An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess” (Wilma Mankiller, Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation)
“I am weary of your quarrels, weary of your wars and bloodshed, weary of your prayers for vengeance, of your wrangling and dissensions.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha)
“There is a very wise Native American saying: Every time you point a finger in scorn, there are three remaining fingers pointing back at you” (Alyson Noel, Fated)
In 2005, Jim Miller, Native Spiritual Leader, Vietnam War Veteran, and recovering alcoholic, had a vision within a dream of a nightmare journey east, on horseback; which ended at a frigid place beside a river where he saw 38 of his ancestors hanging from a wooden scaffold. Unable to shake the grim and haunting aftermath of this undeniably powerful dream, Miller subsequently learned that 38 of his ancestors had indeed been garroted at a site along the banks of the Minnesota River. The U.S. Dakota War, also known as the Sioux Uprising, was a nightmare conflict which had suddenly erupted between white settlers and native Indians, which came to a grisly end on December 26 th 1862 in the town of Mankato. After waiting there, in the icy chill of that frigid morning, 38 condemned warriors, covered in their tribal war paint and blankets, were slowly marched onto to a wooden platform, heads covered with white muslin hoods and simultaneously hung. At the very last minute, many struggled to free their hands in order to reach out to one another as they sang their last Dakota song. Thousands gathered on that day after Christmas, to witness the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The bodies of the condemned were summarily hauled off for a brief mass burial in a shallow trench, hastily dug into a sand bar along the river. Shortly after nightfall, many were hastily exhumed in order to serve as cadavers for medical research.
Heartened by his discovery of the stark historical reality of these executions, along with the sustaining power of his vision, Miller organized a communal ride on horseback to trace the route of his dream journey back to the Minnesota homeland of the Dakota people. In a heartfelt search for healing and reconciliation their goal was to reach the hanging place in Mankato on the anniversary date of December 26th.
And so, a band of dedicated riders, led by tribal elders, made their way from their Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota, along a 330 mile journey to Mankato, Minnesota; undeterred by the inevitable challenges of travel amidst severe, occasionally blizzard, mid- winter conditions. Miller was especially hopeful that this, admittedly challenging, ride might provide inspiration for a new generation of lost and angry Native Americans . He prayed together with them for the strength to combat and escape that darkness which comes from anger in the heart. His message carried an imperative and urgent need, for the young to take heart and press on forward toward a more hopeful future; through perseverance, inspiration, and the healing power of forgiveness. Miller’s vision was also inclusive, because he invited any and all who shared this goal of forgiveness and reconciliation, even those with anger in their hearts, to ride along.
Mankato Minnesota lies within Blue Earth County, and wounds from the violence of that Dakota War run deep throughout the region. There were unspeakably gut wrenching, grisly, terrible, obscene atrocities on both sides of this tragic conflict between natives and white American and European newcomers. In that violent year of 1862, Minnesota had only recently been admitted as a state within a Union now at war with a breakaway Confederacy.
Overshadowed by concerns presented by a Civil War raging to the south, the federal government neglected to honor treaties with the Indians, who had been promised gold, food and other rations in exchange for access to their lands. Their intolerable situation was made even worse by the rampant corruption of local traders, in serious cahoots with the equally corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tensions mounted as tribes consigned to a narrow strip of infertile land were unable to grow crops, and hunting could no longer sustain even the most basic needs of their people. As a result of these provocations, the starving and desperate natives determined to reclaim their territories from the white settlers and their farms, and drive them all out of the region.
Led by a decidedly reluctant chief, Little Crow, this Indian uprising resulted in something like a massacre of 800 or more white men, women and children; exact figures are unknown. On September 26, 1863, this bloody, awful, tragic conflict finally culminated with a decisive victory for colonialism. While some defeated Indians managed to escape, those remaining surrendered to the U.S. Army. As a result, more than a thousand were taken prisoner. Some 303 of those were subsequently convicted of murder, in predictably biased military trials, without fair representation for any of the accused. Soon thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln commuted many of those sentences. As a result only 38 warriors were executed. The U.S. President felt that it was necessary to distinguish between those who had only fought in battles and those accused of killing, assaulting and otherwise violating civilians.
As Lincoln explained to the Senate: “… anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor without so much severity as to be real cruelty”. In September of 1862, a still uneasy Lincoln wrote to Bishop Henry Whipple: “If we get through this (Civil) war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed”. He didn’t and it wasn’t.
After the trial and executions, the remaining starved and diseased prisoners, mostly women, children and the elderly, endured a forced genocidal march toward a harsh winter of internment; within a primitive wooden stockade at Fort Snelling.
Then in 1863, the U.S. Congress passed a law banishing all Dakota from Minnesota. Upon their release, seriously weakened survivors were herded into boxcars and then steamboats and eventually scattered onto isolated reservations in Nebraska, the Dakota plains and Canada.
Jim Miller is a direct descendant of Little Horse, who was among the 38 condemned; and as a leader of the long ride “back home”, from South Dakota to Minnesota, he made sure there was ample time for his fellow equestrians to pause for rest and food for themselves and their horses, for council, and to share thoughts and feelings along the way. Time on a horse, he offered, can bring forth many memories. As he rode along on this mission in honor of his 38 defeated ancestors, it suddenly came to him, that as a soldier in Vietnam, he had killed exactly 38 men, who were at that time, designated as “the enemy”.
As this pilgrimage continued, the saddle-weary riders were gratified and sometimes a bit puzzled, by the degree of support provided by various gatherings of the mostly white “helping spirits“. As they persevered along their sub-zero, windy and wintery way, they were gifted by offerings of food, shelter, prayers, and logistical assistance by some of the very descendants of those massacred during the Dakota Wars. It seems that these modern day prairie folk also resonated with a deep spiritual need for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.
While Jim Miller’s dream inspired the man who in turn inspired the ride, this dream also inspired a truly inspiring film. This historic, spiritually compelling, almost epic mid-winter ride, was joined and also documented by an equally dedicated documentary film crew. In 2008, Smooth Feather Productions made a steadfast commitment to what was to become their six year project.
Everyone involved in this impeccably produced, high resolution, creative event, accompanied by a moving soundtrack of melody and chants, volunteered their services as their gift to the project. All involved want it to be clearly known, that in keeping with Native American healing practices, their film is distributed for free, available on the internet and is not for sale.
This documentary, inspired by one individual’s dream, was created only in service of healing and reconciliation and does not promote any organization, nor does it affiliate with any political or religious group. Dakota 38, came forth from a powerful dream; eventually shared and then carried forward into that first healing ride and beyond that, it has served exactly as it was intended…as a gift.