Dakota 38 – Healing from the Largest Mass Execution in US History

Dakota 38 Hanging Site at Mankato as thirty-eight Dakota were hung
Dakota 38 Hanging Site at Mankato as thirty-eight Dakota were hung

Goal of Healing – Overcoming the Past

THUNDER BAY – On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Sioux men were hanged in the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. The accused had been convicted in early December of that year. Trials for the accused in some cases lasted less than five minutes. None of the accused were provided with legal representation, their understanding of the proceedings was at best very minimal.

The hanging of the Dakota 38 came following the surrender of the Sioux Nation in the Dakota – Sioux War of 1862.

Dakota 38 +2 Riding to honour the memory and sacrifice of the warriors
Dakota 38 +2 Riding to honour the memory and sacrifice of the warriors

Carol Chomsky, Associate Professor, University of Minnesota Law School says, “The trials of the Dakota were conducted unfairly in a variety of ways. The evidence was sparse, the tribunal was biased, the defendants were unrepresented in unfamiliar proceedings conducted in a foreign language, and authority for convening the tribunal was lacking. More fundamentally, neither the Military Commission nor the reviewing authorities recognized that they were dealing with the aftermath of a war fought with a sovereign nation and that the men who surrendered were entitled to treatment in accordance with that status.”

Across Turtle Island, the first peoples continue to struggle to overcome the impacts of their society and culture’s interactions with the European settlers who in many cases made, and then broke treaties with them. The Dakota 38 are remembered today in a healing ride, and in efforts to overcome the traumas of colonization, Indian Residential School, and the continued issues with addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Riding for Healing

In the spring of 2005, Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader, and Vietnam veteran found himself in a dream riding on horseback across the great plains of South Dakota. Just before he awoke, he arrived at a riverbank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At the time, Jim knew nothing of the largest mass execution in United States history, ordered by Abraham Lincoln on December 26, 1862.

“When you have dreams, you know when they come from the creator… As any recovered alcoholic, I made believe that I didn’t get it. I tried to put it out of my mind, yet it’s one of those dreams that bothers you night and day.” Now, four years later, embracing the message of the dream, Jim and a group of riders retrace the 330-mile route of his dream on horseback from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution.

“We can’t blame the wasichus anymore. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people. That’s what this ride is about, is healing.” This is the story of their journey- the blizzards they endure, the Native and Non-Native communities that house and feed them along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away.

Moving past the long history of hurt is not easy. Across Turtle Island today, there are far too many instances where the harm and hurt from the past are continuing to take a serious toll on the people. Learning from the past and learning to overcome the hurdles that are still put in front of many of the people is still in too many cases long ways off.

Each step forward on those healing journeys is important.


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