Lesson 14 – Chief Red Iron (Mazasha)

Lesson 14 – Chief Red Iron (Mazasha)

When the time came to make the initial payment following the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, Chief Red Iron (Mazasha) and his band of Sisseton Dakota strongly opposed the deceitful terms of the Traders’ Paper, a document which transferred the treaty money directly into the hands of the traders.  When confronted by Governor Ramsey who threatened to take all annuity money back, Red Iron responded:  “Take the money back.  If you don’t give us the money, I will be glad, and all our people will be glad, for we will have our land back.  That paper was not interpreted or explained to us.  We are told it gives about 300 boxes of our money to some traders.  We don’t think we owe them so much.  We want to pay our honest debts, but not fraudulent ones.  Let our Great Father send three good men here to examine the accounts and tell us how much we owe, and whatever they say we will pay.  That is what our Chiefs and all our braves say.”  Despite Chief Red Iron’s objections, the money was paid to the traders without proper investigation.

Chief Red Iron (Mazasha)

In 1846 Chief Red Iron succeeded Big Walker (Tankamani) as chief of the Wahpeton Dakota located at Traverse des Sioux.  In 1851, he played a prominent role throughout the treaty negotiations with the United States government.  As described by a participant at the treaty negotiations, Red Iron was “about forty years old, tall and athletic; about six feet high in his moccasins . . . and [had a] physiognomy beaming with intelligence and resolution.”  Red Iron was considered progressive in his ideas.  As early as 1845, he and his brother had each built for themselves a neat log cabin, barn, and storehouse for their field products.  In fact, when time allowed during the treaty negotiations, Red Iron was known to be off hoeing his corn and potatoes.

In later years, Red Iron was a member of the Dakota delegation to Washington in 1858 and signed the treaty at that time.  He was opposed to the war in 1862 and he and his band helped protect the captives at Camp Release.  He also served as an Indian scout during the years 1863 to 1866.  He was rewarded with a plot of land on a beautiful lake a few miles west of Sisseton City, South Dakota.  He died there in 1884.

Excerpt from Ceding Contempt

I saw that Red Iron was in distress, but I did not shy away.  “May I ask, do you oppose the treaty?”

Red Iron looked at me, his eyes dark but gentle.  “I am not the Dakota I once was.  I no longer follow the buffalo or migrate with the fawn.  I feel the winds of change and it carries me along.  If my people are to survive, they too must change.  We are poor and have nothing to eat, but the white man has plenty.  His fires are warm and his tepees keep out the cold.  I fear this treaty because we must sell our hunting grounds and the graves of our fathers.  We must sell our very own graves.  But to do otherwise would be to create our own graves.  I think we must accept the treaty or the winds of change will blow us away.”

“That does not seem just,” I stated adamantly.

“The white man knows no justice,” replied Red Iron calmly.  “He makes promises he does not intend to keep.  He says things he knows to be untrue.  His greed is not like his thirst or his hunger; it cannot be quenched.  He is not satisfied to share the land, he must have it all, giving nothing in return.”

“I did not know these things before coming here.  I lived in ignorance.  Is there nothing that can be done?” I asked.

“You are young,” noted Red Iron.  “I did not mean to incite the innocence of youth through my words.  Your presence is enough.  Do what you came to do and record my peoples.  Use your crayon and create our likeness and represent our land.  Capture it in its last moments, before it is gone forever.  That is what you can do.”

Red Iron slowly got up, nodded, and walked away.  I gave no farewell and thought on his words.  I felt conflicted, but I knew his wisdom was greater than my own.

Read more about Red Iron and other Dakota chiefs

See this blog post on YouTube.  


Thomas Hughes, Indian Chiefs of Southern Minnesota, (Mankato, MN:  Free Press Company, 1927).


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