Inkpaduta: Villain or Hero

The instigator of the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857, Inkpaduta or Scarlet Point, has become an ambiguous figure in the frontier history of Minnesota and the Dakota Indians.  Much has been written, but not much is clear.  Some consider Inkpaduta a hero who resisted white encroachment and remained true to traditional Dakota life.  While others view him as a villain bent on savagery and murder.

Though disputed, it is likely that Inkpaduta was born in 1815 near present day St. James, Minnesota.  A member of the Wahpekute band of Dakota Indians, Inkpaduta probably enjoyed an adventurous and fun childhood among the picturesque and pleasant lands of what is now southwestern Minnesota.  But life was changing.  Fort Snelling was built in 1819 bringing with it scores of settlers looking for a new and abundant life.  Soon traditional food sources became scarce, disease spread, and intertribal warfare all began to take its toll on the Dakota Indians.  Inkpaduta himself was struck by a smallpox epidemic in 1837 that left his face permanently scarred causing him to appear vicious and ugly.

By 1840, Inkpaduta and his band, led by his father Wamdisapa, left their traditional homeland and settled along the James River in present day South Dakota.  Here the small group of Wahpekutes could maintain a life that was nomadic and free.  Over the following years Inkpaduta’s band roamed through parts of northern Iowa which had been vacated by the Sac and Fox tribe after signing a treaty with the U.S. government in 1842.  But this area was quickly becoming settled and thereby threatened the Wahpekute’s way of life.  In 1832, Iowa had fewer than fifty white settlers, but by 1844, when Iowa became a state, there were as many as 200,000.

In 1851, the Dakotas, like the Sac and Fox, sold their lands and agreed to reservation life as a means for survival.  Inkpaduta did not agree with the land sale and did not take part in the treaty negotiations.  Over the next few years Inkpaduta continued to live a traditional, nomadic lifestyle.  At times he and his band would harass settlers in order to protect their way of life, but most often lived peaceably among white settlers.

Things changed in 1856.  It began with the murder of Sintominiduta, a Wahpekute chief and Inkpaduta’s brother-in-law, by a settler named Henry Lott.  This was followed by a tremendous snow storm on December 1, 1856, and a cold, snowy winter that left many settlers worried about their survival.  Finally, the settlers at Smithland formed a militia, confiscated Inkpaduta’s weapons and forced him from the region.  These and other factors not here named led to a raid for revenge and survival on March 7, 1857, known as the Spirit Lake Massacre.  Not long after, on March 26, Inkpaduta’s band attacked the settlers at Springfield Minnesota.

Following the Massacre, Inkpaduta’s band fled west and avoided several attempts at capture.  It is likely that Inkpaduta joined the Yanktonais where he remained until 1862.  Because he was not captured, Inkpaduta’s reputation as a villain and savage began to grow and every unknown incident of a stolen horse or killed white man was blamed on Inkpaduta despite there being no clear evidence.  Upon returning to Minnesota in 1862, probably to try and obtain annuity monies, Inkpaduta again avoided capture.  It has been argued that Inkpaduta colluded with Little Crow and was present in the planning and preparation of the Dakota War.  However, this is simply untrue.  Inkpaduta did, however, take part in the siege at Fort Abercrombie and in the Battle of Wood Lake which effectively ended the Dakota War of 1862.

In the aftermath of the Dakota War, Inkpaduta fled west along with other Dakota resisters.  In 1863, Inkpaduta joined the camp of Sissetons and Wahpetons under the leadership of Standing Buffalo and Scarlet Plume.  Inkpaduta was present for several of the military campaigns of 1863 and 1864 such as the Battle of Big Mound and the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, but it is unlikely that he took a lead military role as history has assigned him.  Because of his age by this time and his failing eyesight, it is more likely that Inkpaduta acted only in defensive actions to protect his village or people.

In the years to follow Inkpaduta would continue to avoid capture while his reputation as either a villain or a patriot would grow.  Inkpaduta and his small band of followers roamed the land west to the Missouri River and eventually made their way into Canada.  By 1875, Inkapduta returned to the United States and joined Sitting Bull’s band of resisters where they would be safer.  Whether or not Inkpaduta was present during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 is not clearly known.  Several people report his presence during the battle, but at his age it is extremely unlikely that he was considered a war leader or even fought in the engagement.  What is known is that Inkpaduta’s son, Tracking White Earth, was killed during the fight and it is said that his other son, Sounds the Ground As He Walks, was the one to kill General George Armstrong Custer.

Eventually Inkpaduta fled once more to Canada and settled at the Turtle Mountain Reservation.  He died of pneumonia in 1879, free from capture or punishment.  Considering the context of the time in which he lived and the perspective from which he is viewed, Inkpaduta’s historical memory is debatable.  Some, such as the Dakota Charles Eastman say that “Inkpaduta was not a bad man” and that “he was a man of considerable metal gifts and force.”  While others, such as historians Lucius Hubbard and Return Holcombe believe that Inkpaduta’s “nature seems to have been the vilest, and his heart the blackest.”  In either case, he remains a prominent figure in our frontier history who maintained a fierce and noble desire to retain his right to live in the traditional way of the Dakota.

Source:  Beck, Paul N.  Inkpaduta:  Dakota Leader.  Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.