Skip to main content

Author Diane Wilson Brings Kids Back to Dakota Culture and Values

Garden imagery sprouts throughout Diane Wilson’s new book, Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life (Borealis Books, 2011). That’s not surprising, given that Wilson, a Mdewakanton Dakota mother and grandmother, directs the Dream of Wild Health farm, where Native children—who travel about 45 minutes from Minneapolis/St. Paul—work and learn in an heirloom-vegetable garden.

In her book and on the 10-acre farm, Wilson explores WoDakota, a concept that elders explain to her involves “becoming Dakota every day.” To find out what this means and help shape a Dakota world—and by extension a larger world—in which every child is safe and beloved, Wilson recounts the stories of Dakota people who are rediscovering their traditions and thereby healing themselves and their communities. She quotes Dakota historian David Larsen: “If you know what’s been taken away, you can reclaim it.”

Among those Wilson writes about in Beloved Child are the teenagers at Dream of Wild Health and Clifford Canku, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Canku led the team that translated heartbreaking letters written by Native men incarcerated after the 1862 Dakota War. In another chapter, Wilson writes of the time she spent with Harley Eagle, Dakota from Canada’s White Cap Reserve, and his wife, Sue. They show Wilson that reconnecting with traditional ways and participating in ceremonies restores the dearly held values intertwined with those rituals. “The essence of those ceremonies was to help us remember [certain values, including] courage or generosity or humility,” Harvey says in the book. In a chapter on Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, the artist and poet speculates that the land itself misses seeing Dakota people and hearing their prayer songs.


Wilson met several of the people she writes about in Beloved Child while participating in the Dakota Commemorative March. The 150-mile biennial walk honors the 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders who, after the 1862 war, were forced to march to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, Minnesota. The war, a starving people’s desperate attempt to retake control of their lives, was “lost before the first shot was fired,” Wilson writes. It resulted in the hanging of 38 warriors at Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.

After the hanging, Dakotas were expelled from Minnesota, with bounties on their scalps running as high as $200. With most of the men captured or killed, it was predominantly women, children and the elderly who were forced into exile, Wilson writes. As they passed through towns on their way to their first destination, Fort Snelling, crowds pelted them with stones, cans and rotten food and scalded them with boiling water. Wilson recounts eyewitness reports that, among other incidents, a settler grabbed a baby boy and smashed his skull, and a soldier ran a grandmother through with a saber. Many died during this phase of the journey.

Hundreds more died of starvation and disease at the group’s next destination, the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota. They arrived in the spring of 1863, following a riverboat journey that historians have compared to the slaves’ passage from Africa. A missionary at Crow Creek reported that in 1864 most of his students were older children, since nearly all the youngest ones had died the year before.

“We had a genocide here in Minnesota,” Wilson says. “The United Nations definition of genocide? We meet all the criteria. It happened during the war, then afterward—unrelenting ethnic cleansing.”

The Dakota exiles were barely settled on reservations when the first boarding schools opened—in the late 1800s—and another assault on the children began, writes Wilson. Year after year for a century, Native children were forcibly removed from their communities and shipped to residential institutions, where many of them were stripped of their language and culture, savagely beaten and, in many cases, sexually assaulted in the name of assimilation. To this day, Native children nationwide are many times more likely than white children to be taken from their families and placed in foster care or adopted out of their communities, Wilson reports.

That systematic destruction of a culture led to horrifying statistics—on alcoholism and suicide, for example—that threaten to define Native people, Wilson writes, “forging an identity as eternal victims.” This in turn makes it easy for non-Native people to feel comfortable with mascots and other stereotypes that continue to damage the Native community, she warns.

Day after day at Dream of Wild Health, Wilson strives to undo the negative images and stitch together healthy ones. One of the most important ways, she writes in Beloved Child, is by teaching the children a traditional Dakota view of the earth: “[The] belief that the earth is a resource, as opposed to a living, sacred being, has had a devastating impact on Native people.” To support the traditional perspective, employees at the farm—including a farm manager, a farmer and beekeeper, a nutritionist, an elder/cultural director and an education-programs coordinator—offer inner-city Native children (ages 8 to 18) classes in gardening, nutrition, crafts and cooking.

During the summer, the Dream of Wild Health’s van takes children to the farm from Minneapolis and St. Paul for day programs ranging in length from two to four weeks. Teen programs run year-round and involve working at the farm, as well as in the farmers’ markets that Dream of Wild Health runs in the Twin Cities. “In the case of the teens, they can get a real job with a monthly stipend,” says Wilson. “In applying to become what we call Garden Warriors, they write an essay. We’re looking for leadership potential, since we want them to become advocates for these ideas.” In addition to chores at the farm, the teenagers work at farmers’ markets in the Twin Cities and in the garden’s mobile market-in-a-van, which delivers fresh produce to Native neighborhoods.

On a recent warm, sunny fall day at Dream of Wild Health, a half-dozen youngsters tidied up the garden beds for the winter, sorted beans for cooking and seed-saving purposes, enjoyed a flavorful lunch made from produce fresh from the two-acre garden, went over their duties for the winter months and learned to braid corn so it can be hung up to dry. Because they understand that plants, including food crops, rely on pollinators, they even allowed bees to buzz around without swatting them. “When they come here, they’re afraid of insects, but then learn how much we need them,” says Wilson, a trained master gardener.

The youngsters also discover that even the heirloom-seed collection that Potawatomi elder Cora Baker donated to the garden needs them. “The seeds have to be grown out and then selected for certain characteristics to be replanted next year,” Wilson explains. “Otherwise, they don’t adapt to their current climate, soil and air quality. They need the human decision-maker for their survival.”

Reconnecting with the land in these ways is at the core of remaking the cultural connection, Wilson says. “We don’t teach the kids to farm the land as a commodity. We show them how to have a relationship with it, treating it with the respect we show our mothers. Reestablishing the relationship is also part of restoring a sense of wellness in the Native community.”

The kids say they love the farm because it’s safe and fun, but also because it’s quiet. Silence, Wilson learned from elders, is highly valued in the Dakota culture, because it “allows you to listen and to hear the voice of the Creator.” With that ability, a person is in a position to learn about the culture’s other commonly held values—dependability, respectfulness, helpfulness, compassion, positivity and bravery.

Native people are still under siege, says Wilson—“for their land, their resources and their spirituality”—and she hopes she can help create a compassionate world in which the harm done to Dakotas and other American Indians is publicly acknowledged, and in which each human being can hear the silence and know that he or she is a beloved child. 0