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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 7, 2004 - Issue 106


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Running The Gantlet
A Thrilling Incident of Early Days at Fort Snelling - Part Two

by (Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Volume 1)
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The wounded men were then, with their own joyful consent, placed on litters and borne to the guardhouse. The Dakota prisoners were paraded before them and they identified two of the number, as having belonged to the band of assassins.

"I deliver them into your hands," said the Colonel to the Chippewa warriors. "They have deserved death, and you may inflict it, or not, as you think proper. If you do not, they must be tried by the laws, which govern us Americans I have no power to put them to death. You may let them go, if you please; I wash my hands of the matter." This speech was interpreted faithfully to the Chippewas, but none of them answered. Instead of speaking, they examined the flints and priming of their guns. The Little Soldier drew from beneath his robe a few fathoms of cord, cut from an elk skin, and presently secured the two criminals, fastening them together by the elbows. it was observed that he drew his knots rather tighter than it was absolutely necessary; but no one blamed him. The Dakotas were then led forth. As soon as they passed the gate, the Chippewas halted and cocked their guns, for their vengeance was growing impatient.

"You must not shoot them under our walls," said one of the officers.

"I hope you do not expect us to take them very far," replied a Chippewa.

The procession then moved on. One of the Dakotas struck up the death song. The other attempted it, but did not succeed; his voice sank into a quaver of consternation. The Chippewas led them to a rising ground; about two furlongs from the Fort, there halted, and bade them run for their lives. They were not stow to obey the mandate, and their executioners gave them thirty yards law. At that distance, six guns were discharged at them, and they fell dead. Instantly the prairie rang with the Chippewa cri de joie, and the executioners rushed towards the corpses, with their knives bared, yelling like fiends. Twice and thrice did each plunge his weapon into the bodies of the prostrate foes, and then wipe their blades on their face or blanket. One or two displayed ferocity which those only who saw, can entirely realize. They drew their reeking knives through their lips, and exclaimed, with a smack, that they had never tasted any thing so good. An enemy's blood was better than even firewater. The whole party then spat upon the body of him who had feared his fate, and spurned it with their feet. They had not tasted his blood. It would, they said, have made their hearts weak. To him who had sung his death song, they offered no indignity. On the contrary, they covered him with a new blanket. They then returned to the Fort.

The Colonel met them at the gate. He had prevented all over whom his authority extended from witnessing the scene just described and had done his best to make the execution the exclusive business of the Chippewas. He now told them that the bodies of the slain must not be suffered to remain upon his land, where the spectacle might grieve the Dakotas who were innocent of their crime. The party retired, and proceeded to the slaughter ground. They took the dead Dakotas by the heels, trailed them over the earth to the bluff, and then threw them over a perpendicular precipice a hundred and fifty feet high. The bodies splashed and sunk, and nothing more was ever seen or heard of them.

Among the Dakotas detained in the guard-house was an old man named Khoya-pa, or the Eagle's Head. We knew him well--he once cheated us out of a considerable amount of merchandize; but it was in the way of trade, all-fair, according to Indian ethics, and we bear him no malice. He had not slept during the night, but had tramped up and down the floor, deeply agitated, to the extreme disturbance of the soldiers. One of those who were put to death was his nephew. When this young man was designated by the wounded Chippewas as one of the assassins, and led forth to suffer death, his tears flowed; and when he heard the report of the guns, which ended him, his emotion became uncontrollable. He immediately sent for the commanding officer.

"Father," said he, "the band of the Batture aux Fievres are bad people. They are always getting themselves into trouble, and others are always sure to suffer with them. It was foolish to shoot the Chippewas last year, but they did it, and perhaps one of my grand-children will be scalped for it. What they have just done was a folly. They persuaded my nephew to join them, and he is dead. Let them take the consequences of their own act themselves, this time. I know where I can find two more of them, and if you will lot me out I will bring them to you, and you may put them to death, as they deserve, or spare them--as you please. If you slay them, I shall be glad; if yon let them go, I shall be sorry. They ought not to be suffered to bring the whole nation into disgrace and trouble."

"If the Colonel lets him out, I wonder when we shall see him again?" said one of the guards to another.

The Colonel knew the Dakota character better. "How long will it be before you return with the man-slayers?" said he to Khoya-pa.

