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By : Dawi Huhamaza
My campfire is called the dwellers of the sacred lake.
These are the words I was taught to say, when telling people the name of my band in the Oċéti Śakówiŋ (Dak̇óta Nation). This says a lot about who I could be, where I might be from, and who my ancestors are. I know my heritage 7+ generations back on the Dak̇óta side, and I am descended from the pairings of Andrew Myrick and Wiŋyaŋ Ġi Wiŋ, as well as Snána and Wakíŋyaŋ Waśté. Of course I have many other ancestors, but these two families I feel play a major part in our history as a people, and show critical perspectives of the events surrounding the Dak̇óta-US War of 1862.
It has been known in my family that Andrew Myrick and Wiŋyaŋ Ġi Wiŋ, named in English as Nancy, were our progenitors. The story of Andrew’s famous words in regard to the Dak̇óta’s plight of starvation have been repeated so many times in history books, if you are at all familiar with our history you will know them well, “Let them eat grass, or their own dung.” I knew this story as I grew up well away from the Dak̇óta homeland, in Tennessee. Andrew was a casualty in the war. Ironically enough (or perhaps not), when his corpse was found he had grass stuffed into his mouth. His wife Wiŋyaŋ Ġi Wiŋ went on to bear his daughter, and marry other men after his death and the internment, then forced removal of our entire nation from our homeland of Mnisota. In an article interviewing Waŋbdí Táŋka/Big Eagle in 1894, Waŋbdí Táŋka went on to say this about the traders married to our women, “Then some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them, and surely there was no excuse for that.” Definitely she was on the receiving end of this abuse, for she was married to a man whose sole purpose in living in our lands was to exploit our people to his own financial gain. In a letter displayed by MHS in their “US-Dakota War of 1862” exhibit, Andrew stated to his brother Nathan that they intend to starve the Indians to death. It is a known fact that the traders and agents in charge of our reservation and annuities were cheating us, having us sign into false debt, and taking their “share” of our payments before we could touch them. This man was married into the people through my grandmother, had borne a child with her into this world, and his only thought was to do harm to her and us so he could become rich.
It wasn’t until this year, in my pilgrimage to Minnesota, that I came to find out some of the missing branches of our family tree. My family, in exile, established Santee, Nebraska as our home reservation, and my great-grandfather knew who his father was, Daniel Goodthunder/Westerman, but we had little to no information on him aside from his name. Thanks to the powers of Google I filled in the gap over a few days of genealogical research, once two years ago, and again earlier this year. I had found out prior that Daniel’s mother was Haŋyétu Waśté Wiŋ, and amazingly I found photographs of her, one of which I am certain was taken during internment on Pike Island. What really put this all together for me was finding out her father’s name, Wakíŋyaŋ Waśté, Andrew Good Thunder. Apparently he was a prominent figure as well in the war, and after, being known as the first Dak̇óta to be baptised by Bishop Whipple, and from then on being one of his greatest allies after the war. In the same article interviewing Waŋbdí Táŋka, he goes on to talk about Wakíŋyaŋ Waśté’s part in the war, and the honorable and brave way he fought at the second attack on Fort Ridgely as well as securing a soldier horse in the fight. A very interesting and contrasting statement on his character is given by Bishop Whipple, “”–my beloved friend, Andrew Good Thunder, one of the truest and noblest men I have ever known. He, with other Christian Indians, saved two hundred white women and children from death, in the massacre of 1862. He afterwards became Chief of the Scouts, and carried this certificate from General Sibley: ‘The bearer, Good Thunder, is entitled to the lasting gratitude of the American people, for having, with other Christian Indians, rescued two hundred white women and children, and delivered them to me.’ Signed, H. H. Sibley, Colonel Commanding.”
During that massacre, Little Crow said to Good Thunder, “The Canadian Indians will help us; we will clean out all the whites.” Do not forget the reply made by this brave man,–“Those Indians help you! Never! They are ruled over by a Christian woman whom they trust, and they would not touch your bloody hand with a little finger.” When Little Crow cried, “Shoot him,” he threw back his blanket, and answered, “Shoot me, but you will not stop me from speaking the truth!”
One story highlights the combative spirit and just action in the war, and the other goes to demonize and demean the “uprising,” going so far as to cite a reward bestowed upon Wakíŋyaŋ Waśté by the terror of Dak̇óta people within and without Minnesota – General Sibley, even though as other records show it, he was interred in the Pike Island prison camp at Fort Snelling as well.
