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Co-Opting the Memory of the Dakota 38+2

A column by Waziyatawi about the 38+2 memorial ride.
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The Idle No More campaign is in full-swing to the north, and Dakota people associated with the 38+2 memorial horse ride have apparently abandoned the struggle for justice for Indigenous people here with the promotion of their mantra “forgive everyone everything.” That feel-good slogan will be literally etched in stone on benches that will be placed around a new memorial in Mankato, Minnesota next summer.

This emphasis on reconciliation at the site of the largest mass hanging from one gallows in world history (yes, it used to be listed as a Guinness World Record) illuminates a deep split within the Dakota population that remains 150 years later.

Not all Dakota people are eager to offer forgiveness to the occupiers of our homeland. The crimes of genocide, ethnic cleansing and land theft are too great for time alone to heal. Furthermore, the injustices continue through the ongoing occupation of our homeland, the diaspora and exile of our people, the denial of our rights to religious freedom including access to sacred sites, the lack of access to traditional foods, the theft of our children, the mass incarceration of our population, the imposition of colonial systems and institutions on every aspect of our lives and the daily exploitation and destruction of our homeland. In 1862, Dakota warriors fought to defend our land, our people and our way of life. Thirty-eight of them were hanged in 1862 as a consequence of their resistance to occupation and two more were hanged in 1865. But the struggles remain the same today and we are still in need of warriors to achieve justice and liberation for our people.

The vision of the horse ride in honor of the 38+2 began with Jim Miller, a Lakota Vietnam veteran. He determined it was about peace, healing and reconciliation. That is, he came to Dakota people with a message about how our resistance fighters should be honored. Imagine if a Dakota person had a vision about how Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull should be honored, brought that vision to Lakota people, and then determined the honoring should be about peace and reconciliation. I hardly think such a vision would be embraced by our western relatives. Unfortunately, some Dakota people have followed his vision and the result is an absurdly extreme position (“forgive everyone everything”).

Furthermore, in all the media coverage surrounding the horse-ride memorial, it is not clear why they are honoring the 38+2. The prominence of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation in the rhetoric of the horse riders is what would better be associated with the “cut-hair,” “friendly” or Christian Indians who sided with the whites in 1862—the people who were considered traitors by Dakota standards. The message of peace and forgiveness would make sense if the riders were honoring those ancestors. It is not what one would associate with the 38 men hanged at Mankato or Wakanozanzan and Sakpe hanged at Fort Snelling. Far from being advocates of peace and reconciliation, they were Dakota men who took up arms because they believed in the righteousness of our struggle

This has created a dilemma for those of us who want to honor the 38. On the one hand, we participate in the memorial events, including the ride and the run, and attend the Mankato ceremonies because we want to honor the resistance of the 38. On the other hand, in participating, we have swallowed the rhetoric of reconciliation because we did not want to criticize any event intended to honor our resistance fighters. With the unveiling of the memorial statue at Mankato and the open commitment to forgiveness without justice, however, those of us who disagree can no longer afford to be silent. We must distinguish ourselves from the Dakota/Lakota men who have decided on behalf of our people that justice is not necessary.

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What took place on December 26, 2012 at Mankato was a spectacle tailor-made to serve colonizing interests. With an impressive display of riders on horseback, some in regalia and headdresses, and hundreds of spectators gathered for ceremony and speeches, Arvol Looking Horse announced that with peace in their hearts, they were initiating a new beginning of healing. The mayor of Mankato, Eric Anderson, read a proclamation declaring this the year of “forgiveness and understanding.” In one fell swoop, all the wrongs of the past were forgiven.

At least some Dakota people do not agree, however. We understand that the rhetoric of peace and reconciliation does nothing to alter the relationship of oppression. To the victims of genocidal oppression, in fact, that rhetoric does more harm than good. Osage scholar George Tinker has written about how the push for peace and reconciliation without justice only legitimates the status quo, “The bottom line is that nothing of substance is changed. Politically and materially, native people remain as disempowered and dispossessed of their land and resources as ever.” This is certainly true in the Minnesota context where Dakota people occupy only a fraction of one percent of our original homeland and the vast majority of our population remains in exile.

Sometime before he was hanged in 1865, Sakpe told Colonel Robert N. McLaren, “I am not afraid to die. When I go into the spirit world, I will look the Great Spirit in the face and I will tell him what the whites did to my people before we went to war. He will do right. I am not afraid.” That sense of righteousness was carried in the Dakota oral tradition. My unkanna (grandfather) Eli Taylor from Sioux Valley described the 38, saying:

Wicahcadakiya otke wicayapi, hena maka tehindapi….Wowaste un hena otkewicayapi. Okicize ekta yek hena wowastek un hena wicaktepi.

They hung some old men, those who cherished the earth…. For that righteousness they were hung. They killed the ones who went to war for that righteousness.

Those of us who seek justice are honoring the righteousness of resistance in the face of oppression. We honor the thirty-eight who were executed that cold morning 150 years ago because they fought for our people and homeland. Only when justice has been achieved will we talk of peace and reconciliation.

Waziyatawin, PhD
Wahpetunwan Dakota
Pezihutazizi K’api Makoce (Land Where They Dig for Yellow Medicine)
Waziyatawin is a Dakota writer, teacher, and activist from the Pezihutazizi Otunwe (Yellow Medicine Village) in southwestern Minnesota. She earned her PhD in American history from Cornell University and currently holds the Indigenous Peoples Research Chair in the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria. She is the author or co/editor of six volumes, including the recently co-edited volume with Michael Yellow Bird entitled For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook (SAR Press, 2012).