In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors

The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century

Edited by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, Ph.D.

Living Justice Press

Softcover, 324 pp, indexed, with 8-page special color photo-essay, black and white photos and maps throughout, ISBN 0-9721886-2-2, published 2006



In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors is a collection of essays and photos that tell the story of the Dakota Death March of November 1862. In the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, roughly 1,700 Dakota women, children, and elders were forcibly marched from the Lower Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Those who survived this march and the subsequent hard winter were eventually removed from their homeland.

In 2002 and 2004, descendants of the original marchers, their relatives, and allies walked the route of the this death march to remember and honor their ancestors and the sacrifices they made. They will continue to walk every two years until 2012. Their stories of the original march, along with their experiences on the marches of this century, convey the deep pain and trauma of historical harms. They also point to the healing of these harms and the revitalization of the Dakota people.

In the words of Dr. Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, “This work…stands as a narrative that reclaims our right to tell our stories in our own ways and for our own purposes….It is designed with Dakota empowerment in mind, as a valuation of Dakota voices, perspectives, worldview, and historical and contemporary experiences….The imagery, perspectives, and stories of the past impact the present in profound ways, and this message is conveyed in every contribution to this volume.”

Reviews and Comments

“May this book stand as a testament to the atrocities visited on the Dakota of Minnesota, not for posterity, but as an opportunity for us to finally tell our story. May this book be recognized as a part of the healing process that restorative justice champions and as bringing some understanding to the atrocities still inflicted on Dakota people, for only with understanding can healing come.”

Harley Eagle, Dakota, Co-director of anti-racism programs for the Mennonite Central Committee, Canada

“Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, one of the foremost scholars in Native American history, has made yet another invaluable contribution to the field of Native studies. This work challenges the boundaries of scholarship and community accountability by situating Native history as a site for decolonization and coalition politics. In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors demonstrates that it is possible to engage Native communities and allies in the process of historical remembering that challenges U.S. colonial frameworks and promotes healing and justice for Native nations.”

Andrea Smith, Cherokee; University of Michigan; Co-founder, Boarding School Healing Project

“There is nothing quite like this book and it merits both our support and our attention. . . . [I]t is important for the Dakota people as part of their story told in their own words; it is important for the descendants of the immigrants like me who need to hear these words so that we can . . . explore how we might find common cause for a more hopeful future.”

Howard J. Vogel, Professor of Law, Hamline University, St. Paul, MN

REVIEW: Tribal College Journal, Spring 2008, Reviewed by Antonette McDonald

REVIEW:  CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, Volume 45, No. 2, October 2007

Wilson and more than a dozen other contributors have created a multifaceted book aimed at presenting the Dakota side of the events of 1862, which included mass hangings, death marches, concentration camps, and removal from Minnesota. The book is organized around marches held in 2002 an d2004 that replicated the death marches to commemorate the atrocities and begin healing. Different chapters discuss the first death marches, historical trauma, and the contemporary situation, while essays, poems, and photographs of the recent marches bring the issues into modern times. Oral histories amend, supplement, or replace the standardized non-Indian accounts and provide a more Dakota-centric perspective. The dominant integrating theme is getting modern Minnesotans to accept responsibility for the crimes of the past in order to alleviate problems resulting from those crimes. Some authors raise questions that could be a starting point for discussions concerning treatment of Native Americans, the writing of Native American histories, colonization as an ongoing process, restorative justice, and contemporary problems, but the anger and general condemnation expressed by Wilson and some others will make many readers reject the book without thinking about the issues.

Summing up: Recommended. Most levels/libraries.—M.J. Schneider, emerita, University of North Dakota

REVIEW: American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Volume 30, No. 4, 2007, reviewed by Leonard R. Bruguier (Tahunska Tanka), Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla

Hau, mitakuyepi – hello my relatives. The history of European arrival in the western heisphere is replete with atrocities committed in pursuit of one central theme: take the land by whatever means necessary. The aftermath of the so-called Dakota Uprising of 1862 remains a black cloud that hangs over the relatives alive today who listened to the stories of the genocidal act committed against their people. But as the book’s title indicates, third- and fourth-generation Dakota survivors have taken on the task of reliving and relieving the trauma in order to learn lessons that can be used to teach Dakotas and all humanity several important lessons. That is this book’s stated purpose. In this way, living American Indians who challenge the standard histories taught in school systems by integrating untold Indian histories into mainstream literature will retake American Indian history.

The book’s four sections contain essays written by participants (not all Dakota) with different areas of expertise who range from spiritual leaders, counselors, teachers, tribal administrators, and psychologists to university professors. Strategically placed maps and photographs enlighten readers about the events and facts revealed in the narrative. The glossary of Dakota terms is an especially useful tool for non-Dakota-language speakers. One item in particular, the official 1862-63 U.S. Army roster of the Dakota prisoners incarcerated at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, stands as a stark reminder to surviving family members and readers because family names put a human touch on the story. When we see the name, we recognize the human who carried it, and thus, by recognition, honor them as human beings.

At a 2001 conference at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, the idea of a commemorative walk was raised and discussed. It was decided that the march would honor the mostly forgotten memories of women and children who were also punished by government officials. After careful planning, the inaugural commemorative march that honored Dakota children, women, and men commenced on 7 November 2002. Participants retraced the footsteps of their ancestors, who on 7 November 1862 were forcibly removed from their Lower Sioux Reservation and herded on foot approximately 150 miles to a concentration camp located at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. The marchers’ courrse was part of the same route used on 8 November 1862 when nearly four hundred Dakota men, shackled by twos at the ankles, were loaded onto wagons and taken from the Lower Sioux Reservation to Mankato, Minnesota to await punishment. Authorized by an executive order signed by Abraham Lincoln, 38 of the 307 warriors sentenced to death were hanged on 26 December 1862. Thus began the second phase of the shameful chapter of forced removal, ethnic cleansing, and loss of homelands.

