Plains Folk

150 Years Since Whitestone Hill


Everybody was talking about the frogs. For some of the younger folks on the scene, they were the highlight of the day. Some people thought there was something spiritual, maybe even biblical, about the investment of frogs, but I’m pretty sure they were there just because we were alongside a slough, and the grass was newly mown, but who knows?


The locale was Whitestone Hill State Historic Site, in Dickey County, near Kulm. The event of the day was the observance of 150 years since the assault on an encampment of Dakota and Lakota people, mainly Yanktonais, Ihaŋktoŋwaŋna, by US troops under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Sully. This was a tragic event that resulted in the deaths not only of fighters on both sides but also of hundreds of noncombatants.


On the day of remembrance, there was a daylong program featuring scholars Indian and white speaking under a big tent. The day concluded with a feast of buffalo, the meat provided by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.


The involvement of Dakota and Lakota people in the day’s program was particularly interesting, because that has not always been the case with events at this historic site. It was not without precedent, however.


You see, the soldier monument dedicated at the site by the state in 1914 always made some local settlers—white settlers—uncomfortable. They honored the dead soldiers, of course, but they were not sure they agreed there was any military victory at Whitestone Hill to celebrate. In fact, they rather sympathized with the Indian peoples who had sought to defend their country against what was, to them, and invading host.


So the settlers took up a collection and constructed another monument, a modest but significant one, “In Memory of the Sioux Indians Who Died on This Battlefield / September 3-5, 1863 / In Defense of Their Homes and Hunting Grounds.” They invited the people of Standing Rock to come over for the dedication on the 4th of July, 1942.


So here came Basil Two Bears, Yanktonais descendant of a chief who was at the site in 1863, and a Standing Rock delegation that included his four-year-old granddaughter, Alberta Two Bears. They found the monument draped with an American flag. At the appropriate moment, little Alberta pulled off the flag, unveiling the monument. Then everyone posed for a historic photograph, which the state historical society has made available via the Digital Horizons initiative.


150 years later, Alberta’s son Richard, a North Dakota State University graduate in pharmacy, did me the honor of introducing me to his mother. We walked over to the monument and made another historic photo, with Alberta and Richard on either side. I will cherish this always.


A few days after the public events another, quieter meeting took place at the Heritage Center in Bismarck, as the state historic sites review board gathered to consider the nomination of Whitestone Hill to the National Register of Historic Places. An attempt to pass the nomination several years ago had failed on account of a lack of consultation with the tribes. Dakota scholars, including LaDonna Allard and Tamara St. John, were brought in to balance the narrative by establishing the antiquity of Yanktonais residence in the region and the enormity of suffering that took place in 1863. I am told that tears of grateful release were shed as the board voted to approve the amended nomination.


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