount the deliberate nature of this criterion, while a broader historical view and understanding of a colonial context make the deliberate nature appear obvious.

For example, by 1862, the U.S. government already had nearly a century of experience addressing the “Indian problem” in other regions. Phases of warfare, burning towns and villages, destroying food sources, driving populations into flight, and forcing marches--all combined with disease, sickness, and starvation--to severely weaken and undermine whole nations of people. Perhaps the best-known example of expulsion was perpetrated against the Tsalagi (Cherokee) in what became known as the Trail of Tears. After rounding up the Tsalagi and confining them in oppressive conditions, the Americans then sent them on the overland route to Indian Territory. Historian David Stannard describes their Trail of Tears:

Like other government-sponsored Indian death marches, this one intentionally took native men, women, and children through areas where it was known that cholera and other epidemic diseases were raging; the government sponsors of this march, again as with the others, fed the Indians spoiled flour and rancid meat, and they drove the native people on through freezing rain and cold. Not a day passed without numerous deaths from the unbearable conditions under which they were forced to travel. . . . [B] y the time it was over, more than 8000 Cherokee men, women, and children died as a result of their expulsion from their homeland.

The purpose of detailing this example is to demonstrate that by 1862, the federal government already understood that forced confinement and forced removal would have devastating consequences for the victims of such policies.

That Dakota people would die from such actions, and that this was seen as a benefit by those in power, cannot be denied. Even those who did not advocate outright extermination, such as Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, still suggested consigning Dakota people to a future that meant a slower death. As questions arose about what to do with the prisoner population, Agent Galbraith proposed:

The power of the government must be brought to bear upon them. They must be whipped, coerced into obedience. After this is accomplished, few will be left to put upon a reservation; many will be killed; more must perish from famine and exposure, and the more desperate will flee and seek refuge on the plains or in the mountains. Few, except women and children, can be captured, and if they should be, they should never be allowed to cause trouble again. A very small reservation should suffice for them.

No more was there any talk of civilization and assimilation from this Indian Agent. In his mind it was, instead, essential to eliminate the Indian problem and threat to white Minnesotans, no matter the form death would take for the Dakota who were not killed outright.

The contestation over interpretation also affects terminology. For example, the use of the term concentration camp is still surprisingly contentious. Other than the Department of Natural Resources' interpretation at Fort Snelling State Park, which has employed the term concentration camp since 1998, most institutions, historians, and reporters refrain from using this accurate terminology to describe the place where Dakota people were imprisoned in the winter of 1862-1863. Researcher Corinne Monjeau-Marz, for example, in her volume entitled The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864, rejects the term “concentration camp” and argues that the “enclosure” at Fort Snelling helped preserve the population: “Placing innocent people in a ghetto was a terrible decision but it kept them alive,” she tells us. This is a troubling perspective as it denies the violence perpetrated there by white soldiers, as well as American knowledge of the resulting deaths that undoubtedly accompanied the mass confinement of large populations without adequate food, clothing, and sanitation. In 1828 when the House of Representatives was debating the removal of Indians west of the Mississippi, John Woods of Ohio argued against it, especially the way it was portrayed as a benevolent act ensuring Indian preservation, saying: “ [T] his measure would effect more rapidly their extinction. Instead of being entitled ‘An act for the preservation and civilization of the Indian tribes with the United States,’ it should be called a scheme for their speedy extermination.” Similarly, the concentration camp at Fort Snelling was not erected for the safety of Dakota people, but to help maintain American dominance and Indigenous subjugation while the government made plans for the next phase of ethnic cleansing. When our populations died because of the horrendous conditions, including cold, disease, and starvation, it simply saved the government the cost of relocating another Indian out of Minnesota.

