An historic gathering for the Dakota in Mankato, December 26, 2012


A large and historic gathering of Dakota people flooded Mankato’s Main Street, the site of Reconciliation Park, on the morning of December 26. The event was a reunion of sorts, bringing together participants in the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride and Memorial Run, Dakota people from other states and Canadian provinces and many others who wished to be a part of what Dakota/ Lakota leader Arvol Looking Horse described as “a new beginning of healing.” [Photos below]

Reconciliation Park is the site where, 150 years ago, December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history. It was one of the punitive 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. Ultimately, many Dakota fled or were banished from Minnesota. [Read more about this history and the Dakota Commemorative Walk I reported on in November]

The memory of the those events lives on and many of the Dakota gathered on Saturday keep a careful account of their lineage and relationship to the people, those who died and those who survived those traumatic times. The Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, also known as the Dakota 38 + 2 Ride, honors two more Dakota men who had escaped to Canada but were captured and returned to Fort Snelling, where they were hanged in 1865.

On Wednesday, as people gathered beneath a bright blue sky filled with puffs of breath in the near zero temperatures, a new memorial for the site was dedicated. The sculpture was 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 look like buckskin stretched on poles and bears the names of the 38 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato along with a poem by Katherine Hughes and a prayer by late Dakota elder Eli Taylor.

Surrounded by Dakota warriors, veterans of recent wars, the men who were executed one hundred and fifty years ago were honored as Dakota/Lakota elder Sidney Byrd read their Dakota names. He said, “I’m proud to be with you today. My great-grandfather was one of those who paid the supreme price for our freedom.”

Announcer Jerry Dearly introduced various community leaders who spoke during the two-hour ceremony. In addition to the dedication of the new memorial, the arrival of the horseback riders and the runners from Fort Snelling was noted with singing, dancing and stories. Pete Lengkeek, after four years as eagle-feather staff carrier for the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, passed the honor to Perry Little in an emotional ceremony.

After the outdoor presentation, the horses were trailered up and a banquet was held at the Courtyard Mankato Marriott Hotel. Many people gathered there to enjoy food and share stories and speeches.

At the banquet I spoke with Stephanie Hope Smith who works with Native communities providing logistical support at powwows and commemorative events such as these. She and her son Caleb rode on horseback for several days with the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride. They wore green ribbons with the letter “N” in the center, to bring prayers of healing for the people of Newtown, Connecticut, where they had recently visited.

Earlier in December, Hope Smith had been asked to help members from Red Lake reservation, some of them survivors of the massacre there in 2005, bring a plaque that had been given to the Red Lake community by survivors of Columbine. Hope Smith helped arrange travel (including ten plane tickets donated by United Airlines) for 23 people.

She described the visit to Newtown as one that offered “the ministry of presence, just being there, sharing a heart connection–[one that says] we know where you’ve been because our community has been through this. You could sense this amazing instant rapport between the community and the Red Lake students who brought the plaque along with the message, may this never travel again.”

This week, Hope Smith shared the story of Newtown with the Dakota 38 +2 horseback riders and in particular she spoke about Jessica Rekos, age 6, who perished in the Newtown shooting. Hope Smith described the “heart connection” because Jessica loved horses: “She read about them, watched movies about them, loved everything about horses–and then we knew that we were coming to this amazing healing ride.” Hope Smith said, “There was this common weaving of grief and tragedy for members of different communities–Dakota, Red Lake and Newtown but that these groups can stand in solidarity and bring hope.”

Christina Welch and Frybread, both 28, classmates, AIM members and Anishinabe from Red Lake were part of the group that visited Newtown and were members of the gathering in Mankato on December 26. Frybread’s daughter Wabooze, age 8, was one of the runners (she ran part of a mile) who started at Fort Snelling on December 25 and ran through the night to reach Mankato.

