A ride for reconciliation
Once again, American Indian riders and their supporters made the journey from South Dakota through SW MN to Mankato to commemorate a tragic time in the United States' history — the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors and then an additional two — in 1862
So much has been taken from the Dakota people. Yet somehow, they’ve never lost their ability to love and to forgive others.
For more than a decade, a journey toward healing and reconciliation has taken place during the Dakota 38 + 2 Wokiksuye Ride, which honors the 38 Dakota warriors who were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, as well as two additional chiefs who were kidnapped from Canada three years later, brought back to the United States and then executed.
Even today — 155 years later — it’s the largest mass execution the U.S. government has ever carried out. A documentary film called “Dakota 38” combines the history of the hangings with the spiritual ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato. Riders come from all over the country and world to take part in the 16-day, 330-mile trek.
“These events and this ride is very personal to me, just knowing what my ancestors went through,” said Jason Schartley, who is Santee Dakota. “Many of my ancestors were involved in the Dakota War of 1862, the subsequent displacement and exile of our homeland and everything that has happened to them since. How do you respond to that?”
Schartley was among eight speakers who recently shared their personal journeys with those in attendance at Living Word Lutheran Church. He was also part of the group of about 60 riders who made their way into southwest Minnesota.
“The people on this ride, whether it was your family or not, we’re all here for much of the same reason and that’s because knowing what happened — these events, this history, once you understand it — compels you to do something,” Schartley said. “This is something we can do to bring honor to our ancestors and healing to ourselves and our people.”
Schartley said he’s viewed the documentary several times, noting that it gets more difficult every time.
Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, was instrumental in starting the Dakota Ride after a vision came to him in 2005. Miller said he ignored it at first, but eventually began to embrace the message from his dream. He and others share their feelings throughout the 78-minute film.
“We’re trying to reconcile, unite, make peace with everyone because that’s what it means to be Dakota,” Peter Lengkeek said in the documentary. “To be Dakota means to walk in peace and harmony with every living thing. That is our way. In (Jim Miller’s) vision, he saw riders going east — going home. That’s what we’re doing. We’re going home.”
Lengkeek pointed out that white settlers had been encroaching on them, eventually pushing them “onto a little bitty strip of land along the river.”
“All of our people were put there and we weren’t allowed to leave or hunt,” he said.
The Dakota were promised rations as part of the treaty, but people got greedy, Virgil Taken Alive said in the film, adding that “the wasichu” started skimming off the rations and starving the Dakota people. That’s when a trader said, “Let them eat grass.”
In the documentary, Sidney Byrd said, “Indians could not leave the reservation. If they left without permission, they would be considered hostile and could be shot on sight. The Dakota rose up to defend themselves — from starving to death and to protect their land, their way of life and their people. Was it wrong to defend ourselves?”
Byrd’s daughter, Pam Byrd, spoke loud and clear at Living Word, where she told about her father and how he’d died just over a year ago at nearly 100 years old.
“From the day I was born, I heard the story of the 38 + 2,” she said. “I grew up knowing my people were hung. My father didn’t want the history hidden under a rug, swept under. He said someday, maybe somebody will stand up. It may not be me, but somebody will stand up for us — for me, for you and for all of us.”
Pam Byrd said her father wrote the history on the 38, for which they honored him on this year’s ride.
“During the stop in Flandreau (South Dakota), they ran the horses by Little Crow’s grave and by my father’s grave,” she said. “My father and grandfather were pastors there (Flandreau First Presbyterian).”
From her father, Byrd said she came to understand that a person has two families — something that riders most often come to realize.
“He said you have family of the blood that you are born to and that you can never change,” Byrd said. “But there is another family and that is of your choosing. It’s a family of the heart. And he says those are ones, over the course of your life, you find you can’t live without and they move your spirit and your heart.”
South African Sharlene McGilvray said she feels a connection with her “new family.”
