When we were children we played cowboys and Indians. The good guys and the bad guys. Then The Lone Ranger and Tonto came along. Not the white man and the Red man, but friends, partners. It's powerful how images and ideals can influence us through television and movies. They impact us in ways we may not consciously understand.
The documentary, "Dakota 38 + 2", shown to over 1,000 students and adults at Cannon Falls School last Friday, is one of those films that cuts to the bone. Yes, because the filmmaker, Silas Hagerty, did an incredible job in his cinematography, music and overall production, but mostly because it is real. It's life. It's history. Minnesota history. It's today.
"I thought that it [the movie] changed the way I look at Indians. Before, I'm not going to lie, I was very racist. It has really changed my life watching the movie and the presentation." This is just one comment by a Cannon Falls sixth grader after seeing "Dakota 38+2" and listening to a group of Native Americans tell their story. Powerful.
On December 26, 1862, in Mankato, 38 Dakota men were marched in single file to a scaffold guarded by troops in full battle dress. They were paraded before a crowd of citizens who came to witness the largest mass execution in the history of United States. As they were being led to the gallows, they sang a Dakota prayer, thanking the creator for everything they'd been given. Then the pull of a single lever ended the lives of 38 Dakota men. Indian culture remained suppressed for over a hundred years and their spiritual ceremonies were illegal up until 1978.
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 (Miller is a direct descendent of Little Horse, one of the 38). 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 they come from the creator. As a 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."
Miller has worked hard to overcome the challenges of healing a broken spirit. He recalled having all his hair cut off as a five-year-old in a Catholic boarding school, and getting his mouth washed out with soap every time he spoke his native language. He was abused as a child, became an alcoholic, spent time in prison, and in the Vietnam War, which is very difficult for him to speak about. His deep commitment to healing has led him to receive post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment, codependency treatment, couples counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment. The knowledge and experience gained from these healing quests has led him to work with Native American men on federal probation, youth, couples, and clients in treatment. His strength has come from his challenges, and he now leads prayer circles in sweat lodges and provides leadership in Sundance circles. He knows what it takes to be a good spiritual leader.
In his dream he saw places where he loaded the peace pipe as an offering of reconciliation. His deceased mother "came out of the fire" and said he had to do this. Miller, who will be 65 this month, said, "I'm going to do this ride, even if I'm the only one." Soon his friends and others stepped forward and wanted to join Miller. They said the creator knows who to give these dreams to.
Four years later, in 2008, embracing the message of the dream, Jim and a group of riders retraced the 330-mile route of his dream on horseback from Crow Creek, Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota, to arrive at the hanging site on the anniversary of the execution. They planned the ride on faith, and it came into place "on its own," Miller said. "The 38+2 spirits and the creator were guiding it."
"We can't blame the wasichus (white people) 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."
The documentary, "Dakota 38 +2" is the story of Miller's journey, the blizzards and freezing temperatures the riders endure, the Native and non-native communities that house and feed them and their horses along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away. Up close and personal interviews of some of the riders, young and old, as well as members of the community people who hosted them along the way, hold credence to the emotion and importance of the spirit of the ride.
"We all have a deep imbedded genetic connection," Miller explained. "At first non-natives didn't want us coming through their communities. They didn't trust us. Now they invite us in, offer us coffee, food, and places to stay - comfort. This is a healing journey in so many ways. Forgiveness is when you cut the cord of your oppresser. It brings about reconciliation."
From twenty to thirty riders in the beginning, that first ride grew along the way, and toward the end there were close to a hundred people riding. The ride began December 10 and ended 16 days later, on December 26, averaging 30-35 miles per day. The mayor of Mankato welcomed them "back to their home," and gave Miller a key to the City of Mankato, saying that it opens no locks, only hearts. The ride has continued each year since and will begin again on December 10, 2012.
A Cannon Falls sixth grader commented, "It is very kind of those people to do that in remembrance of the 38 + 2 Dakota. They travel all the way from South Dakota to Mankato. Also, the people who fed them on the way were very generous. If I had the choice to do that, it would probably be a 'no.' I would have to give up Christmas. Also, I wouldn't like riding in blizzards. Jim and his friends are very dedicated."
Another student wrote, "It is really cool how they believe in forgiveness that much and that they are willing to go to the extreme to get it done. I wish I had the courage and strength to do that and be grateful doing it."
Smooth Feather Productions filmmaker Silas Hagerty, who is not Native American, was impressed by the entire project and gifted the film and his six years of working on it to Miller's project. It's being used among Native Americans for healing purposes, as foreseen in Miller's dream. It was released in July of this year.
