The midnineteenth century was a difficult time to assume Dakota leadership because the contest over Dakota lands and resources had reached full intensity. From the time the first treaty was signed by Cetanwakanmani in 1805, the pressure to cede Dakota lands and abandon Dakota ways only intensified. A series of land cessions in 1837, 1851, and 1858 severed large chunks for white settlement and eventually confined the Dakota to a narrow strip of reservation land bordering the Minnesota River. Taoyateduta was faced with the difficult challenge of attempting to negotiate justice in the face of repeated treaty violations by the U.S. government, continued white incursions on Dakota land, and constant colonization efforts organized among missionaries, traders, and Indian agents that served to deeply factionalize the Dakotas and undermine Dakota leadership. He consistently sought peaceful solutions to these problems and attempted to maintain good relations with whites in southern Minnesota, tolerating the Christianizing and civilizing efforts and addressing grievances through negotiation. Given the invading settler population, however, peaceful relations were impossible to maintain as long as the Dakotas were committed to maintaining their lands and way of life.
Taoyateduta's peaceful efforts ceased when he agreed to lead the Dakotas in war at the outbreak of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. The Dakotas had been pushed beyond their limits in the hot summer of 1862 when they were facing starvation as a consequence of another U.S. treaty violation. When a small group of Dakota warriors killed five white settlers near Acton Township on August 17 and the Dakotas faced the likelihood of a severe backlash, they knew they could not continue to live under those circumstances. The young warriors pleaded with Taoyateduta to lead them in war, and, though he initially refused to engage in what he knew was a futile effort, he reluctantly agreed when they called him a coward. In his famous speech, he finally conceded, "Braves, you are little children—you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon. Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you!"
On the morning of August 18 the Dakotas began their attack on the Lower Sioux Agency, killing most of the whites they encountered and taking others, primarily women and children, as prisoners. These actions set the Minnesota frontier settlements into a panic, and terrified white settlers fled to the nearby towns and Fort Ridgely. When news of the war spread to St. Paul, Governor Alexander Ramsey commissioned Henry Sibley to lead a regiment of 1,400 men on an expedition against the Dakotas. Once the white forces were mobilized, the Dakotas moved to a defensive position and the war was quelled.
After the final battle was fought at Wood Lake on September 23, 1862, and the release of the 269 white and mixed-blood prisoners was subsequently arranged, Taoyateduta left his Minnesota homeland heartbroken. He fled the state, as did thousands of others, to either Dakota Territory or Canada. After spending time farther west attempting to rally indigenous support for continued resistance efforts, Taoyateduta traveled to British Canada to try to build an alliance against the Americans. Without success, in the summer of 1863, he returned to Minnesota with only a small group of Dakotas.
On July 3 Taoyateduta was shot while picking raspberries with his son, Wowinape, by Nathan and Chauncey Lamson, who received bounty payments for their deed. Unfortunately, attacks on him did not end with his death. His body was dragged through the town of Hutchinson, and white boys celebrated the Fourth of July by placing firecrackers in his ears and nose. After he had been scalped, mutilated, and dismembered, his remains were displayed and kept at the Minnesota Historical Society for 108 years before they were finally returned to his family and laid to rest in Flandreau, South Dakota.
From the start of the war to the time of his death, Taoyateduta fought unceasingly for the Dakotas' right to exist in their homeland. He embodies the spirit of indigenous resistance in a struggle that persists today.
Waziyatawin Angela Wilson
Anderson, Gary C. 1986. Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.