“I’m South African, but I’m Indian at heart,” she said. “It’s so incredible to be here, to witness such forgiveness and healing.”
McGilvray said she was drawn to the ride after watching the documentary, which was shown in clips at Living Word.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I needed to be ‘here,’ but I didn’t know where ‘here’ was until 2013,” she said. “I pushed a button on the computer and it popped up. I started watching it and within five minutes, I knew I’d found what I was looking for all of my life.”
This is the third year that McGilvray has been part of the Dakota 38 + 2 Wokiksuye Ride.
“I fly in from South Africa to do this ride because that’s how much it means,” the BMX world champion said. “It’s life-changing. It’s so sacred and so healing to honor such beautiful people. We need a lot of healing in our country, too, so I do it for our country as well.”
Wisconsin native Keith Nichols said he has no Native lineage in his bloodline, but wanted to be part of the experience because of what he witnessed on the video.
“I saw such kindness and giving with communities along the way,” he said. “And I felt, as a white person, this reconciliation and healing that is critical, can only happen when you are with another person, culture or group that you’re trying to reconcile with.”
The 2017 Ride is the sixth for Nichols, who called those involved “a wonderful family to have.”
“We love to laugh, but we cry a lot, too,” he said. “It is a ride of healing and reconciliation. It took me about three years to figure that out.”
Nichols added that the journey is not one of perfection. People on the ride often have significant problems and are in a lot of pain.
“I don’t think I can name one Native American friend of mine who hasn’t had a brother, sister, mother, father or child who hasn’t committed suicide,” Nichols said. “It’s just so prevalent. There are beautiful things that happen on the ride, but there’s difficulties, too, and we deal with them as a family and try to help each other that way. We build that camaraderie. That’s what keeps me coming back each year. And it’s not just in December. I stay in touch with them throughout the year.”
Roland Roach is a young man who learned his family ancestry led back to four of the men who were hanged in the mass execution.
“I was shocked to learn that,” he said. “But it’s what drew me to the ride.”
Richard and Cyndy Milda were also among the speakers.
“I think it’s important that we educate and teach along the way,” Cyndy Milda said. “Medicine Bottle (he and Chief Shakpe are the +2) was one of my grandpas. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Richard Milda would be the first to say his journey toward healing and forgiveness has been a turbulent one. Due to the deeds done to Native Americans, including the initiative to assimilate called the Relocation Act, Milda said his father was extremely angry.
“I grew up in a violent home,” he said. “My father hated white people. And it was embarrassing. He would fight — at a stoplight, a grocery store, a theater. If a non-native was staring at him, I knew there was going to be a fight. He was a Vietnam combat veteran and he grew up violently. He just didn’t take it.”
Milda, who says he’s been sober for 31 years, admits he had anger toward the system and toward people who called themselves Christians, saying, “How, if you believe in Jesus Christ, could you allow this and not speak up?”
Milda said the late Rosalie Little Thunder, who took him as a little brother, was a living treasure who helped translate the Bible to Lakota.
“She’d want me to say that we had a god,” he said. “We very much had a god that we praised and had songs, rituals and ceremonies that incorporated prayer and action. She’d want me to tell you that we were not godless. We were not heathens.”
Milda said Christians needed to believe that in order to do what was done to them.
“They had to dehumanize us and demonize us,” he said. “You’d have to do that to another human being with a spirit and a soul, and not just to warriors, but to women and children.”
People could argue that there were horrible deeds done on both sides during the U.S./Dakota War of 1862. Though there was never an official report, some estimate the number of settlers killed at more than 500. Many of the Dakota surrendered. And after sham trials, 303 Dakota men were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln later commuted the death sentence of 264 of the warriors.
When asked how the 38 were picked, Milda said, “It was very random.” He then told a story about a sheriff who found the diary of his great-great grandfather who had been a lieutenant stationed in Mankato during the executions.