"By sunset to-morrow night," replied the Eagle Head, "I will be before your gate, and if I come alone, you may give my body to the Chippewas."

The sun was high in the heavens when the Eagle Head departed, with his gun in his hand and his knife and tomahawk in his belt. It is sixty miles from St. Peter's to the Batture aux Fievres, and he arrived there early the next morning, having slept an hour or two in the woods near the village. He went straight to the lodge of Sagandoshee, or "The Englishman," for so was the father of Toopunkah Zeze named. The family were already awake, and the murderer was relating his exploit with great glee when Khoya-pa entered.

"You have acted like a dog," said the old man to Toopunka Zeze. "So have you," he added, turning to the other assassin. "Some one must die for what you have done, and it will be better that your lives be taken, than that others should die for your folly. There are no worse men than yourselves in our nation. I tell you, you must die. Rise and go with me, like men, or I will kill you like dogs where you sit."

So saying, the old man cocked his gun and drew his tomahawk from his belt. The women began to scream and scold; The Englishman's brow grew dark, but no opposition was offered. Perhaps the men were afraid to harm the Eagle Head, for though he was not recognized as a chief, his sons and sons-in-law were many, and his influence was considerable. Any one who should have harmed him would have certainly have suffered for it. Besides, his reputation as an upright and valiant man was high; he was tall and erect, and age had not withered his muscles and sinews. Whatever motives might have restrained the families of the criminals from opposing the aged warrior, Toopunkah Zeze showed no disposition to disobey him. He rose with the utmost alacrity, handed the EAGLE HEAD a rope, and tendered his arms to be tied. When he was secured he requested his father to thrust sharp oaken splinters through the muscular parts of his arms that the Americans might see that he cared not for pain. "The Englishman" -- his father -- complied, without uttering a syllable!

The other criminal was pale, trembled, and seemed wholly stupefied by terror. However, he submitted passively to be tied. "Now," said the Eagle Head, "start--walk before me, and that briskly, for you must die at the American Fort before sunset, and it is a long distance."

Just before sunset that day, the Colonel and another officer were standing at the gate of the Fort. "It is late," said the latter, "and our old friend does not show himself yet. I do not think he will. He would certainly be a fool to come back to what he thinks certain danger; for he had nothing to do with the murder."

"If I had kept him," replied the commanding officer, "no good could have come of it. He was impotent, and could not have been convicted, supposing that any of our courts may be competent to try him. I believed that he would keep his word, and bring the real criminals, and I have no doubt about the propriety of the course I shall adopt with them. I trust the Eagle Head yet; and by heaven, he deserves to be trusted! Look!--there he comes, driving the two black sheep before him."

"Indeed, the old man and his prisoners came in sight at that moment. They soon arrived at the gate. "Here they are, father," said the Eagle Head. "Take them; and kill them, and if that is not enough for the safety of my people, take my life too, I throw away my body freely."

The white chief' told Khoya-pa that he was at liberty from that moment, and made him a liberal present, after which the old man withdrew. A hasty council was then held with the Chippewas, to whom the victims were tendered, as the two first had been.

By this time a considerable number of the Dakotas had assembled about the prisoners. "You must die now," said one man. "The white chief has given you to the enemy."

"I know it," replied Toopunkah Zeze, "and I am ready. I shall fall like a man. Bear witness of it. Here, Falling Leaf, take my blanket--I shall have no use for it. Take my ear-rings, Gray Woman."

He sat down upon the ground, and, with the aid of others, divested himself of his ornaments and apparel, which he distributed to those who stood nearest. His dauntless mien and handsome person made the whites, who looked on, sorry for him. He was in the bloom of youth, not above twenty at most, six feet high, and formed after Nature's best model. Stain the Belvidere Apollo with walnut juice, and it will be an exact likeness of Toopunkah Zeze. He refused to part with the two eagle's feathers. One of them he had not yet worn two days, he said, and he would not part with them. The Chippewas would see that a warrior was about to die.

The companion of Toopunkah Zeze followed his example in giving away his clothing, quite mechanically, it seemed. It was evident, though he did not speak, that he was not equal to the circumstances in which he was placed. He was a villainous looking fellow; such a man, indeed, as a despotic sovereign would hang for his countenance. He had the most hideous hare lip that we ever saw, and was thence called by the Dakotas, The Split Upper Lip. He was known to most of the white men present as a notorious thief, a character very uncommon among Indian men, though not among Indian women.

