GRAND FORKS — Last week’s activities remembering the destruction of Greenwood, the black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., known as “Black Wall Street,” which occurred 100 years ago, should call to mind examples of what have been called “massacres” in our own region.
The most notorious of these occurred at Wounded Knee, S.D., on Dec. 30, 1890. U.S. troops attacked a band of refugees fleeing from the Standing Rock nation, which extends into North Dakota, after the killing of Sitting Bull on the Grand River, just inside the one-year-old state of South Dakota.
No one knows for sure how many people were killed; the lowest estimate is 250. Twenty of the attackers were awarded military medals.
In 1990, both houses of Congress passed resolutions expressing “deep regret” for the killings. They did not rescind the medals.
Wounded Knee became a rallying point for activists of indigenous rights. In 1973, the American Indian Movement led an occupation there that resulted in several deaths, including two FBI agents.
Leonard Peltier, an enrolled member of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who once lived in Grand Forks, was charged with murder. The conviction has long been controversial; and appeals for clemency have been made repeatedly. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump turned them down.
Peltier has been in a federal prison in Florida for 45 years.
Wounded Knee was not the only such incident on the Northern Plains.
In 1863, Gen. Alfred Sully led troops from Iowa and Nebraska into Dakota Territory, which was just two years old at the time. In early September, he encountered an Indian encampment at Whitestone Hill, which is on the North Dakota side of the line dividing the territory, about a third of the way across the state, near the present-day town of Ellendale.
Whitestone Hill occurred during the American Civil War, and it was largely overlooked at the time, though Sully’s detachment was the largest deployment of troops outside the war zone.
Again, the number of people killed is unknowable. The lowest estimate is about 100, but other reports put the toll at as many as 300. That’s on the battlefield itself. More suffering and death came later, because Sully ordered the destruction of all the meat the Indian people had laid by for winter. This was a recurring tactic; Sully employed it again in 1864, at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, a prominent landmark in North Dakota’s West River Country.
The carnage was not so great on the battlefield; the retreating Indians knew the terrain well and melted into the Badlands of the Little Missouri River. Sully pursued them and still a third battle occurred, the Battle of the Badlands.
George Winship was a member of the 1864 expedition. It was his introduction to Dakota Territory. He soon returned and established the Grand Forks Herald.
Several places in North Dakota were named for Sully. The most prominent of these is on the south shore of Devils Lake within the boundaries of the Spirit Lake nation. The name “Sully’s Hill" has been dropped. The hill is now known officially as White Horse Hill, a translation of its Dakota name.
Sully’s expedition to North Dakota was an episode in what has become known as the “U.S. Dakota War,” which broke out as homesteading began on lands that the Dakota had occupied.
Among the incidents in that war was the siege of Fort Abercrombie, a military post on the Red River in the extreme southeastern corner of North Dakota. Still another occurred at Pembina, also on the Red River but in the extreme northeastern corner of the state.
Dakota involved in these episodes were fleeing retaliation for the deaths of homesteaders, many of them immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. They were bound for Canada.
Many of the Dakota did not escape, however. On the day after Christmas in 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minn. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
After the war ended, the Dakota were exiled from Minnesota; many went to South Dakota’s Sisseton Wahpeton community and to North Dakota’s Spirit Lake nation.
Both Whitestone Hill and Fort Abercrombie are maintained as state historic sites.
Lower Sioux Agency, where the war broke out, has been maintained as a Minnesota state historic site. At their 2021 session, Minnesota legislators voted to return part of the Lower Sioux Agency, site of the first battle of the Dakota War, to the Lower Sioux.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.