Riding across the southwest MN plains it was not hard to picture what these rolling hills would have looked like 150 years ago. Remove the wind blocks and groves of trees, mentally photo-shop out the farms, railroad, and roads and I began to imagine what it may have looked like to have been riding with Little Crow and his men during the fall of 1862. It was not hard to picture as many of those riding with me are direct descendants of those who fought in this short but devastating war, additionally the songs, prayers and ceremonies we shared today are little changed since that time.
However, by this date of 1862, most of the MN Dakota had been arrested, many had been marched to Fort Snelling, while others were fleeing into Canada or further west, The Dakota38+2 Memorial ride honors those who rose up against a system and people that allowed them to starve while food was stored up within their grasp, but denied to them by greedy traders and agents. Even President Lincoln, who signed the death orders for the 38, accepted the argument that the Dakota had a right to go to war, since they were a sovereign nation and the terms of a treaty had been violated and their survival was in jeopardy. For that reason he stayed the execution of 264 men, however some were later executed while others spent years in prison.
However, riding across the prairie I also had to consider the others whose lives were drastically impacted. The innocent settlers who had no direct relationship to the violation of treaties, yet suffered destruction of property, death, and imprisonment. I thought of those as well as we crossed the prairie. I could imagine the homes from which some had fled and others had been killed. Today in the distance I saw a rising cloud of smoke and I imagined the terror of having your farm and house burned while witnessing your unsuspecting friends and family members killed. I also thought of the Minnesota Military who rode with Alexander Sibley, I wondered what they felt and thought perusing the Dakota warriors, and later as they were guarding the women and children and forcing them to march cross country in the winter cold.
It would be much easier to talk and work for reconciliation if all injustice was one-directional, but it is always more complex. We must deal with the horrors settlers faced, while openly acknowledging the gross injustices inflicted on the Dakota. The raids on settlers did not occur in a vacuum, but by men backed into a corner who had tried to do all they could to live in peace with the white invaders. Yet to most of the unsuspecting settlers, the attacks probably seemed unprovoked. To live in peace with all: that is the meaning of the name Dakota.
Besides historical and philosophical integrity I have an additional reason I must wrestle with this side of the story; the settler is my ancestor. While my people were not here in Minnesota they were not unlike these immigrant settlers. My great-grandparents settled in Nebraska and Iowa, they were the sod-busters who took position of the land as soon as the Native people were forced off. Their heritage and perspective were similar to those in Minnesota and so I cannot believe that their views on the native people were much different.
Today as we spoke at the school in Russell, Peter Lengkeek, a direct descendant of these Dakota warriors acknowledged the terror that had been inflicted on settlers and said, we want to be the first to say we are sorry, it is the only path to healing and reconciliation. One girl in the room knew that some of her ancestors had been killed during the war. I spoke for a bit as well, at the invitation of Richard Milda. I shared my own ancestors’ story and challenged the students to take responsibility and use resources and opportunities they have been given, not just for self, but for others. I referred to Beverly Tatum’s statement in “Race the Power of an Illusion.” She makes the point that while none of us asked to be born into the unjust systems around us we can all ask the question “What can I do” to make the world around me more equitable for all.
So here I ride with descendants of the Dakota 38, new found friends, warriors for peace, their love and humility make me feel small in the presence of their greatness. They offer the white community a lesson in forgiveness and love. But if reconciliation that bears the fruit of justice is to occur we must be prepared to meet the riders with more than a smile and a wave. The riders are a great doorway through which White Americans may come to awareness, and witness an example of love and humility. But true reconciliation requires that all resources are made available, including open minds and open hearts. Then perhaps, we can together begin to create a new future where we openly acknowledge the sins of the past while working together to find pathways that undo the inequalities resulting from unjust policies that surround this little war and it’s devastating and lasting impacts.