Furthermore, if we perceive these deaths as anything other than part of the genocide, we are denying the standards used in other genocidal contexts. For example, in reference to the American Indian holocaust, historian Robert Venables asks the questions: “Does it matter that millions of the Indians who perished died of disease and malnutrition rather than by the sword? Are we not to count the Jews who died of disease and starvation, and only those gassed or shot?” Similarly, historian David Stannard describes how various factors contributed to genocide:

Although at times operating independently, for most of the long centuries of devastation that followed 1492, disease and genocide were interdependent forces acting dynamically--whipsawing their victims between plague and violence, each one feeding upon the other, and together driving countless numbers of entire ancient societies to the brink--and often over the brink--of total extermination.

In the Dakota context, we see how forced removals, concentration camp imprisonment, punitive expeditions, and destruction of food sources all worked in concert to effect a devastating reduction of the population.

Because Fort Snelling was connected to this larger policy of ethnic cleansing, in the Dakota oral tradition as relayed by my grandmother, Elsie Two Bear Cavender, the concentration camp was just one more devastating part of the long death march of our people out of our homeland--just one stop on our way to Crow Creek. In hearing the stories or reading the accounts from the camp, never have I looked upon Fort Snelling as a place of preservation, nor have I heard Dakota people describe it that way. On the contrary, Dakota people have made efforts to assert the term “concentration camp” precisely because we understand the horrors experienced there. We know cannons from the fort above were aimed at the concentration camp below, and that it was a place filled with so much death that, according to Barbara Feezor's family, they were burying people from sun-up to sun-down every day. In January 1863, the missionary Stephen Riggs wrote to his brother: “It is a very sad place now. The crying hardly ever stops.” Gabrielle Renville reported:

We were so crowded and confined that an epidemic broke out among us and children were dying day and night. . . . The news then came of the hanging at Mankato. Amid all this sickness and these great trials, it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning.

Good Star Woman relayed, “Sometimes 20 to 50 died in a day and were buried in a long trench, the old, large people underneath and the children on top.” Author Corinne Monjeau-Marz documented some of these horrendous conditions for Dakota people, including assaults on Dakota women and girls, though she treats the accounts with skepticism. She relates how women gathering firewood ran the risk of being seized by soldiers, “brutally outraged,” and killed, and how the daughter of Orrin Densmore wrote in a letter:

There are a few squaws killed up at the Fort every week, . . . [The Third Regiment] always cut their throats by running against a knife. The Third buries them in a hole, face downwards. Four or five have suddenly died since they went down there, and folks hope the Third will stay up here and take care of them. It is thought they would be spared the trouble of living through winter.

While Monjeau-Marz relays this account, she also calls into question its veracity because she cannot believe such high figures at the beginning of Dakota imprisonment and believes family and friends would have reported this to the captors. Monjeau-Marz clearly has more faith in the integrity of the colonizers than do most Dakota people.

Unfortunately, when Dakota people were sent into exile, it was under equally horrific conditions. The missionary John Williamson, in a letter to his mother, compared the boat trip to Crow Creek to the Middle Passage of slaves stating, “ [W] hen 1300 Indians were crowded like slaves on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed musty hardtack and briny pork, which they had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made fearful havoc during the hot months.” When they landed, Dakota people were imprisoned in another concentration camp where conditions were, if anything, worse than Fort Snelling. Traveling Hail described conditions there, making links between the grave-covered hills and the treatment Dakota people received from the Indian Agent and soldiers. In September 1865, Traveling Hail described the food prepared for Dakota consumption:

They brought beef and piled it up here; they built a box and put the beef in it and steamed it and made soup; they put salt and pepper in it, and that is the reason these hills about here are filled with children's graves; it seemed as though they wanted to kill us. We have grown up among white folks, and we know the ways of white folks. White folks do not eat animals that die themselves; but the animals that died here were piled up with the beef here and were fed out to us; and when the women and children, on account of their great hunger, tried to get the heads, blood, and entrails, when the butchering was done, they were whipped and put in the guardhouse . . . .

By the end of the first summer at Crow Creek, another 300 Dakota people--mostly children--were dead.

