Last night I sat in a Christmas eve service with my family. It was a beautiful service but my mind kept straying out the window, the clear sky displayed a brilliant sunset. I knew my brothers in the Dakota 38+2 ride were wrapping up the day, praying, and feeding the horses. My imagination took me from the corral in Cortland today to the prison in Mankato 150 years ago.
I thought of the story we had heard along the ride, of the police chief in Madison SD. He shared with riders last year a journal of his grandfather’s. This man had guarded the 38 who were awaiting death in Mankato, and those who were later sent to prison in Davenport IA. His journal explained how these Dakota men had become friends, even as he was their guard. The Madison Chief of Police went on to explain how that had been an issue of shame for some of the family; “how could anyone befriend these savages?” But for the police chief, it was a matter of pride, that his grandfather could see beyond prejudice and fear in to a place of friendship.
I wondered to myself, “how many of those who crowded arround the gallows on the 26th of December, also crowded around the manger scene the day before?” What was on the mind of those parishioners as they contemplated the coming of the “Prince of Peace” while they simultaneously planned and prayed for the execution of many, and the exile of all the Dakota from Minnesota. This to me this is one of the most shameful aspects of both the causes and the results of this conflict. While many Americans like to claim we are a “Christian Nation,” there was nothing in the overall narrative of the relationships of Minnesota and the Dakota that reflect the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Most of the Dakota who were executed were baptized Christians, many of them were guilty of nothing more that going to “just war” as defined by Christian theology. The majority of the Dakota never took up arms against their oppressor, yet all were exiled. Many of the Dakota had embraced the Gospel and become Christians, yet this meant nothing to a people who wanted the land to themselves. Regardless of a shared faith, the prejudice of culture and color would not allow the white settles to see the Dakota as true brothers. True, acts of terror were committed by Dakota warriors. However, in comparison to the terror inflicted on the Dakota by Minnesotans and the US government, before and after this small uprising, far eclipse in both scope and scale.
As the Warriors went to the gallows they sang a song together. A Dakota Hymn. A Christian Hymn.
Written by Joseph Renville in 1842:
Wankantanka Taku Titawa – “Many and great, O God are your works, Maker of earth and sky.
The second verse they sang takes on powerful meaning considering nooses are being put over their concealed heads.
Grant unto us communion with you, O star abiding One; Come into us and dwell with us; with you are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end, eternal life with you. Listen to the melody here.
As we spend Christmas night with our families, may we consider what reconciliation and the message of Christmas really requires of us.