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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Anonymous's picture
Wasteyelo. Waziyatawin raises good points, as a Lakota I do not think it proper to speak on the my behalf of my eastern relatives unless asked to by them. I would also remind people that our Lakota ancestors did not support the Dakota in their war of survival. Had we presented a united front like the Haudenosaunee once did to the washicu maybe things might not have even come to this. But instead they fractionalized and looked after their own interests and like the Haudenosaunee when they divided during the American Revolution eventually lost almost everything because they did not stand together. I look forward to reading more of her work, for as a Winyan, whether a Dakota, Lakota, or Nakota, she has a right to speak and be listened to. Pilamiya
Two Bears Growling's picture
Well put sister! To many of we like-hearted peoples the crimes of the washichu government happened yesterday. There will be no forgetting the mass murders of our many peoples through the centuries by all the Invaders from Europe. The evil of the washichu races tainted our spirits with their cruelty. Our minds cannot forget what destroyed our many people's way of life, our hearts & spirits. The Creator wants us to forgive, but this is a hard thing for us because the horrors of the past are STILL etched in our minds & spirits. If only these washichu were truly sorry for the horrors their ancestors inflicted upon our many ancestors. Even today I hear of many things STILL being done to our peoples! Even today we are mistreated by the foolish & ignorant ones. When does it stop? How can a spirit heal when the injustice is STILL going on? Our people still cry from the past wrongs & evil things committed on our ancestors & many people even this very day! How I pray to our Creator for healing of our many peoples of the past & present alike. We need that healing to heal all that has been committed to our many peoples far & wide, a healing of the spirit of each one who has been affected from the past & present alike. How I would love to see healing prayers, prayer circles, etc. sent up to our Creator from our many, many peoples far & wide. Continued until that healing heals our hearts, our minds & spirits. Idle No More brothers & sisters, add this request to your agendas. Hoa. Two Bears Growling Buffalo's Thunder
Two Bears Growling
The Pope must rescind the Doctrine of Discovery before the Catholic church can be forgiven.
The Pope must rescind the Doctrine of Discovery before the Catholic church can be forgiven.
Anonymous's picture
Well said.
Anonymous's picture
forgive everyone everything? i dont think so. how disappointing this statement came out of a ride to remember the biggest mass execution of the dakota nation. honor our treaties and make retributions then we can talk peace and forgiveness!
Anonymous's picture
Brilliant as always !
rosiec's picture
Excellent article. Forgiveness is meaningless if the guilty party is not sorry. The government is not sorry and will never be sorry. So, the government should never be forgiven. Wandering Spirit was hanged for the same reason...he fought back. You will never hear Plains Cree say "Forgive everyone everything."
Anonymous's picture
The Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Ride was a manifestation of a dream that came in 2005 to a humble Lakota/Dakota man who was also a Viet Nam Veteran, survivor of the horrors of boarding school and prison experience. Contrary to the information in the article, Jim Miller's ancestry includes a paternal grandmother, Good Voice, who came from the Sisitonwan people. Jim's dream was supported by many Dakota people of like mind who understood the power of the greater force behind the direction and from those who understood the power of love, compassion and forgiveness. He briefly questioned the direction given in the dream because his knowledge of what happened in Mankato was unknown to him at the time. The power in the message is simple, forgiveness brings healing. We, the riders and the elders who come together during this time, believe that the power of prayer is the foundation for all healing. The riders came from Manitoba, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota to share in prayer for healing for all our people. Jim Miller thanks Waziyatawin for her perspective, we are all Creator's children and entitled to our beliefs. This comment was meant to provide the readers with the perspective of many of the riders.
Wakpa Woowatonna's picture
We all agree that the Dakota people were terribly wronged in the aftermath of the 1862 war. So now what do we do? Vi Waln (Sicangu – Rosebud) writes “I was once a victim. I would think long and hard about all the wrongs that befell me, my parents, grandparents and the rest of my ancestors. I used to believe it was 
the fault of the church that our language is ebbing away. I felt it was the 
fault of boarding schools that there was such a devastating breakdown in our 
familial system. I blamed our addiction to drugs and alcohol on the wasicu who
introduced his poison to my tribe. Then I reached a point in my life where I transformed those crippling thoughts into something that would benefit me…. I recognized my thoughts for what they really were: judgmental, angry, jealous, manipulative, hypocritical, arrogant, dishonest and uncontrolled. My thoughts were bad medicine. Change your thoughts and you will definitely transform your life. You are the one responsible for what you think.” Forgiveness does not cancel the wrong, it strongly affirms it. Forgiveness does not eliminate the demand for restitution, it invites it. To forgive is to say to the wrongdoer: You will not rule me, define me, or determine my view of the world. I will define myself, I will not live as what you would make of me. Forgiveness is Freedom. Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, author of “The Wisdom of Forgiveness” teaches us that “to forgive is not to forget. Forgiving others liberates yourself. When you dwell on the harm someone has done to you, there is an inevitable tendency to become angry and resentful at the thought. Yet clinging to painful memories and harboring ill will will do nothing to rectify the wrong committed and will have no positive effect on you.” This clinging is to participate in the wrong and assist the wrongdoer in harming yourself. Healing requires letting go of this, no matter how horrible the injustice. Rectification is not precluded, complicity in your own victimization is. Sarah Weston (Flandreau Santee Sioux) explains that “The past is really, really traumatic. But we're going to reach our hand out and say that we forgive. Because when you're not in a forgiveness place, you’re linked to that person or that trauma for the rest of your life, all day long. And so by forgiving we're no longer linked to that.”
Wakpa Woowatonna