Dakota gather at “site of genesis and genocide”

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In 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato. It’s not a piece of information that was celebrated during the Minnesota Sesquicentennial last year. Nor was the concentration camp located at Fort Snelling heralded as part of our rich history. The failure to acknowledge the state’s poor treatment of Native Americans during last year’s 150 year celebration is part of the reason that Dakota people gathered October 2-4 to plan for another 150 year anniversary, which occurs in 2012: The Dakota War of 1862.

More than 100 Dakota people from Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Saskatchewan, came together for the 2009 Dakota Nation “We are One” Free Conference, the first of its kind in what organizers hope to be an annual event for the next four years leading up to the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Dakota War in Minnesota.  

“Minnesota hasn’t even begun to acknowledge its past, and its history,” said Diane Wilson, of the Mdewakanton Dakota, who helped organize the conference. She said that the choice of meeting at Fort Snelling was “enormously significant for our people.”  The Dakota believe that the area is their birthplace, but it is also the place of imprisonment and death. “It’s a hugely painful reminder of what happened,” she said.   

Besides the Dakota participants, 75  K-12 educators, higher education faculty, including some from Hamline University and Mankato State University,  Minnesota Historical Society staff, and several human rights groups attended the event, according to Nora Murphy, one of the conference organizers.

A press release stated that it was important to begin planning for a 150 year remembrance of the War of 1862 in order to promote healing, education, and social justice.   “Native people in Minnesota continue to suffer from the devastating effects of 1862,” the release stated.  “Yet, very little is taught in our schools about what led to the war, or how it resulted in tremendous and ongoing inequities between Native and non-Native people in Minnesota. The Truth-Telling & Listening Circle is a first step towards building a just and safe society for all peoples.”

Leaders converged from various Dakota nations throughout the Midwest, including Fort Peck Montana, Mendota Dakota, Standing Rock Dakota, Lower Sioux, Upper Sioux, Spirit Lake Dakota, Sisseton Dakota, and Santee Sioux Nation among others.  Participants in the conference prayed, feasted, and listened to presentations on cooking, spirituality, and language, and discussed the future in a listening session in which leaders articulated concerns that they felt needed to be addressed.  Participants also toured the Dakota concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and also sacred sites in the area. 

During a session titled “Listening Circle: Truth-Telling in the 21st Century,” a panel of Dakota leaders discussed the challenges of reclaiming their heritage, as well as making sure that Minnesota’s genocidal past is remembered in the 21st century.  Also discussed at the listening session was how the Dakota nations can come together and work as one people.

Many of the panelists at Saturday’s listening session brought up education as a major issue that needed to be improved.  Some speakers said that their communities are still searching for answers about the past.  Because of exile and forced public school education, much of the history and language has been lost. 

“My family is still trying to find out who we are,” said Chet Eagle Man, from Fort Peck Montana.  “Our people have been looking for this for a long time.” 

Jim Anderson, from  Mendota Dakota, said that his community, too, is just beginning to know who they are.  “It’s so beautiful to know the culture,” he said.  “Most of our relatives are afraid to know.”  For his community, the discovery of the past has been fairly recent, but they have embraced the new knowledge, and have held pow wows for the last 12 years.  He described his elderly grandmother dancing for the first time at this event, saying, “every year the eagles come.” 

Yvonne Leith, from Granite Falls, said that as a youth she spoke Dakota, but lost it when she attended public school.  Recently, she has been trying to learn it again.  “We have only nine fluent speakers in Minnesota,” Leith said. “And only two licensed teachers… one of them is my aunt, who is in her 80s.”  She stressed that the Dakota way of life is at stake.  “We need to train learners to become teachers, so that our future generations will know the beauty of the Dakota language.” 

Leith also spoke of the importance of remembering the past, and of the ancestors who died.  She told the story of a warrior who was hung in Mankato  who said before he died:  “Never forget us.  We are doing this for you.  When you hear the thunder and lightning, remember us.” 

Vern Lambert, of Spirit Lake Dakota, said that what was most important was that “we can go back to the old ways.”  He stressed that Dakota need to have two curricula- American and tribal, so that the next generation will learn the tradition and oral history. 

