It was the day after Christmas when America’s most beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, ordered 38 Dakota men to be hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. The largest mass execution in US history could have been much worse, as originally 300 Dakotas were found guilty after the Sioux Uprising in 1862. European settlers demanded that all 300 be put to death and a Minnesota Senator accurately warned the president that hanging less than the convicted 300 would result in lost votes. But President Lincoln pardoned 262 people, replying to the Senator, “I could not hang men for votes.”
The conflict broke out amongst a famine that was induced by delayed treaty payments attributed to the Civil War and corrupt officials. Malicious acts were traded by both sides. The Dakota rose up in a desperate attempt at self preservation during a time when bounties were offered for the scalps of Native people. Such a dark stain in history could not be lifted in 1 or 2 generations, nor could it be forgotten. It took 7 generations before cross cultural reconciliation could begin for the fallen Dakota 38.
I sat in a room of the Iolani Palace grounds in Oahu, waiting for the film screening to begin. Jim Miller, a Dakota/Lakota Vietnam Veteran, and his Lakota wife Alberta Iron Cloud Miller, spoke briefly before the showing of their documentary “The Dakota 38”. Jim Miller had received a vision during a ceremony which began with the spirit of his deceased mother visiting him and ended with instructions to make a horseback ride from South Dakota to Mankato, MN.
Fifty people stood in a circle in the screening room as a Lakota elder made his prayer. The room seemed to fill with a thick mist, as several ancestors connected to the Millers crowded into the room. A movie screening had become impromptu spiritual contact.
The film was captured by a young film crew of Dakotas and an Italian guy from Long Island, NY who had followed Miller’s epic week long journey. I watched the movie screen as Miller, carrying a staff of Eagle Feathers, lead the group of people through a blizzard, while relying on the kindness of white strangers who truly seemed to get what was happening. The Dakota group was given food, shelter, and free auto mechanic work for their trailer. As Jim put it, “We will be the first to ask for forgiveness,” making it clear that he made the journey to fulfill his heart felt mission and not to demand reparation from European Americans. The sheer humility of Miller brought the audience to tears. I had half expected an angry historic protest, filled with racial tensions. Instead, Natives and whites were hugging each other with forgiveness. The descendants of the Dakota, including relatives of the executed, were honoring their kin, but also creating space for new hope and healing.
The overhead lights of the screening room remained off for several minutes after the movie ended. Many sat and cried at the beauty of simple acts which held such historic heft. When the lights came on, I stood next to the Millers with my hand drum. After publically acknowledging their ancestors that followed them to Hawaii, I shared an old honor song that was taught to me by one of the Porcupine Singers of Alberta Iron Cloud Miller’s home reservation of Pine Ridge. As I sang, it felt as if the vocables passed through the bodies of the Millers and into the spirits of the kin watching over them.
Before the night was over, the elder who shared the opening prayer came up to me and sang a ancient Dakota song. It was the same song that one of the original 38 sang at the gallows through a burlap sack on his head and a noose around his neck. The translation of the song: Great Spirit, Great Mystery. The things which are thine, are powerful and numerous. The elder explained that the singer sung to all his kin after asking them not to grieve, for the Dakota 38 had already made things right with their Creator before their passing.