Wednesday morning, December 26, was a historic day for reunion, reconciliation and healing. With near zero temperatures and white puffs of breath lingering in the air, a large crowd gathered in Mankato at Reconciliation Park to honor the Dakota 38 in an annual event.
Mankato's Reconciliation Park is the site where, 150 years ago, on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history. It was one of the events that marked the end of the Dakota-U.S. War. Following the war, 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders were forced to march to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Eventually, many Dakota fled or were banished from Minnesota. [See November 22, 2012 issue of the Beacon].
The Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, also known as the Dakota 38 + 2 Ride, also honors two more Dakota who had escaped to Canada but were captured and returned to Fort Snelling, where they were hanged in 1865. Many Dakota have gathered annually since 2008 at the Mankato hanging site, recounting their lineage and relationship to those who died and those who survived.
A Lakota Oglala, Bernie Melter (Winagi Mato - "Ghostbear" in Lakota), of Cannon Falls, attended the screening of the Dakota 38 movie at Cannon Falls High School in November. It prompted him to recall a family trip to South Dakota in 1950.
"On the day the Korean War broke out, we passed through Mankato and I saw the sign, '...on this spot 38 Sioux Indians were hung.' At age 12 it didn't impress me any which way, and no one in my family commented on it."
He continued, "I attended Jim Miller's Dakota 38 documentary to learn more of our history, but I didn't have any expectations prior to the viewing. I had read some on this and was angry that a bounty was put on the life of peaceful people. Church leaders were ambivalent, it seems, about Indians in general. Bishop Whipple and the Episcopal Church did a lot to help, [Whipple's intercession with President Lincoln led to Lincoln reducing the number to be hanged to 38 from an initial list of over 300] but they also tried to assimilate the tribe to Christianity. A Lutheran minister was quoted as saying the Indians were below animals and should be executed and wiped from the face of Minnesota. So much for Christian fellowship. After watching the documentary, I was once again bitter about the Mankato event.
"I had recently returned from the Pine Ridge Reservation and was surprised at the different levels of subsistence on our home reservation. From shacks with tar paper for insulation and broken cars strewn about the home, to modern day Wausau Homes and stick built homes. The mission and churches are present on the reservation, and they do a lot. The land appears suitable for grazing, but not agriculture as we know it in Minnesota. I doubt that I would want to live there. My aunts and uncles owned property outside of the Rez at one time. My mother went to Mission school."
Although Melter was unable to attend the December 26 event, he was impressed by the Dakota 38 documentary and how it represented the Dakota story. "I would hope that more people could see the film and/or hear Jim and his wife, Alberta, speak. News always shows starving Haitians and Africans, but it exists right here at home, too."
The 2012 event in Mankato united participants in the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride from South Dakota and the Memorial Runners (who ran through the night on Christmas from Fort Snelling to Mankato). For the first time since the annual ride started in 2008, riders from the Santee Dakota Tribe in Nebraska and a group of Dakotas from Manitoba Canada, joined riders from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Community leaders spoke during the two-hour ceremony, while Dakota warriors in full headgear, many Indian veterans of recent wars, and all who attended, listened reverently. Dakota/Lakota elder, Sidney Byrd, read names of the executed Dakota 38. He also noted, "I'm proud to be with you today. My great-grandfather was one of those who paid the supreme price for our freedom."
A new memorial for the site was also dedicated this year, the vision of Vernell Wabasha, wife of Chief Ernest Wabasha, Hereditary Chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota Nation. It was designed by Martin and Linda Bernard to resemble a buckskin stretched on poles, and bears the names of the 38 Dakota who were hanged. It also features a poem by Katherine Hughes and a prayer by late Dakota elder Eli Taylor.
Melter's brother, Bill Bremer, Cannon Falls, attended the 150th memorial with their sister Cathy, "and lots of brothers and sisters of the Dakota family." He was present for the arrival of the horseback riders and runners, and attended the unveiling of the new memorial. "I enjoyed the morning of solidarity, sunshine and serenity," he noted, adding, "At 10 a.m. I could even feel / hear the bells of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer back in Cannon Falls being tolled by Rev. Claxton in memory of those who died in 1862 on all sides, Red and White. In all, It was a good day to be Indian! - as are all days."
In addition to the dedication of the new memorial, the arrival of the horseback riders and the runners from Fort Snelling, the ceremony was highlighted with singing, dancing and stories. Many of the riders wore green ribbons to honor those lost in the Newtown tragedy. In a moving ceremony, Pete Lengkeek, after four years as eagle-feather staff carrier for the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, passed the honor to Perry Little.
At the banquet that followed, one of the speakers, Chris Mato Nunpa, read a resolution that was passed by the Minneapolis City Council on December 14. It designated December 26, 2012 through December 26, 2013 as "The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling."
Mato Nunpa noted, "This is a historic document, because it opens the floodgates for the truth to be told."
He spoke first in Dakota and then in English. "As Dakota people would say, I am 72 winters. About 45 of those winters have been devoted to education and teaching, primarily at the university level. One of the battles I have been fighting is that the Wasicu (Whites) do not want to use terms like genocide, because all these things, like bounties, concentration camps, forced marches, mass executions, and forcible removals, would be considered genocide by the five criteria of the 1948 U.N. genocide convention. Yet the White academic structure does not want to recognize them. I've never seen a document like this 'Year of the Dakota' resolution before - at any level, national, federal, state or local."
Alberta Iron Cloud, wife of Jim Miller, commented, "There is power in truth. The Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Ride was dreamed into existence and captured on film in 2008. Since then we have learned much about healing, once the festering wound was opened. We have learned about the importance of identity, we have learned about the power of historical trauma, cellular memory and about the relationship of horses to heal our people."
Alberta continued, "Jim and Silas [Silas Hagerty, the filmmaker] had the opportunity to show the film in San Quentin prison to native inmates. One man stated that now he understood why he was in prison. He wanted to learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disease. We also learned about the power of fear and its generational impact on the coming generations. What was it like for the Dakota families who knew that there was a bounty on their heads? Their flight out of Minnesota must have been a horrible experience that we cannot even imagine.
"We also learned that there are many Minnesotans who did not know the history and who now want this story told in their schools."
Paul Martin, Cannon Falls, attended the December 26 event in Mankato and said he was deeply humbled by the endurance of those who rode from South Dakota in mid-winter. "I was moved by the ceremonies, and the words of reconciliation and the need for forgiveness on both sides. I hope and pray we 'Wasicu' can respond to their offer of forgiveness and a fresh start."
Alberta Iron Cloud also stated," "The most powerful piece of magic is the depth of love that is still in the hearts of the native people - we can all still forgive."