Story and photos by Jeffrey S. Williams
Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force
“The cold air is nothing compared to what happened on this day 150 years ago,” said David Brave Heart, Mankato Mdewankantonwan Association chairman, as hundreds of people braving single digit temperatures and a slight breeze lined up between the Blue Earth County Library and the nearby railroad tracks in Mankato, Minn., Dec. 26, 2012, for the unveiling of a new memorial to the memories of the 38 Dakota Indians who were hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history.
“One hundred and fifty years ago, Minnesota’s greatest tragedy played out here in the Minnesota River Valley,” said State Representative Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) and co-chairman of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force. “It is important that people remember the atrocities and horrors of that war. Through education comes understanding, and through understanding comes a healing, and that healing is still needed today.”
Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson read a proclamation designating 2012 as a “Year of Understanding and Forgiveness” between the Dakota Indians and non-Indian Minnesotans.
The day began when Dakota Indian runners left Fort Snelling, 65-miles northeast, on an overnight relay run in subzero temperatures to remember the “38 + 2” and joined the “Unity Riders,” 60 people who left Lower Brule, South Dakota on Dec. 10, for a 340-mile trek on horseback. Chet Eagleman was the oldest rider at the age of 77.
“A lot of people think we are just out there riding horse. But this is a ceremony that began back in Lower Brule and will end here very shortly,” said Peter Lengkeek, a Crow Creek Dakota Indian who was the band’s staff carrier for the past four years. Each band of Dakota will carry the staff for four years until it has been passed through the entire nation.
“It is very humbling to be here. Because of prayer, we are all here now together. The Creator, in the beginning, wanted us to walk side-by-side. Because of these riders and their prayers, one day we’ll walk like that again,” said Lengkeek.
In 1851, Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs signed treaties at Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, which ceded the land rights from four Dakota Indian bands to the United States government and pushed the Dakota people on to two small reservations in southwest Minnesota. A decade later, a famine and delay in receiving the government allotment, per terms of the treaties, led to the conditions that created the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862.
After a two-month campaign in which hundreds of white settlers, Dakota Indians and U.S. soldiers were killed, 303 Dakota were sentenced to death in speedily and hastily conducted trials. Through the assistance of Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple and Senator Henry Mower Rice, President Lincoln commuted the sentences for all but 38. Two additional Dakota Indians, Little Six and Medicine Bottle escaped to Canada. They were returned to Minnesota and hanged at Fort Snelling in 1865.
During the ceremony, Bill Taylor read a poem inscribed on the memorial that was written by his grandfather, Eli Taylor. “We have to remember and talk about our past so in the future we won’t make the same mistake again, my grandfather used to say to me. We need to work together to try to repair the damage the best that we can,” Bill Taylor said.
“To see the prayer put on that monument is truly humbling to our family. We say thank you and ask that you continue on. Lakota and Dakota people, lets continue to work together. Build our bonds on friendships, move on from this point and start anew, together,” he added.
As the ceremony concluded, Izzy Zephier, also known as Chief Spotted Black Horse, said, “Reconcilation has to come from both sides. On the other side, there is a lot of guilt. We know that. But in order to get rid of the guilt, they have to come to us.”
His advice to all people, to Dakota Indians and non-Indian people, is profound, “First we have to cry together. Then we can pray together. And then we can learn together. And then we can walk together and live together. It’s a whole process. We have to do it. Let’s start living every day now.”
A separate ceremony was held at nearby Land of Memories Park, where 40 doves were released in memory of those who were executed 150 years ago.