Welch says that she was invited to join family members on the trip to Newtown and wanted to go because, “I feel bad for the kids and the parents. I feel like they were our kids too.” She added, “It was hard and heavy; you could feel everybody’s pain–the whole town. We sang songs and we lifted their spirit a little, plus I don’t think they knew about Native Americans so, I think they were in awe.” Frybread said, ”I brought my eagle feather. We used that to heal people. I smudged people, when I was there, to help.”

Vanessa Goodthunder was one of the riders who wore a green ribbon. This is her seventh year on the ride and she said, “This year is the largest it’s ever been!” She wore a green ribbon because, she said, “They are praying for us over there [Newtown], my heart is happy when I hear that. Those are some strong people over there. I prayed for them on our little four-mile journey today.” She told me that her Dakota name is Ṡna Ṡna Win which means ‘Jingle Woman.’ She has just completed her first semester at the University of Minnesota with a double major in American Indian Studies, the Dakota language study track, and history.

There was a sense that history was being made on December 26, 2012. It was brought into focus by one of the speakers at the banquet. Chris Mato Nunpa read a resolution that was passed by the Minneapolis City Council on December 14 just two weeks ago. It designates December 26, 2012 to December 26, 2013 as “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling.”

Mato Nunpa said, “My point of view is that this is a historic document, because now it opens the floodgates for the truth to be told.” He paused to put it in context, speaking first in Dakota and then switching to English, “As Dakota people would say, I am 72 winters, and about 45 of those winters have been devoted to education and teaching, primarily at the university level, and one of the battles I have been fighting with them all the time is that the Wasicu do not want to use terms like genocide–because all these things like bounties, concentration camps, forced marches, mass executions, forcible removals–all of those would be considered genocide by the five criteria of the 1948 U.N. genocide convention, and yet the White academic structure does not want to recognize them… I’ve never seen a document like this at any level, either national, federal or state or local levels, and here we have one right here.”

The Dakota 38 Memorial was the vision of Vernell Wabasha, wife of Chief Ernest Wabasha, Hereditary Chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota Nation.

The temperatures were near zero and people were bundled in jackets, blankets and buffalo robes.

Duane Doc Wanna, member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Vietnam Veterans Kit Fox Society.

A sesquicentennial jacket in the crowd.

Dakota veterans of recent wars were there to honor the warriors of the Dakota-U.S. War.

The Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride arrives to great fanfare from the crowd.

Two young riders.

The riders gathered their horses at Reconciliation Park.

One of the young riders.

Some of the riders wore green ribbons in honor of Newtown, Connecticut. This rider carried a picture of shooting victim Jessica Rekos, who loved horses.

The riders and the horses braved very cold weather this year.

Riders assemble to hear the proceedings.

Many were cold and tired after beginning the journey on horseback in South Dakota two weeks ago.

Stephanie Hope Smith and her son Caleb.

Carl Maza in headdress.

Elder Reverend Sidney Byrd read the names of the 38 Dakota men who were hanged in 1862.

An emotional exchange as Peter Lengkeek passes on the staff to Perry Little.

Chief Avrol Looking Horse speaks to the crowd.

Peter Lengkeek has led the ride for the past four years.

War veterans were an important presence at the memorial event.

Many Dakota came in full regalia in honor of the proccedings.

The banquet table was full of food for the large crowd.

Best friends Christina Welch (left) and Frybread (right) with Frybread’s daughter Wabooze.

Vanessa Goodthunder wore a green ribbon during the ride in honor of the people of Newtown, Connecticut.

Chris Mato Nunpa read a resolution that was passed by the Minneapolis City Council on December 14.

Also in the Daily Planet:

Dakota Commemorative March: Retracing 150 miles of forced march at end of Dakota-U.S. War (Lisa Steinmann, 2012)

Telling the story today: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Sheila Regan, 2010)

Trail of treaties: The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 (Sheila Regan, 2010)

Dakota protesters meet sesquicentennial wagon train (Scott Russell, 2008)