The Chippewa chief, Flat Mouth, thus addressed the commanding officer:

"Father, we have lost one life, and it is certain that one more will die of his wounds. We have already taken life for life, and it is all that our customs require. Father, do not think that I do not love our people whose blood has been shed. I would fain kill every one of the Nahtooessie tube to revenge them, but a wise man should be prudent in his revenge. Father, we Sandy Lake Chippewas are a small, a very small band, and we are ill armed. If we provoke the Nahtooessies too far, they will come to our country in a body, and we are not able to resist them. Father, I am a very little, weak chief. (The varlet spoke falsely, for he was the biggest and most corpulent Indian we ever saw.) Father, we have already had life for life, and I am satisfied."

Up started the Little Soldier, fire in his eye. He was properly named, being a very little man, almost a dwarf. Yet he was thick set, active and muscular, and his spirit was great. Little as he was, he enjoyed the repute of being the bravest and most successful warrior of Sandy Lake. He it was, whose brother had been slain the year before at the "Murder Pole."

"Our father with the Flat Mouth, says that he is satisfied," said the Little Soldier. "So am not I. We have had life for life, as he says, but I am not satisfied. This man, (pointing to Toopunkah Zeze,) shot my brother last year, and the sun has not yet set twice since he shot my wife also. This other aided him. They deserve to die, and they shall die. Hoh!" he added to the prisoners, signifying that they must march.

Toopunkah Zeze sprang to his feet and began to sing his death song. It was something like the following, many times repeated:--

I must die, I must die,
But willingly I fall.
They can take from me but one life;
But I have taken two from them.
Two for one, two for one, two for one, &c.

The Split Lip was wholly unable to imitate his brave companion. He burst into tears, and piteously implored the commanding officer to spare his life. He did not deserve to die, he said, for he was not guilty. He had killed no one--his gun had missed fire.

Here Toopunkah Zeze ceased singing, and indignantly interrupted him. "You lie, dog. Coward, old woman, you know that you lie. You know that you are as guilty as I am. Hold your peace, and die like a man--die like me." Then, turning his face away with an expression of exceeding contempt, he recommenced--

Two for one, two for one—a and strode forward, dragging the Split Lip after him.

Arriving at the place of execution, the Chippewas gave them law, and fired. The Split Lip was shot dead on the spot. Toopunkah Zeze was also stricken through the body, but did not fall. One bullet had cut the rope, which bound him to his companion, and he instantly started forward with as good speed as if he had been wholly unhurt. A shout of joy arose from a neighboring copse, where a few Dakotas had hidden themselves to witness the spectacle. Their joy was of short duration. The Little Soldier's gun had missed fire, but he picked his flint and leveled again. Toopunkah Zeze had gotten a hundred and fifty yards from his foes, when the second bullet struck and killed him instantly.

After this catastrophe, all the Dakotas quitted the vicinity of Fort Snelling, and did not return to it for some months. It was said that they formed a conspiracy, to demand a council, and kill the Indian Agent and the commanding officer. If this was a fact, they had no opportunity, or wanted the spirit to execute their purpose.

The Flat Mouth's band lingered in the Fort till their wounded comrade died. He was sensible of his condition, and bore his pain with great fortitude. When he felt his end approach, he desired that his horse might be gaily caparisoned, and brought to the hospital window, so that he might touch the animal. He then took from his medicine bag a large cake of maple sugar and held it forth. It may seem strange, but it is true, that the beast eat it from his hand. His features were radiant with delight as he fell back on the pillow exhausted. His horse had eaten the sugar, he said, and he was sure of a favorable reception, and comfortable quarters in the other world. Half an hour after, he breathed his last. We tried to discover the details of his superstition, but could not succeed. It is a subject on which Indians unwillingly discourse.

For a short time after the execution of Toopunkah Zeze and his accomplices, the Indian country remained quiet. The Dakotas avoided all intercourse with the whites. They were angry at the death of their fellows, indeed, and spoke of vengeance among themselves; but they either were convinced of the justice of what had been done, or knew the superior force of the whites too well to think of taking any active measures.

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