So we find the entirety of my Dak̇óta family in a genocidal concentration camp, on the island connected to the creation story of our people. No matter what good christian action they did, it would seem they were being punished, starved further, and forcibly marched and removed out of our homeland. While some people believe that “chosen” families were allowed to stay in Minnesota, this is not true. The communities of Prairie Island, Upper and Lower Sioux, and even Shakopee were established decades after the war in 1862, when people found they would not be shot on sight for returning home. My ancestor Wakíŋyaŋ Waśté returned with his second wife Sarah, the widow of Śúŋka Ská – one of the 38+2 hung in the executions at Maka-To. Up to this year of 2012, there has been a law on the books banning all Dak̇óta people from the state of Minnesota, which in a symbolic gesture was taken to congress 3 years ago to be repealed, and unsurprisingly has yet to be put through. A week or so ago there was a special “Welcome Home” ceremony held in Flandreau and a short walk to Pipestone, involving state representatives and various Dak̇óta leaders, meant to bring healing and reconciliation between the two nations.
What doesn’t make sense to me is, if the Dak̇óta people are being welcomed home, where exactly are we going to all stay? They speak of peace and reconciliation with the United States, even speak of healing, but after all the symbolic gestures, for all the love-thy-neighbor talk, we will still be facing the same issues that are a direct result of the American Genocide against our people. The facts are that we as a nation have no means to fend for ourselves, no landbase with which to live on sustainably, no game with which to pursue, none of the rights to the resources that are legally ours under the treaties, no unhindered access to sacred sites, and a very very low number of fluent speakers of our language. As a people connected to our home as intimately as a human being can be, we are still yet separated from it, no matter how many healing ceremonies are done with the United States of America. Until land is restored to us as a nation, there is no place for us all to come home to. Those of us living in Minnesota are still yet in Exile, unable to live freely within the boundaries of our ancient territory.
I have spent this summer teaching at a day-camp for Upper Sioux youth, in the pilot program for Akíċita Téċa, instructing them in traditional scouting skills, and other traditional activities alongside colleagues of mine. These include bow and arrow making, marksmanship, fire building and starting, corn preserving, canoeing, and quite a few other skills that were all surrounded by language. Not only did we cover these skills, we held historical lessons and critical discussions. When we spoke about historical trauma and reparative justice, one student in particular immediately jumped to the conclusion that our goal was to kill white people and spread hate. It seems to be the case almost every time, when I personally bring up the injustices against first nations people, that someone comes out of the woodwork shouting that I am filled with hate and a desire to commit murder against white Americans. This student brought up this same accusation, when we as a group were asking each individual in turn what 3 demands they would make of the United States in order to bring about healing for the people. “What 3 things would you ask for?” Every single one of them said “land.” Other things included language initiatives, and special rights like hunting. Not one of them said anything about hate, or destruction against anyone. Yet somehow, when people start to talk about justice for the present and the past, there are those who tell us to drop the past and move on even amongst our own people.
What demands would you make to the American Government in order to bring about healing for our nation? I am pretty sure you’d say land too, and yet here we are “celebrating” a welcome home event for the exiled Dak̇óta, and they have no place to stay. Still, we find an ever increasing mass of natives who live in a sort of complacency within the American system. One hundred years ago, our people weren’t even considered citizens, much less human beings. But now there is an abundance of patriotism towards the United States and the American flag, most of it stemming from military service in the families. They say that we have the highest per-capita enlistment rate of all the various races into the military. It is also said that most of that is due to economic circumstances, people wanting to escape the lives they are living in and have a bright economic future. Everyone seems to have their reasons, and I myself had mine when I enlisted. I knew what I had done was wrong, and tried to put as much virtue into what I was doing as possible, honor, duty, all that. But for a short time, I was part of an imperialistic machine that’s main venture was the suppression of our people, and brown people the world over.
Instead of facing the issues we have with the country that has surrounded us, people speak of peace and reconciliation. Reconciling our differences. Peace with the country that for the past 200 years has been in our homeland, encroaching itself into our lives ever increasingly, and even after the wars, continued to abuse and attempt to destroy us through genocide. I’m not saying “let’s go to war, and go kill white Americans.” I’m saying that we need to be patriotic of our own nation and not negotiate with terrorists. Speak our languages. Teach our children how to live as our ancestors did, and be prepared to defend our people and land from any more destruction. There can be peace when the demands our ancestors would have made are met. Show them the world that the Americans have made out of our homeland, our sacred places, and see what they would think. There is no way they could reconcile with this.