History of the MN Conference UCC: Expulsion of the Dakota

The following is the fourth history segment in a series, shared regularly in COMMAntary to help us come to terms with our past. We’re doing this not to be mired in nostalgia for “the good old days,” but to consider what our history might tell us about God’s aims for our present and future ministry.

For hundreds of years, or perhaps even thousands, the Dakota people lived in the area covered by today’s Minnesota Conference. Today, though, only 4,000 Dakota people live here, with only eight fluent Dakota speakers left. What happened?

Part of the answer lies in the mid-19th century. Between 1831 and 1863, relations between Anglo-Americans and the Dakota collapsed. In the 1830s, Congregational missionaries worked with Dakota speakers such as Joseph Renville to translate the Bible into Dakota (thus making Dakota a written language for the first time). At the same time, though, increased Anglo-American migration forced the Dakota off land they had called home for centuries. That pressure increased in the 1840s, and in the following decade, Anglo-American political leaders made and then broke multiple promises to and treaties made with Dakota communities. Those broken promises would lead to war just four years after Minnesota became a state.

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is extensively covered elsewhere (you can read more about the war in general here and can find the impact on your county here). For our purposes, though, it’s important to note the impact of the war on Minnesota as our context for ministry. The war ended with the largest mass execution in American history in Mankato (where the condemned sang “Wakantanka Taku Nitawa,” which is Hymn #2 in the New Century Hymnal).

After the conclusion of the war, the U.S. Government exiled Dakota peoples to present-day Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Some Dakota peoples fled north to Canada, with descendants remaining in places like Winnipeg. A very small number of Dakota, protected by white people (including Congregationalist missionaries), were allowed to remain in Minnesota because they had adopted white ways of living. While some of the exiled families have since returned to the North Star State, this mass expulsion radically changed the ethnic makeup in what we now call the Minnesota Conference.

Even as the Dakota presence in Minnesota was decimated, the Ojibwe presence continued. Today, the Ojibwe outnumber the Dakota in Minnesota by a ratio of ten to one, with nearly twice as many Ojibwe reservations as Dakota reservations. Even with those significant numbers for the Ojibwe community, the U.S. Census reports that only 1.4% of today’s Minnesotan population identifies as American Indian/Native Alaskan of any tribe or band.

Of the many lasting impacts of the U.S.-Dakota War, perhaps none reshaped our context for ministry more significantly than the expulsion of nearly all Dakota persons after the war. While this expulsion didn’t exactly create a “blank slate” for white people, it did give rise to the myth of Indians “riding off into the sunset” that continues to shape our public life even today (as with the conversation about changing our state flag).

In coming weeks, the history of the Minnesota Conference will focus more on European-American immigrants to the state, including how many of our current congregations came to be. Still, the story of the Minnesota Conference cannot be divorced from the 19th century realities of how the Dakota and Ojibwe experienced the arrival of folks like the Anglo-American Congregationalists.

Photo credit: Indian camp, Dakota Territory, 1865. MN Historical Society

© Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ | 2023