The Storytellers of Turtle Island

Diane Wilson is the author of “Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past,” which won a Minnesota Book Award. “Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life” was published in 2011. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

As a child, I read everything from Superman comics to “Little Women,” absorbing without question whatever these writers had to share about the world and my place in it. At my suburban public school, there were no books by writers of color — none by Native authors. Nothing that might have explained my Lakota mother’s childhood in South Dakota — the six years she spent at a boarding school on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Not until I was an adult, writing my family story, did I understand how easily books create our history and our sense of who we are as human beings, beginning with the stories we are told as children. I began to question: what happens to our broader community when there are stories missing, or repressed, or silenced? What happens to children who do not have books that reflect who they are, that show them what is possible?

If we are lucky, they grow up to become poets, novelists, memoirists, and historians who reclaim these stories and tell them from diverse perspectives.

In the past 20 years especially, there has been an upsurge in books written by and for Native people, whose work has helped fill the gaps in my own cultural understanding — an essential step towards finding my voice as a writer.

When I was muddling about, trying to write the memoir that would eventually become “Spirit  Car,”  I  met  Waziyatawin,  a Dakota scholar whose  activism led  to  the publication of the anthology “In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors,” a compilation of writing about the Dakota who were force marched to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling in November 1862. For the first time, I understood the connection between my family story and the government’s assimilation policies. This anthology gave voice to many Dakota families, a valuable lesson in the power of sharing stories that have been silenced.

As we retraced the Dakota March in 2002, I met Gwen Westerman, an educator, poet, and artist who co-edited the seminal Dakota cultural history, “Mni Sota Makoce,” written primarily by Dakota historians and scholars. This is a groundbreaking book as it creates a true history of Dakota people, and provides an invaluable resource for writers and educators.

While I was exploring the issue of inherited historical trauma for my second book, “Beloved Child,” I was introduced to the work of Dakota anthropologist and novelist Ella Cara DeLoria. Her novel, “Waterlily,” captures pre- contact Dakota life in vivid, accurate detail. Her depiction  of the beloved child ceremony is a poignant reminder that Dakota people have always regarded our children as wakan, or sacred. By transmuting her scholarship into fiction, she also demonstrated a high regard for the power of story as a teaching tool — the essence of oral tradition.

Ultimately, it was the novelists who ignited my own passion for storytelling. Their deft weaving of story, poetry, and imagery created a form that transcends the trauma inherent in much of Native history by infusing it with the transformative beauty of literature.

In particular, “Solar Storms,” by Linda Hogan, demonstrated how to shift a legacy of suffering and abuse into a haunting, lyrical testament to our ability to survive, heal, and redirect that energy into changing the world. The sheer beauty of her language opened my imagination, helping me understand how even the most difficult experiences can be reclaimed and given new form as they return to the world as life-giving art.

Finally, to bring this small story full circle, Dakota author Teresa Peterson recently published a picture book, “Grasshopper Girl,” sharing a traditional story that was handed down to her from her mother. I now have a book to read to my grandchildren — one that reflects the language, culture, and values of Dakota people.

The Dakota March 

In 1862, Dakota men who fought U.S. soldiers and settlers faced military trials. Afterward, more than 1,600 Dakota people — mostly women and children — were forced to march nearly 150 miles from the Lower Sioux reservation to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Many of them were physically abused and attacked as they passed through Minnesota towns. The ones who survived the genocidal march, and who did not succumb to illness and exposure during the winter of 1862-63, were eventually sent to a camp in South Dakota. 

In 2002, the Dakota Commemorative Walk began as a remembrance of those who endured the trip. Typically held in even years, the walk takes six days to retrace the footsteps of what is sometimes referred to as Minnesota’s Trail of Tears. 

Each day of the march, the procession is led by a woman carrying a sacred pipe wrapped in a blanket. Descendants of those who were forced to march in 1862, and others, participate. 

“This is a ceremony,” said Gwen Westerman, a humanities teacher at Minnesota State Mankato, to a Pioneer Press reporter. “It’s not a protest. It’s not a re-enactment. It’s a spiritual ceremony for healing and for honoring those women and children we descend from. We remember their strength and their determination.” 

Sources: Pioneer Press, Star Tribune