Jim Rock, who is a Dakota teacher and scientist, agreed on the need to strengthen Native ways of learning.  Though he is a physics teacher, he said that the Dakota don’t have a word for science.  “It’s more of a universal curiosity, with respect.  We don’t dissect.  We respect the whole.  We need a curriculum for us and by us.”  Rock said that it was a struggle to work with the public education system.  State standards and “official knowledge” make teaching in the tribal way more difficult. 

Roxanne Gould, an Ojibwe teacher married into a Dakota family, said that each tribe needs its own scholars, linguists, and educators.  “We need to quit asking for permission and just do it,” she said.  She emphasized the need for Dakota tribal colleges, with PhD programs in native languages. 

A number of the panelists addressed the significance of holding the summit at the Fort Snelling site, “the place of our genesis and our genocide,” according to Jim Rock.  In the Bdewakantuwan Dakota  creation story, the area that is now Fort Snelling was where the Dakota people were created.  It is also the place to which 1,700 people were force-marched from Lower Sioux and imprisoned during the war of 1862.  Three hundred people died that winter. 

While some advocated tearing down the fort, others hope to work with the Minnesota Historical Society to include programming and signage for Minnesota to remember what happened to the Dakota.

“There should be proposals to have a memorial built for those who were force marched,” said Gabrielle Tatayuskanskan, who feels that Laura Ingalls Wilder highway should be renamed.  “The Guthrie theater does a fine play for young people to watch.  Whose land did Pa rob?  And isn’t  Laura ingalls Wilder cute? Our children have to watch and then they have to acquiesce in the education systems.”

Tatayuskanskan said that historical interpretive centers and landmarks such as Fort Snelling have to tell the real history.  “What are the tourists coming in here learning about Dakota people?” she said.  “A good nice story?  What were the forts here for?  They were here to kill Indians.  And that history has to be said.”

Travis Zimmerman, site manager and Indian Affairs manager for the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, said that MHS staff was working to improve programming to include more information, signage, and remembrance of Native history.  Regarding Fort Snelling, Zimmerman said that he was a realist, and didn’t believe that the fort would be torn down, as some Dakota have advocated.  “The majority don’t want the fort torn down,” he said.  “It’s better to have it here as a memorial.”  He said that he and other staff were interested in telling the history respectfully. 

 “We always have to remember to protect our land,” said Lori Nelson, from Lower Sioux, “because that’s what they want.  I tell that to my children- protect our land, protect our language, and protect our right to be Dakota people.”

Also brought up at the Listening session was a bill introduced by State Rep. Dean Urdahl, which aims to repeal a federal law banishing Dakota Indians from the state of Minnesota.  Though the bill was passed in the state house and senate, and was signed by Governor Pawlenty, it has not come up for a vote in the U.S. Congress.  “It’s not that simple to repeal a law,” said Lori Nelson of Lower Sioux. 

Nelson also brought up the failed Wolfchild Lawsuit, which was filed in  2003 by the Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate (MMDO), which claimed that, as descendants of Mdewakanton Indians, they have  legal rights to the Shakopee and Prairie Island casinos and lands.  A federal appeals court ruled against the Mdewakanton Dakota earlier this year.   Nelson said the newly elected tribal council does not support the lawsuit.  “We have to come together as Dakota people,” she said.  “What happens to one of us happens to all of us.” 

Many of the speakers agreed that unity was very important in moving forward.  Schisms between those enrolled in Dakota nations and those not needed to be healed, said Kathy Denman Wilke, head of St. Paul Indian Education. 

Melvin Lee Houston, of Santee Sioux Nation said that that as a people the Dakota need to stop dividing themselves.  Divisions between loyalists and non-loyalists, going back over 100 years, was something that “gets ugly,” he said.  “We’ve all been victims…  We need to call ourselves relatives.  Now is the time.  We need to visit each other.  We should be working together.  We need to step it up!” he said.  He said he recognized the need for those in the community to utilize online resources, as well.  “I don’t have a  computer but I’ll be getting one soon.”