Co-Opting the Memory of the Dakota 38+2


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.

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).


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candyo's picture
It is difficult to forgive someone or a a group of people who take away something so dear to you as land, a loved one or some other object of affection but you should let it go or it will shrink your own heart and cause you to have affliction. We came in this world with nothing no land, no clothing and we will leave with nothing.
Anonymous's picture
Awesome article. As a member of Mexican Indigenous people who are still fighting and being pulled into fights against one another by the outside and colonizing forces...I wholeheartedly agree.
mikevandyke's picture
We natives of Latin America have been dealing with this stuff 300 years longer than you, our cousins from the north. In Mexico it is still being played out today...all the mixtures of opinions and arguments based on religion, skin color, relatives who are non-native and ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation. I don't know what the solution is but I side with the articles basic premise...there can be no reconciliation without justice and restitution. Neither is a quick fix...it would take 20-50 years of carefully constructed programming of training, access, legislation and "decolonizing of the mind" for us to truly be free again. I wish there was a common goal or idea that would supercede all the petty battles I've listed above. So far in Latin America, after 521 years, none has shown up. To Wakpa Woowatonna, you don't have to forgive to carry on and be free. Think about a spouse or a sibling that has wronged you...if you remove them from your life and start a new one....you can be happy and forget. But if they meddle in your life ever after....then you have a problem.
Anonymous's picture
Damakota Mitakuyapi! Waz does spark the spirits of who we are as Dakota people. "I forgive you for killing my ancestors and the great impacts of the hurts of my people who still suffer". I cannot swallow this thought in my blood, I remain to carry the voices of our women and people who would say otherwise, not so easily forgiving fore they did not heal and make it in wasicu world. Until you experience your own blood die in your arms and women who remain to be raped, I live and breathe the painful cycles that no where near ready to forgive, thats good others may have healed and transformed to forgiveness, my blood memory always goes back to the death of our people. I stay close to my people, always have and will out of love and compassion. I did not travel far away from the memories of the genocide committed against my people. The dream would have been even powerful if the outcome of the vision was for our own people to heal among each other and the riders would dedicate their warrior-ness to protect our women and children. As a Dakota woman when I walked the whole day in the Dakota Women's March in cold sleet rain in honor of my grandmother, the only time it hurt is when I stopped to put a prayer stake in the earth for our ancestor. On the 7th day of walking the Dakota death march in to the destination of Ft. Snelling, the imprisonment camp where our ancestors were prisoners, my completion of my prayers were not forgiveness to the wasicu's. The prayer that manifested was it was time for our matriarchs to heal and unify, and hopefully there will be a sacred space for the Dakota women to speak, share and teach at the gatherings. Our matriarchs are still wounded and need our help, until our matriarch foundations are healed and we wipe our own tears of forgiveness, then it is time for us women and men to heal and create peace amongst ourselves. I would like to see all those men in the Dakota 38 documentary speak of how they are healing themselves and how they are creating peace with the women and with their own people instead of forgiving every wasicu along the way. I understand that we as individuals could make friendships with allies and supporters, however that doesn't give myself the right to say I forgive all wasicus while honoring the Dakota 38+2. Its as if I'm riding out of my own camp from South Dakota into Minnesota Dakota camps and bringing a vision for them to forgive. I respect that the men and women completed the ride, I tried not to attend the memorial ceremony that day, but my spirit spoke otherwise because I wanted to know what the message was being carried by the sunka wakans, their energy and riders. I spoke my heart's feelings and words, I am grateful today and will listen and really hear all our voices, our true feelings are not right nor wrong. Just maybe we can weave a prayer together with all the spiritual energy and intelligence. Cetanskanwacinwin
Anonymous's picture
Thanks to the Dakota people and all our supporters who rode horseback or traveled to Mankato to honor the lives of the 38 + 2 who were executed by the USA. Actually many hundreds more Dakota lost their lives in the years to follow 1862 as our ancestors were forced into captivity and starvation at places like Fort Snelling and Fort Thompson. Yet it is also true that our ancestors also killed several hundred White people in Minnesota at that time as it was a time of war. I am proud that the Dakota stood up and fought for our peoples' freedom in a just war against the USA. I respect Waziyatawin's point that the forgiveness and reconciliation message is purely symbolic without the USA making amends and restitution. However, I would say that most of the Dakota people who are engaging in the commemoration activities understand this so it is not correct for Waziyatawin to say we don't want justice because we do and we are taking steps towards that goal and hope that Waziyatawin will continue to contribute her considerable intellectual insight in support of that direction. For some guidance that might help us find the right terms to discuss this I'd recommend a book by Phil Cousineau called "Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement."
Anonymous's picture
Waz, Pilamiya for your words of wisdom, I stand in solidarity with you and share the same beliefs. Your sister Michelle Tyon
Anonymous's picture
I was at Mankato on 12-26-2012 as a member of the Gordon Weston Veterans Post from the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, I was there to remember the sacrifice made by the 38 Mdewankton hung 150 years ago. A war that was only supported and lead by the Chiefs and Warriors of the Mdewankton-Wahpekute Dakota Bands. Our people were turned away and guns pointed at our grandmothers and grandfathers by the bands at the Upper Sioux Agency. History needs to reexamine this part of the 1862 Dakota War, the sacrifices made by the 38 + 2 hung, and the Historical Grief the Mdewankton-Wahpekute and their decedents the Dakota Exiles suffer today. Scott Anderson, Mdewankton Dakota, Flandreau, SD, AIM Combat Veteran, Sun Dancer at Crow Dogs Paradise, Grass Mountain Community, Rosebud South Dakota.
Anonymous's picture
The author makes several declarations as to what is in the hearts and minds of the Dakota 38+ 2 Riders. I cannot know what is in the hearts or minds of every rider, or even those who run or walk in honor or commemoration of their ancestors, but I can share what is in my heart and mind, and I respect the prayers of all my Dakota relatives. The author assumes that the riders of The Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Horse Ride are not justice seekers. The assertion that justice cannot be achieved through spirituality or through healing and reconciliation is short sighted and just plain silly. The Ride began with a spiritual foundation inspired by a dream in 2005. Over the years, it has grown and has become an annual ceremony based in prayer, peace, understanding and commemoration. It has become an annual journey back to the homeland-Mni Sota Makoce, and a reconnection to our Dakota kinship and our four legged relatives that carry us and our prayers. We all struggle with the concept of Forgiveness, which in this case has nothing to do with the federal government, which is not off the hook in my mind. Forgiveness does not let anyone off the hook or leave institutions unaccountable. It is spiritual endeavor. And while not intended to be political, it is also clear that some of the most effective social justice movements on earth were based on peace and spiritual power. From my perspective, healing and justice is achievable through peacemaking, education, and cross-cultural understanding based on spiritual power. We may not utilize academic jargon to the fullest, and we may not follow the rigid standards of the author’s political correctness, but I’ve ridden with strong, brave, committed Dakota men, women and youth and children for many years. They prayed and honored their ancestral experience and returned home to work diligently in their communities, within several systems and on many issues. I know they will continue the dream of healing.