"This documentary is about both of our cultures," Hagerty stated. "On the outside you could say it's about Native Americans, but it's really about the connection of both our cultures and how we all need to work through this tragic past."
He continued, "It's an offering. Everyone donated their time and we're giving this film away to schools, prisons, churches, anyone who wants to learn from it. The only intention we've had is for healing. But it's a lot more complicated. There were a lot of powerful, connected people on those horses who have done a lot of work in their lives to connect to this spiritual realm, including Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe for the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, who also happens to be Miller's cousin."
Hagerty, who was unfamiliar with native ways, said he learned a lot from Miller on the journey. Because the horse was such an important part of the film and the journey itself, he soon discovered how revered the horse is in native culture. Representing the four directions, the horses's front legs honor west and north; the back legs, east and south. The head raised to the sky, represents "above" and the tail, hanging toward the ground, represents "earth." When you add a person riding the horse it represents the seventh direction - the center of all things, providing balance.
As the riders neared the hanging site in Mankato, a huge bald eagle, about twenty feet above them, soared along the entire line of riders. After it passed the lead rider, it banked to the left and started circling the ceremonial grounds where they were headed - leading them to their destination. "That was powerful, " said Hagerty.
Miller admitted, "I pinch myself every time I see this documentary. It represents how important it is to walk in peace and harmony in every way. That's our way."
CANNON FALLS PRESENTATION
Sixth grade teacher Missy Klapperich (MN Social Studies Teacher of the Year recipient) and Roslyn Hjermstad, 6th grade language arts teacher, work closely to integrate their subject matter into their classrooms. They each also teach a section of reading. Working together, they are able to dig deep into Minnesota's history when utilizing all three disciplines: social studies, language arts, and reading.
They teamed up to invite Jim Miller to speak in Cannon Falls, with funding provided by the Cannon Falls Education Foundation and a generous gift from Treasure Island Resort, who provided free rooms for Miller (Dakota name - "Comes Out Charging") and those involved in the project who came from South Dakota. This included Miller's wife Alberta Iron Cloud; sister, Josett Peltier (Dakota name - "Woman Who Paints Trees Red"), advisor of the All Nations Women's Society at the Flandreau Indian boarding school in SD; and four of her students, who spoke at the presentation about living on the reservation and their lives within their culture. One of the girls sang the Lakota Flag Song for the students gathered.
A sixth grade CF student commented, "What I learned from the Dakota school girls is that each tribe has its own flag. I also learned that they care a lot about their youth and their elders. I learned that they all care about helping with the community."
Alberta spoke, "Having a strong identity is key to knowing who you are, who your people are, and where they came from - their history. We all have to live on this planet, each and everyone of us must learn to live together. You [students] are our future leaders. Set your expectations high now. Care about others and mean it from your heart. It's the only way we can live together in peace on this earth."
Klapperich noted that because Miller does not want a "sponsor" for the ride and relies solely on donations from people who want to give as a part of their personal support, that some of the school staff and others were taking donations to help provide hay for the horses on the ride. Land o' Lakes also donated four tons of horse feed for the 150 horses involved in the ride.
Lakota Oglala brothers, Bernie Melter and Bill Bremer, grew up in Cannon Fall, and attended the Friday night documentary and presentation by Jim Miller. Bremer had this to say.
"As a Lakota warrior, I am humbled by Dakota warrior, Jim Miller. I'm grateful to have met him and thankful that he has shared his dream. Miller has put the 'Pride' back in the saying, 'Native Pride.' I thoroughly enjoyed his Dakota 38 documentary. I had been aware of his efforts/dream these past few years. In the early 90s I read many books and articles about the Indian wars and uprisings of the Sioux (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) people and about the Dakota uprising.
"The thing that jumped out at me was that the State of MN banished most all of the Dakota people from the state and placed a bounty on any Dakota found in the state. (Kill'm, scalp'm, collect your coins.) The hanging of the 38 Dakota men in Mankato was done hurriedly, allowing no time for appeal or for public sympathizers to take hold. 600+ innocent Minnesota citizens had been killed for the actions and words of a few greedy public officials. There has to be some justice for that. Thankfully Lincoln, amended from 300+ to hang to only those 38. Unfortunately, it was a tragedy all around, but not the worst one committed against the Indian people. The Sand Creek Massacre and Wounded Knee also come to mind."
Bill admitted that he would love to be part of the horseback ride, but that it won't happen for him this year. Although he did say that some members of his family are making plans to be in Mankato to support Miller's efforts, the riders, and to remember those 38.
"I support the Ride," he added. "It certainly will be a day of solidarity for all Indigenous people. "
Miller, the staff carrier for the first four years of the ride, concluded the Friday presentation at the high school by singing a Dakota prayer in his native tongue.