The back of a horse is the perfect place for prayer.
Horse’s very name in Dakota – Sunka Wakan – contains “wakan,” a word for sacred.
On the backs of horses, some 60 riders started out December 10 after a day of ceremonies and preparation for the 11th annual Dakota 38+2 Memorial Ride.
From elders to children as young as 8 years old, they have been making their way more than 300 miles through frigid temperatures from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato, Minnesota, planning to arrive on a day of infamy for the Dakota people.
On December 26, 1862—the day after a religious holiday celebrating the birth of a forgiving, loving Christ—the United States hanged 38 Dakota men in a mass execution in retaliation for the six-week-long conflict called the U.S.-Dakota War that was spurred by starvation and repeated violations of treaty promises. Months later two additional men were kidnapped from Canada, where they had fled, and were executed in 1865.
From the back of a horse, these are things the riders remember.
They remember the cold and hunger and pain of their ancestors. They remember the mass imprisonment at Fort Snelling and the diaspora that would follow, the marching and shipping of hundreds of innocent women, children and men from Minnesota on a deadly circuitous route that eventually came into the Dakotas.
As they remember, they pray to heal, prayers not just for the Dakota people, but for all people.
“We start each day with prayer, and we end each day, before we put up the horses, we put up another prayer,” said Wilfred Keeble, a Crow Creek elder and Staff Carrier on the ride. “The message we carry: Reconciliation and healing.”
All along the route, people offer help, Keeble said. This year at a stop near one small town, a non-Native man offered use of his pastureland for the horses. The offer will be open for next year, too, he told them.
“That’s part of the reconciliation … and each year that grows,” Keeble said. “The majority of the communities that we come through, it’s all positive. … Turtle Island here, we have lots of nations that are coming in and lots of cultural divesting. … They’re all preaching reconciliation and this is our way of doing it. At the same time, we have awareness of what took place here in the United States. It’s reconciliation trying to understand this, to help each other.”
Keeble said he encourages the riders to keep their focus on that message; he carries prayers of reconciliation along with the Staff as he rides.
Horses help to keep that focus. “The ride itself is ceremony,” Keeble said.
Horse embodies the six directions used in ceremonies, Mickey Peters, great-great grandson of Medicine Bottle, one of the two executed in 1865, told filmmakers for the 2008 documentary, Dakota 38. The front legs represent West and North, the back legs East and South, the head and ears point to the sky and the tail to Mother Earth, he explained. “When you put those six directions together, it creates a sacred center to bring wowakan. It’s a sacredness that you can only have with these six directions. You can pray on your horse, you can remember lots of things. Some people can remember things their ancestors went through. It’s the horse leading the way, because of its healing power.”
The idea for the “Wokiksuye Ride” came in a dream in 2005 to Jim Miller, Cheyenne River elder and a Vietnam veteran. “Our ancestry starts over there in Mankato,” he told riders before the start in 2008. “Keep that in your heart, keep that in your mind as you travel.”
Even with the attempts to eradicate the Dakota people from the place, the names reflect that Dakota heritage with the town Mankato, makhá tohca or “blue earth,” and the state Minnesota, likely mní sota for clear water or mnißota reflecting the misty “cloudy waters” of morning.
“We’re honoring our ancestors,” said Josette Peltier, Miller’s sister and an organizer on the ride. “We’re honoring the 38 who were hung. This is for healing and reconciling … to heal and to reconcile and to make things work amongst all races. … We have to try to unite. I’ve got grandchildren and our great grandchildren. All the youth, the little ones, those yet to be born, that’s why I’m on the ride, to unite.”
Support for the ride, along with each day’s shelter and food, includes a website where well-wishers post thanks and encouragement and photos and also a Facebook page, an interactive map and a GoFundMe site.
This year has been particularly hard, traversing through blizzard conditions and dangerous sub-zero temperatures. On December 18, the ride was halted for a day when the wind chill plunged temperatures to minus-45 degrees, making frostbite possible in 10 minutes on exposed skin. “Taking a rest day. Extreme low temps too hard on horses lungs,” one support member, Lou Fuentes, posted on Facebook. The final days of the ride were in above zero temperatures—though not far above.
Besides the unscheduled stop, there was a resting period for a few days before the ride continued to Mankato, set to arrive on Christmas day.
Peltier said there are more riders this year than in the past, perhaps because of attention generated by coverage of the Standing Rock water protectors.
“Water is so important,” she said. “That’s going to be in our prayers; we’re going to be praying about that. We are in solidarity with Standing Rock, but right now we’re honoring our ancestors.”
Keeble hopes that reconciliation can extend to the situation at Standing Rock. “Rather than opposing the water protectors, they should be trying to help … not only for the Native people, but for all the nations.”
On December 26, the riders and others will gather at the site of the 1862 hanging for ceremonies and speaking. “There’s going to be prayers,” Keeble said, “prayers for the ancestors and what they went through.”
There will be prayers, too, for a more united future among all the people. And next year, the riders will mount up once again to carry that message across the heartlands of Turtle Island.