The march was suffuseed with awakening and awareness. It began with an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony, and each morning the march started with prayers and filling the peace pipe, which reminded the people of their purpose in marching, and ended that evening with prayers of thanksgiving and the smoking of the pipe. During the march, led by an eagle staff made and dedicated in memory of the thirty-eight hanged Dakota men, a wooden stake inscribed with the names of two household heads from the U.S. Army roster and tied with a strip of red cloth and tobacco ties was driven into the ground at every mile. At prearranged stops for the night, the march coordinators provided food, beverages, and a place to sleep with donations from interested parties. Where possible, nightly forums were held with local community members invited to attend. Thoughts, ideas, and feelings were shared with all in attendance, and in this way the education process had its beginnings. The march ended at Fort Snelling on 13 November where a wopida, or thanksgiving feast, prayers, and open forum ended the physical re-creation of the seventeen hundred displaced Dakotas on the the first part of the expulsion from the Minnesota homeland. Both the 2002 and 2004 commemorations were completed on a timely basis with considerably less interference than the 1862 marchers encountered.

What makes In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors an important contribution to North American historical literature is that the essays are written by noted professionals in their respective fields, many of whom are direct descendants of people who were handled so shamefully as a result of that war. They bring a fresh and Native perspective to focus on the events, and readers are exposed to the thoughts and feelings of the victims of this atrocity viewed through modern and diverse research and evaluation techniques. For instance, the oral histories still known an dpassedon to the next generation are carefully compared and analyzed against existing written records, and thus make the distinction between collective memory versus collected memory. Whereas collective memory is generally accepted as monolithic and top down, collected memory allows for individual memories that reflect the diversity of a group’s memory (222). Diaspora and ethnic cleansing are powerful, meaningful words that describe the 1862 Dakota war aftermath which resulted when the U.S. government did not fulfill its treaty obligations. Dakota people were forced out of the state of Minnesota and transported on a long perilous boat ride down the Mississippi River to the junction with the Missouri River, then north to barren grounds located in Dakota Territory. To guard against their return, bounties were placed on the scalps of any Dakota found in Minnesota. To rub salt in the wound, treaty money that was due to the Dakotas was used to pay the white settlers for Indian depredations, all treaties were abrogated, and Dakota were dispossessed of their lands, which were either sold to more immigrants, or, in an ironic twist, given to veterans who happened to survive the civil war.

Admittedly, there are many documented stories of Indian tribes that suffered atrocities similar to the Dakota 1862 diaspora. The Tslagi, Nez Perce, Dine, and Cheyenne indigenous nations are arguably the best-known expamples of ethnic cleansing and forced removals found in U.S. history. But there are other less well-known examples. Author Amy Lonetree, in her essagy “Transforming Lives by Reclaiming Memory: the Dakota Commemorative March of 2004,” relates how her Ho-Chunk relatives were the object of multiple removals from the present-day states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota, and finally were able to call a small piece of land in northeastern Nebraska home. So the question is, what can and should we learn from these horrific events? What is the eternal lesson? If we examine it from the nationalistic/economic standpoint it is clearly revealed that Native peoples were excluded from the promises contained in the national constitution. American Indians were not made citizens of their own lands until 1924 and the new people who came to live on their lands did not give the Indian spiritual and cultural practices veracity; religious freedom did not exist for the Indian. From this book’s narratives readers will find out how this commemoration’s marchers began the process of learning to encounter these atrocities on an individual basis, share their thoughts with others, and go about their lives aided by these lessons and apply them to their interactions with other human beings.

This book’s importance lies in its ability to give another side to the story of Indian-white relations found in standard American history textbooks. Althought it is quite explicit in its description of horrific details of the U.S. war against the Dakota in 1862, it presents the Indian point of view with which dialogue can be established. As author Denise Breton points out in her commentary “Decolonizing Restorative Justice,” if we address these harmful events with an open mind and good heart, we can learn how to coexist with each other individually and collectively. For example, how does a Dakota person whose family member was one of the thirty-eight men hanged respond to the stone likeness of Abraham Lincoln carved into a mountain face located in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota? This is an issue that still needs resolution. It is also evident that Dakota and non-Dakota suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady extremely difficult to overcome. Restorative justice appears to have great healing potential, especially among the participants’ descendants, but it also has vast potential to help solve other types of injustices extant wherever human beings live.

In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors, along with any future works that address the Dakota perspective of this tragic and shameful episode of American history, should become a prominent part of every school curricula. It is especially important that young people learn this history, as it will serve as a guide for their future actions in life.

In the preface to a reprint of Black Elk Speaks (1988), visionary Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. postulated that if Indian peopleever decided to write a book that detailed their spiritual core, similar to the Bible, Black Elk Speaks would certainly serve as a meaningful start. In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century is truly another book that would enhance that collection of wisdom that originates in the western hemisphere. Its story is one of hope and endurance for Dakota and non-Dakota people. It is my fervent prayer that the commemoratives that detail the 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 marches (2012 will mark the 150th anniversary) will be written in Dakota in honor of our relatives past and future. Hau, mitakuye oyasin, hechitu yedo. Tahunska Tanka, Akichita Vietname, he miye do.

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