“This sheriff read straight from the diary that his great-great ancestor knew the men, and he was saying out loud in protest, ‘He’s innocent. He’s innocent. He didn’t do anything,'” Milda said. “They were picked randomly, but also strategically. And this very western, Marlboro-looking man was crying, along with everyone within earshot. It was so healing for him.”
A large number of Dakota women and children, as well as the elderly, were also held in a concentration camp near Fort Snelling, where hundreds died from diseases that spread quickly. Minnesota eventually voided its treaties with the Dakota and banned them from living within its borders.
“This journey is not only about healing, it’s a homecoming for the Dakota people,” Schartley said. “After the war, our people who lived here for thousands of years were expelled from the state. You could take me and my children to this state in 1863 and it would not only have been legal to kill us, the state would have paid you to do it.”
The scalp of Little Crow, who had led the first raids, is shown in the documentary along with a receipt for a bounty that was paid to the farmer who shot Little Crow while he was in a field picking berries with his son.
“That’s heavy,” Schartley said. “But that’s what our ancestors went through. They lost everything we knew, including our homes — where we lived for generations. All of our sacred sites, gone. Thousands of years of history just taken from us. To be able to come back, it speaks a lot about how far we’ve come.”
According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in September 1863, a $200 bounty given as a reward for “each top-knot of a bloody heathen.”
“To my knowledge, millions and millions of Native Americans — more than in the Holocaust — took place in this country,” Milda said. “We have entire tribes that have been rubbed out on the east coast. It’s interesting that a lot of people still don’t know the history. It’s very selective. And it’s selective for a reason. But we need to make sure something like this doesn’t get repeated.”
In the film, retired professor of Dakota Studies Chris Mato Nunpa said he looks forward to the time when “white America” can acknowledge what really happened in the country.
“Maybe they can acknowledge the massive land theft of 3 billion acres within the continental United States,” he said. “Maybe they can acknowledge the broken treaties — over 400 of them broken and violated by the United States of America. Maybe they can acknowledge the genocide that occurred — 16 million Native people within the continental U.S. around 1500 and by four centuries later, in 1900, the U.S. Bureau of Census said there’s 237,000 left. So what happened?”
Like the pounding of the horses’ hooves on the ground as they travel east, the beating of Milda’s heart reminds him that he’s alive, and he’s looking to the future with optimism.
“What drew me to the ride is love — I kept hearing Jim Miller talk about love,” Milda said. “I kept hearing him say forgiveness. I know, growing up with a violent father, that anger and violence isn’t the answer. So for me, it’s about love, reconciliation and healing.”
Support throughout the Dakota 38 + 2 Ride has also been encouraging, the speakers said. Along with riders, there are also people who feed, water and take care of the horses — the horses have to be switched out every 7 miles. Staff carriers with the prayer ties are also exchanged for different legs of the route.
“The staff is like a memory stick,” Milda said. “The staff is the backbone and the feathers represent people or events. The staff we carry has 38 + 2 eagle feathers on it and was dedicated in prayer and ceremony.”
Volunteers are also needed to prepare food for the large group. On Monday, riders were greeted with open arms in Russell.
“I’ve helped set up for them in Russell for 10 years,” Roger Hook said. “It’s special.”
With the help of cook Kris Hurst and others, Hook said the riders were served supper Monday night and breakfast on Tuesday morning before the riders headed toward Marshall.
“We do it to help the Natives, who people need to realize, are just like us,” Hook said.
Peg Furshong, operations and program director for CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), was key in coordinating an annual stop at Living Word for the riders the past five years.
“This is one of the causes she’s very passionate about,” the Rev. Kelly Wasberg said. “And we’ve had a pretty good turnout of people from the community who support the riders as they move from Russell to Vesta.”
Wasberg acknowledged a connection because of the spiritual nature of the memorial ride.
“It’s about remembrance, mourning and awareness,” he said. “And it’s about reconciliation, which is one of the main messages of Christianity. So it’s not a stretch to have them come in, regardless of their background and faith group, to be blessed.”