Dakota Indian horseback riders and support teams are gathering in South Dakota on Monday for an annual memorial journey to southern Minnesota.
Their ride will end in Mankato on Dec. 26, the 150th anniversary of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. On that day in 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged from a single gallows platform in downtown Mankato in retribution for the US-Dakota war. The horseback ride will grow as it moves east, with more groups joining in.
Vanessa Goodthunder has been preparing her horse Taz for the long, cold days of the ride since October, especially feeding him a grain-rich diet.
"He eats a lot," Goodthunder said.
At age 18, she is already a veteran of the yearly trek. This will be her seventh trip honoring the men who were hanged.
The executions in Mankato came three months after hundreds on both sides were killed in the six-week war. The executed Dakota were convicted of war crimes, although many historians say none received anything close to a fair trial.
Goodthunder said she carries the memory of the men who hanged with her every mile.
"When you ride you have a lot of time to think and pray," she said, "and think about your ancestors and what happened. It's a 'wokiksuye,' which is memorial. And this is our time to heal."
Goodthunder and other members of the Lower Sioux Dakota community in southwest Minnesota get together at least once a week to ride their horses.
Goodthunder said the rides get the ponies in good physical shape for the trip to Mankato.
"We take care of them," Goodthunder said. "We think about them, more than us."
"When you ride you have a lot of time to think and pray, and think about your ancestors and what happened."
Goodthunder and the rest of her group will join the anniversary ride when it reaches their area in late December. They will ride some 60 miles to Mankato over several days. It's a trip with a clear destination: the execution site. But it's also a cultural journey.
"These young people here, they're learning a lot," said Gaby Strong, 49, one of the adult leaders of the Lower Sioux riders. "Not just about 1862, and not just about their ancestors' experiences. But also about what they can become, what they themselves can become, as Dakota people."
Just as the ride connects the participants with the history leading to the 38 hangings, it also connects them with Dakota traditions. They will speak the Dakota language, eat traditional foods, take part in Dakota religious ceremonies and sing traditional songs.
Strong said the goal is to pass on and preserve Dakota culture.
"Being on horseback for days in winter, that's kind of the easy part," she said. "And the challenge becomes for everybody is how do you keep that in your heart, and how do you walk with that 365 days of the year. That's the challenge."
And younger riders welcome that challenge. Starr Brothers, 15, will be on the trek for the first time this year.
"It's like bringing back our culture," Brothers said. "It's like a healing process of our reservation, because there's so many drugs and alcohol on it."
Many on the ride connect those addiction problems with the ill treatment the Dakota and other American Indian tribes have received over the last couple of centuries, traumatic events that broke up families and left scars still felt today.
For the Dakota, broken treaty promises, the 1862 war, forced relocation and the Mankato executions are still powerful, defining events 150 years later.
But riders say rebuilding cultural connections can help soothe the wounds. The Lower Sioux riders find comfort in working with their horses.
Their Dakota ancestors were considered expert riders. For Goodthunder, being responsible for Taz is both culturally therapeutic and educational.
"You learn responsibility; you learn caring, respect; you learn courage," she said. "Because if you're scared, the horse will feel that, and they'll get scared. So you learn a lot of things."
Those skills can help young people navigate rough patches in their lives. But if the horseback ride to Mankato is a safe, nurturing, environment, life after the event can be a treacherous journey for young Native Americans.
Since the ride started in 2005, at least three participants under the age of 30 have died in tragic circumstances in their communities, far away from the sheltering social fabric of the ride.
The year's ride begins Monday in the town of Lower Brule, S.D., on the Missouri River, about 330 miles west of Mankato.