I grew up in the American South, born the year before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I came into adulthood with people who had in near memory segregation and integration, habits of and challenges to “the Southern way of life.” Southern culture was and is constantly figuring out what makes up the daily practice of reconciliation. So when I moved to the upper Midwest years ago, it was with some apprehension. I worried that my new neighbors would simply wonder, “How could you stand living with all those racists?” I asked a friend whether Midwesterners would be able to see that thousands of people in the South are trying to overturn a history of injustice day by day.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Moving to Minnesota? Mention the 1862 Dakota Uprising. They’ll drop their rocks fast.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Dakota Uprising, often called the “civil war within the Civil War.” The Minnesota Dakota were starving. The U.S. annuities promised to them—paid out as food—were continuously delayed. When asked about the looming mass starvation, the trader Andrew Myrick commented, “Let them eat grass.”
Soon after, a group of Dakota outside Mankato, Minn., swept through the European settlers’ farms, killing up to 800 people—including Myrick. He was found dead with a mouth full of grass. The U.S. military struck back, hanging 38 Dakota men on Dec. 26, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. An act of Congress expelled the Dakota from Minnesota permanently.
As an outsider to Minnesota, I often tripped on the half-buried roots of local history, caught off-guard. Discussions on justice for Native Americans would inevitably yield to someone sputtering some racial slur (and, predictably, another would respond, “Hey, I’m part Ojibwe!”). Treaty disputes on fishing rights provoked heat and even violence. I married into a family with Blackfoot ancestors, but know nothing about them; the elders considered the connection something “not to be discussed.” Thomas Maltmann (who presents these events in the historical novel The Night Birds) says that many people of Dakota and European ancestry earnestly urged him to “get it right”—which he assumed meant to tell their side of the story alone. We still stumble through a painful history and a wounded present.
Gathering at the River
This complex history is what makes the Great Dakota Gathering all the more remarkable. I moved from the Twin Cities to small-town Winona: a Mississippi river town planted in gorgeous bluff land that made Mark Twain wax eloquent and loggers thirst for profit. Nine years ago, as many celebrated the 1854 Grand Excursion up the Mississippi to “open up” this land to settlers, a few local men remembered: there were others here first. Those men, hat in hand, traveled to visit Dakota leaders. They invited the Dakota to visit Winona. The Dakota accepted. From this came the Great Dakota Gathering. Dakota from across the United States and Canada come to Winona for three days each year for a celebration of homecoming, education and reconciliation. Winona has embraced this weekend, signing a covenant of friendship and welcome with the Dakota (who, technically, remain banned from Minnesota). The event is a mix of good planning and a laid-back atmosphere that invites conversation, not confrontation. Signifi-cantly, each year, there is a daily “reconciliation circle,” to which everyone is invited.
This year’s theme was “Reconciliation and the 1862 Dakota Uprising,” no question the most challenging theme of the gathering’s existence. To celebrate the Dakota people today is one thing; to test the ties of new friendship and seek reconciliation on the anniversary of such violence and its painful aftermath is another. But people decided to risk reconciliation, and the event was moved to coincide with the date the uprising began. Under a clear sky by a sparkling lake, 150 years later, hundreds of Dakota and European descendants talked rather than screamed, listened rather than killed, danced rather than hid, prayed rather than raged, learned rather than destroyed. They ate a unity feast instead of grass.
But the event was more than just pretty words. Reconciliation cannot undo the past, and how to truly make amends remains a challenge. But to make the simple decision to be vulnerable, to sit, listen and commit to a peaceful way forward draws out the poison of acts from generations past. To commit to that listening as a ritual once a year gives reconciliation weight and reality. It gives all of us a way to live with a history none of us asked for, and let that history not rule, but inform our present efforts toward friendship. We learn to be humble. We learn to listen to hard truths. We practice respect. And in so doing, we make a space for the Holy Spirit. It becomes possible to recognize, even within tragic history, that we are all members of God’s family.
Reconciliation is a daily work, the work of the people. I am in awe of the townspeople who, to use Dorothy Day’s words, “were just sitting around talking” and thought to invite the Dakota to their homelands. I am inspired by the Dakota, who after decades of injury, embraced that invitation. This has been what Day would call a “personalist” project of the highest order: the people are doing this. More precisely, God, through the people, is doing this: to see a people stand up and say, “We’ll do something different here” is as fresh as the breeze was that September weekend. We remember evil is not the last word.
May we always remember God calls us to be reconciled before laying our gifts at the altar. May we give thanks for people who quietly risk the inbreaking of God as their everyday work.