Dakota 38+2 Memorial Ride and Reparations in the Homeland

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Riders from this years Dakota 38+2 Memorial Ride. The 330-mile ride to honor the Dakota people murdered by the US goverment. (Photo by Nina Fox.)

By Winona LaDuke

“Reparations are the act or process of making amends for a wrong. To Repair. The United Nations explains: Adequate, effective, and prompt reparation is intended to promote justice by redressing gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

What do you do when an egregious crime has been committed? How do you right a wrong? Minnesota can do that with the Dakota; make reparations. This past two weeks, our Anishinaabe family joined to support the Dakota 38 Plus 2 Horse ride. The ride is a healing ride. Minnesota needs to be part of that healing. The Anishinaabe and Dakota heal together, for we are relatives from our Mother Earth.

On this ride there were about 80 riders and large families who moved on the road together, well over a hundred of us in some bitter cold conditions. Many of those riding were young. Those youth are the future, and they are strong. What they need is support, and what they need is a chance to be part of healing.

This was the l60th anniversary of the largest mass hanging in US History. Indeed, the Mankato hangings, are the most visible part of the history of the Dakota genocide. Most of the Dakota are still exiles, driven from their lands, bounties on their scalps and massacres of their retreating villages at Whitestone Hill and more. Finally, they were sent to what were original concentration camps, where they struggle to live in some of the poorest communities in the country- Sisseton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Santee. Those concentration camps became a model for Hitler and the Nazis.

On December 26, Governor Tim Walz came to Mankato to acknowledge the wrongdoing of the state of Minnesota to the Dakota. His words “my hope is that they say what’s happening here is reconciliation, righting wrongs of the past the best that we can and acknowledging the horrors brought on to people.” That is the first time the Governor has come to Mankato to acknowledge the genocide against the Dakota people. I, like many of the other riders, are grateful he came, and expect more of him, and the legislature of Minnesota. There is no reconciling without reparations.

Between the Dakota l862 forced removal and the Dine, or Navajo Long March of l862, American generals committed egregious acts against defenseless people, and stole their land, their lives and attempted to destroy their future. There is no morality in celebrating colonialism and genocide. To cope with the crime, Americans have a good case of historical amnesia, and shamefully retain the names of those who committed genocide – Sibley, Custer, Sully, Pope, Kit Carson and more, aggrandizing the legacies. In our experience, America does not really say it’s sorry very well.

Riding through small towns, kind people fed us but it seemed that few descendants of the settlers knew the real history. It’s a selective historical amnesia, where it’s more soothing to bury the crime than to acknowledge and allow for healing. One Dakota elder talked about how the ride has brought out the story, “if we stop, they will forget again.” That cannot and will not happen. This year, the Dakota 38 rode through downtown New Ulm, the first time they had returned in l60 years. That was epic. And a moment of shared intergenerational memories came together for some.

One of the riders tells me a story of New Ulm. It’s an old story and a new story. On December 24, two of our men went to get water for the horses and got stuck in a snowbank. It was the middle of the night. Another truck was stuck as well, and the New Ulm residents came and rescued both their own relative and our Dakota relatives. Talking they realized that a hundred and sixty years ago, one of the Dakota man’s ancestors had gone to New Ulm and warned the other family, which had been kind to the Dakota, of the impending assault on the town of New Ulm, and indeed saved the lives of that family. Now, a hundred and sixty years later the descendants meet, and the New Ulm family saves the Dakota men in the minus 20 weather.

While historical amnesia remains, there are hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans who want to see justice for the Dakota, many timidly coming forward to shake our hands, apologizing, cooking for us, providing warm clothes. Settlers in Minisota are ultimately asking for a way to support healing. That’s why the Governor and the legislature need to begin a process of real reparations and healing. It’s not just for the Dakota, it’s for Minnesota. This land is Minisota Makoce, the Land of the Dakota. It is their Holy Land, remembered by their blood, creation stories, songs, and the treaties.

Waziyatawin , a Dakota scholar, talks about reparations in her book What does Justice Look Like. She calls for a Truth Commission, a Take Down the Fort Program, and Land Restoration. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission model began in South Africa and was under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Telling the story begins the process and leads to healing of restorative justice based on the truth. Taking Down the Fort, refers to the mentality which values the military history, the history of genocide more than the history of the land and the people who live here. There is no honor in the history of Ft. Snelling. There were no just wars fought from that fort.

And then there’s land. The only compensation for land is land, and the Dakota have less than 3200 acres in Minnesota. Compared to the millions of acres of their ancestors. And its’ not just that, in l862 you could ride on the Missouri River Valley and see the same buffalo herd for three days – the herds were so big, the maple stands so abundant, fish, deer, elk, and you could drink the water from every lake and stream. That’s in stark contrast to the wasteland, settler colonialism is creating today, where half the lakes are dead from industrial agriculture run off, pesticides and forever chemicals that destroy life and give us cancers in escalating levels. This land and people deserve a healing, and it will be good for everyone.

Reparations should begin in Minnesota. Public land holdings in the region could be returned to the Dakota, along with budgets to maintain roads, and ecosystems. Land seizures from the Dakota financed “land grant” colleges nationally, illegally. For a price tag of $41,000, two million acres of Dakota land was seized under the 1862 Morrill Act, coinciding with the Dakota Uprising, and the genocide against the Dakota. That land provided the foundation for many universities, not just Minnesota colleges, but ultimately was a complete theft and violation of the treaties. The universities, now offer free tuition to tribal members, but that does not erase the shame of their foundation, the university system should support and actualize the return of land.

This year, Minisota has a budget surplus, and some of that could purchase land for the exile communities – including for nonprofits and for community members themselves. It’s time for the people to come home.

Riding horse with the Dakota families, I observed that most of the riders were under 20, young men and women defying the odds. The ride is a ceremony unto itself, a test of will, intelligence, heart, and a coming of age. The Dakota youth, like their elders look forward to the return home. They will carry on this ride, and we will support them. We owe it to future generations to begin a healing and invest with them in a healthy future. That’s really the story that Minisota could write and make. Then, collectively we can hold our heads up because we did the right thing this time.