Diane Wilson is a Minnesota author and Mdewakanton descendant. Her first book, “Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past,” retraces her family’s Dakota heritage across five generations and won a 2006 Minnesota Book Award. Her second book is “Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life.” Wilson is also the executive director of Dream of Wild Health, a Native-owned farm in Hugo, Minn., whose dream is to help American Indian people reclaim their physical, spiritual and mental health.
She spoke with the Women’s Press about how we get to a place of peace-or not; the consequences of war and genocide; and the stories that are told.
Minnesota Women’s Press: Where are the voices of Native people in the public discussions surrounding the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War??
Diane Wilson: What has been important in the discussion was to hear a Dakota perspective on historical events rather than a non-Native filter.
I ask: Is it a Dakota person telling the story? What is their cultural background? So often in the media I see stories told from a non-Native perspective. There are greater efforts being made to include Native people, but not necessarily allowing them to simply tell the story.
MWP: What was it like for you to retrace the steps of those on the forced march in 1862 with the Dakota Commemorative March today?
DW: I learned so much about how the historical context around these events is important to understanding what they meant to Native people.
I had begun by seeing it as a personal, family-based set of decisions rather than our family being part of this very broad historical context of assimilation policies that had been happening for well over 150 years.
Not only was I given a whole new framework, but it also gave me an opportunity to internalize the emotional aspect of that experience, to know the grief-not only for family, but also what the entire Dakota community went through, being removed from their homeland. It was a life-changing event.
MWP: In “Beloved Child,” you question how one can resist injustice without becoming the people who need to be challenged.
DW: When I was writing “Beloved Child” and focusing on what had been done to thousands of Native children, it was almost impossible for me to grasp-the inhumanity toward children, our more vulnerable members.
In the book [I asked], “How do you deal with that anger?” It was a question I posed to each person I interviewed. Talking to them helped me understand how important it is to do that healing work within your self. To live in a place of rage and resentment harms your own spirit, and if you stay there, [you] run the risk of becoming like the bully.
This is one of the big issues that people have been grappling with across many countries. How do you defend yourself against violence without becoming like the perpetrator? That internal healing process is a really important part of working for justice without harming your own spirit.
MWP: How do you do that personal work, that personal healing?
DW: [When I was told] “heal yourself first,” I was baffled. I didn’t really know what that means, what it looked like.
I knew of people who have done really profound work in their own lives, strong individuals committed to improving their communities. I went to them. I asked them, “How do we heal ourselves in a way that will help us to again raise beloved children?”
Each of them struggled to confront and work through the harm that was done to them-and to transform that harm into positive work for their community.
It was that process I was trying to understand-that transformative work of taking harm and transmuting it into something positive. It is profound work, some of the deepest work we can do as human beings. Part of it has to do with forgiveness, which becomes a thorny issue when the harms and the attitudes are continuing to this very day.
MWP: You write that stepping back from a power struggle amounts to siding with the “power over” group. What does this look like for Native people?
DW: Everything we do is political in some sense. The way you live your life, your awareness of how colonization permeates everything from the schools where we send our children to the places where we work.
To see the effects of that colonization within ourselves is difficult and challenging, but if you don’t, then the danger is complacency, supporting-through your lack of understanding-the institutions that are simultaneously oppressing you.
Once I understood how my family’s experience was part of this much broader context of colonization, then I also understood that I had a responsibility to speak to that knowledge. To remain silent would have been to be complicit with all of these efforts to assimilate my family. Writing “Spirit Car” was borrowing my family’s story as a way of illustrating how assimilation has worked. That book is my form of truth telling.
One of the reasons the stories in my family and so many other families have been lost is because people were silent, afraid to speak. It was dangerous to be a Native person. It was hard to survive. Telling my story was a way of pushing back against the silence that had been forced on generations.
MWP: You close “Beloved Child” by writing, “There will be peace, finally, when we all understand that we are born sacred and that each one of us is, and has always been, a beloved child.”
DW: If you regard yourself as a beloved child, if you view the world around you from a perspective of love for all beings, then you respond from a place of respect and care and empathy. Then we begin to protect those relationships. The way we treat the water, the way we treat the land, our food. It’s an entirely different mindset that we bring to the way we relate to the world around us, including other people.
With the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Dakota War in 2012, an encouraging part was to see so much more interest in the history. The point, though, is not to see that war as something that happened a long time ago and is now over. For Native people, and Dakota people in particular, that was only the beginning of a process that is continuing to this day.
After the war ended and the Dakota were removed from Minnesota, boarding schools opened up and continued for many decades, as an estimated 100,000 Native children went through those schools with great harm to the family structure in Native communities. And after that, you had very high levels of Native children being removed from their homes. We have a level of racism and discrimination that has been institutionalized within our culture. It is so deeply ingrained that it is hard to even see what is operating. Over 150 years, what you see is an unbroken series of events, many of them targeted toward Native children that were intended to assimilate Native familes in a forceable and oppressive manner.
The point I really stress is that you have to see it as still happening today and that for us to create a just society we have to deal with these issues. And that means really understanding how colonization is still occurring every day right here in the Twin Cities and in our state and work together to make those changes.
MWP: When the discrimination is so embedded in our institutions, assumptions, prejudices, much of it unseen, making change can seem overwhelming. Where do you start?
DW: To me, you look right in your own life. What is going on in your children’s schools? Is this history being taught? Are your children learning how to work in the increasingly diverse community that Minnesota is becoming?
When you drive by Fort Snelling, are you aware that that is a horrific icon of this history and that it can be so offensive to Dakota people? It is not only where Native people were imprisoned but it also is the creation site for the Dakota and it is sacred.