We Ride to Heal

courtesy photo

On December 26, 1862, soldiers in Mankato followed the orders of President Abraham Lincoln. The largest mass execution in U.S. history was carried out and 38 Dakota leaders were hung. The hanging of the Dakota 38, as they have come to be known, was retaliation for the Dakota people standing up to injustices throughout the MniSota homelands. Although 38 earthly lives ended that day, their names and their legacy live on as their descendants continue to honor them in many ways.    

Wokiksuyek’a Woyuonihan (Remembrance and Honoring) is for those who were hung in Mankato, the two who were later hung at Fort Snelling, and the experiences of the women who also were brought to prison camps and endured mistreatment at the hands of the soldiers. 

We are the grandchildren of those who survived exile and extermination. We continue to draw strength from the ceremony and prayer of commemorative events. They allow us to bring Dakota kinship and relatives back together, to return from political exile, and to gather as we always have in the MniSota homelands. We acknowledge the pain, but also the tremendous strength of our past, and the resilience that continues to feed us today helps us envision a collective and unified future as Dakota Oyate (Nation).

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The first Dakota 38 Memorial Horse Ride began from Lower Sioux Indian Community in 2005 with about ten riders. Since 2008, riders on horseback carry the spirits of our relatives from Crow Creek, South Dakota — the place of exile for our Dakota people in 1862 — back to MniSota. The Ride continues to grow. Now, riders join from Canada, South Dakota, North Dakota, and from throughout the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires). 

Runners also go in relay fashion from Fort Snelling to Mankato. Non-Native people have shown their support as well. Relatives come together again. It is a beautiful and powerful time.  

The 2018 Ride

On December 10, 2018, the latest group of riders on horseback began the 300-mile journey from Crow Creek. Along the way, families and communities supported this effort by providing food and water, donating supplies, and opening up their lands to the horses. On December 20, they arrived in Lower Sioux. 

Roughly 50 horses had two rest days at our ranch at Birch Coulee before the final leg. My family has been part of the ride since the beginning. We have cooked, fed, ridden, helped organize, and hosted riders and horses. My daughter first rode in 2007, when she was 12 years old, and has never missed a year — until this past year when she was pregnant.    

I was in my early 40s when the ride first began. I was able to ride the last four days. Now, 14 years later, I’m not as spry as I used to be, but I can still ride. For me, this is a communal healing journey.

Intergenerational trauma in Native communities was first described in the 1990s by Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, who is often overlooked in the current discussions of trauma-informed work and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Native communities have been devastated by U.S. government policy that called for military extermination, confinement to reservations, relocation, coerced assimilation via Christian mission and boarding schools, and the criminalization of cultural and spiritual practices. Historical trauma manifests today in the disparities and inequities that affect our communities, such as high rates of economic poverty, suicide, and substance abuse. 

Change requires acknowledgment. The Native experience recorded, both historical and contemporary, has been inaccurate at best, and invisible at worst.   

Truth-telling and peacemaking can pertain to structural and political power systems, but it also pertains to the personal and community journeys of those who have experienced trauma. Today, we are in an era of revitalization and reclamation — of language, culture, life ways, land, and resources. 

For me, that path to peace and reconciliation is inside us, and it can be as immensely painful as birth. We have work to do, but it is happening. We’re nourished by the same spiritual practices and strength that sustained our grandparents. 

It is because of women like my great-great-grandmother Isabelle Roberts — who survived the Dakota War and the exile to Crow Creek, and then walked back to Minnesota — that we live today. My mother carried her Dakota name, Maza Okiye Win: Woman who Speaks to Iron. 

Strong as iron they were.