Birdtail Sioux teenager runs 100 km in Minnesota to honor the Dakota men who were hanged in the 1862 mass execution

A First Nation teenager in southwest Manitoba late last month traveled more than 1,000 kilometers — and then walked more than 100 more — in honor of dozens of Dakota men who were hanged in the 19th century in the largest mass execution in U.S. history became.

17-year-old runner Tao Moody made the Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation hike to Mankato, Minn., just before Christmas, where he ran about 100 kilometers in 24 hours as part of an annual commemoration — at points with a sacred bundle and flags marking the men who sometimes referred to as “the Dakota 38+2” and were executed after the Dakota War of 1862.

“You could feel the severity of the pain that came from some of the people, the elders that were there,” said Malcolm Blacksmith, who accompanied Moody on the flight as a youth worker with indigenous youth organization Jordan’s Principle Birdtail.

“What the elders say down there, they told us… that’s missing from the history books.”

Blacksmith said he and Moody were forced to make the trip to Mankato to support their relatives in Dakota. The history of the Dakota executions marked a turning point in the history of the Dakota Nation, he said, that is still reflected today in both Canada and the United States.

The Dakota 38+2

The Dakota War of 1862, also known as Little Crow’s War, was reportedly a six-week conflict in August and September 1862 between the United States and the Dakota in southwestern Minnesota a website of the Minnesota Historical Society. This was triggered by breaches of contract by the US government left the Dakota on the brink of starvation.

After the conflict, hundreds of Dakota men accused of taking part in the war faced trials that were “unfairly conducted in various ways.” The historical society’s website states.

Ultimately, 38 men were hanged on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, southwest of Minneapolis largest mass execution in US history.

Two other men were later brought back from Canada and executed at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

Thousands of Dakota fled or were expelled from Minnesota after the war — some of them ended up in Canada — said Gwen Westerman, a member of Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and an English and humanities professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Moody sits in front of a statue honoring the Dakota. The executions of 40 Dakota men in Minnesota in the 19th century “are not recorded in US history,” says Gwen Westerman, a professor at Minnesota State University. (Submitted by Malcolm Blacksmith)

“It was a miscarriage of justice that those 38 men were hanged on December 26,” Westerman said.

“We need to talk about it. We have to learn about it so that we can heal… I think it’s such a deep wound and it hasn’t been talked about – not just in our communities and among the people of Dakota in US history it hasn’t been talked about.”

Westerman says she’s watched Canada’s truth and reconciliation process — which she believes is a national and righteous effort — with interest, but said nothing like it is happening in the United States.

“There was no recognition of what happened and how it affected generations of Dakota people,” Westerman said.

Memorial ride, run

Dakota members themselves have commemorated the executions each year since 2005 with a ride of more than 500 kilometers and a more than 100 km long relay raceboth ending in Mankato on December 26th.

Westerman noted that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz attended the commemoration on December 26 this year to apologize for the executions.

Other small steps have been taken in the state, Westerman said, but reconciliation “requires all parties at the table.”

A boy stands in a snowy field in front of a sign that reads
Moody, 17, in Minnesota, where he ran about 100 kilometers over a 24-hour period to honor the Dakota 38+2. (Submitted by Malcolm Blacksmith)

The annual memorial ride and drive that Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation’s Moody attended this year concludes at Reconciliation Park, near downtown Mankato – the place of the hanging of 1862.

“When you look at it, it doesn’t look like anything happened there because everything is built around it,” said Blacksmith, who accompanied Moody. “Right now they only have one memorial.”

Blacksmith hopes events like the memorial run will open more doors for people to contribute to Dakota history.

“They have tremendous support down there when this memorial run happens,” Blacksmith said. “We don’t have it up here in Canada.”

Going to Mankato was an amazing experience, Moody said, because he met so many supportive people during the run who were willing to teach him about the Dakota 38+2.

He hopes to share this opportunity and bring even more runners to the commemorations next year.

Truth and Reconciliation for Dakota

Lola Thunderchild, chief of the Canupawakpa Dakota Nation of western Manitoba, and her family have deep-rooted ties to the Dakota 38+2.

Her uncles, Gus High Eagle and Philip High Eagle, along with Jim Miller of the United States, worked to start the memorial ride.

Thunderchild’s daughter Molly Taylor, 12, was recently crowned Miss Mahkato at an annual powwow in Mankato. As part of the title, Molly advocates for education and the commemoration of the hanged Dakota men.

A woman in a bow-tie dress, a man in a bow-tie skirt, and a girl in a powwow outfit pose for a photograph.
Canupawakpa Dakota Nation Chief Local Thunderchild, left, with Mahkato Powwow Committee member Dave Brave Heart and Molly Taylor, 12, who was named Miss Mahkato at the last powwow. (Submitted by Lola Thunderchild)

The executions of 19th-century Minnesota and their aftermath have meaning for the Dakota of Manitoba, Thunderchild said.

“Some of our descendants were part of … the meaning behind hanging,” she said, as their ancestors “ran away from the government.”

Unfortunately, she said, some of the same beliefs that led to the executions persist in society today.

“As truth and reconciliation come forth, this is a good opportunity to … address that again, because, you know, that’s what reconciliation is about,” Thunderchild said.

“We have to acknowledge that [reconciliation and education]”, she said. “Even to be recognized as a Dakota people — it was a struggle.”

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