That was the summer that punitive expeditions, ordered by General Pope, were sent into Dakota Territory to hunt down the fleeing Dakota, and when successes were measured by how many Dakota were killed and how many supplies were destroyed. For example, Brigadier General Alfred Sully's “success” in 1863 was the perpetration of the Whitestone Hill Massacre when, on September 3, Sully and his men attacked a village of 4000 mostly Ihanktunwan and Hunkpapa people, massacring 100 to 300 people and capturing another 156. While these were devastating population losses, it was just the beginning. White troops destroyed and burned “ [t] ipis, buffalo hides, wagons, travois, blankets, and perhaps as much as half million pounds of buffalo meat.” In destroying the homes, supplies, and food storage that people relied on to make it through the winter season, Sully ensured many more deaths would follow. So close to winter, his acts of destruction might better be viewed as a prolonged death sentence. According to one source, the supplies were “burned for two-days by about 100 men, causing the melted tallow to run down the valley like a stream.” Samuel Brown, who was then nineteen and an interpreter at the Crow Creek concentration camp (and no supporter of Dakota resistance), described Sully's actions in a letter to his father Joseph R. Brown:
I don't think he ought to brag of it at all . . . because it was, what no decent man would have done, he pitched into their camp and just slaughtered them, worse a great deal than what the Indians did in 1862, he killed very few men and took no hostile ones prisoners, he took some but they were friendly Yanktons, and he let them go again . . . it is lamentable to hear how those women and children were slaughtered it was a perfect massacre, and now he returns saying that we need fear no more, for he has “wiped out all hostile Indians from Dakota,” if he had killed men instead of women & children, then it would have been a success, and the worse of it, they had no hostile intention whatever . . . .

On July 28, 1864, General Sully led another attack on a camp of Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people at Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota--no matter that, just as at Whitestone Hill, most of the people at this trading village had not participated in the 1862 War. With 2200 soldiers, Sully's troops killed an estimated 150 of our people, but the final effect of his attack would ultimately be much higher. Sully ordered the village destroyed and the supplies burned.

Colonel Robert McLaren of the Second Minnesota Cavalry, in charge of the detail, listed in his report the extent of the destruction: “The men gathered into heaps and burned tons of dried buffalo meat packed in buffalo-skin cases, great quantities of dried berries, buffalo robes, tanned buffalo, elk, and antelope skins, household utensils, such as brass and copper kettles, mess pans, etc., riding saddles, dray poles for ponies and dogs.”

In the end, more than 200 tons of supplies were destroyed, including somewhere between 1500 and 1800 lodges. Items that wouldn't burn, they rendered useless. “With bayonets, they punctured camp kettles, buckets, and pails. They also shot abandoned dogs.” In doing so, they would serve to inflict more death on the entire population than could likely have been achieved through engaging in acts of standard warfare.

A wagon train heading from Minnesota to the Idaho goldfields offers another telling example. The wagon train was accompanied by U.S. cavalry under the leadership of Captain James L. Fisk. Fisk started his military career in the Third Minnesota Infantry in 1861, but beginning in 1862, as one historian put it, “ [h] is real assignment was to organize overland migration to the gold region in Idaho Territory” because the federal government sought “to acquire the precious metal to help finance the war against the South.” By 1864, he was leading his third expedition and following Sully's army, “ [b] elieving Sully had swept all hostile Sioux in his path away from the trail.” In spite of this, the wagon train continued to encounter resistance to their invasion through Dakota Territory. To help eliminate the remaining Indian threats, as Fisk's train moved on, they left behind a box of poisoned hardtack for hungry Lakota to consume. It did not matter that it might be men, women, or children. This act of chemical warfare, as well as the practice of destroying people's food, clothing, and shelter--essentials to anyone trying to survive our northern winters--demonstrate not just a total war strategy in which entire nations of people are expendable, but also a willingness to inflict upon “the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part.”