Dakota and supporters commemorate 150th anniversary of mass hanging

Peter Lengkeek embraces Perry Little
Peter Lengkeek, right, hugs Perry Little after Lengkeek handed down his staff to Little during the Dakota 38 Memorial Dedication held at Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minn. It is tradition for the staff to be passed along to a new carrier every four years.
Jackson Forderer

Dakota Indians and their supporters commemorated the largest mass execution in U.S. history at a ceremony Wednesday in Mankato.

One-hundred-fifty years ago today, 38 Dakota men were hanged for crimes allegedly committed in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Today's ceremony included the dedication of a new monument was dedicated as part of today's ceremony.

The ceremony was conducted at Reconciliation Park, the site of the historic hangings in downtown Mankato. In recent years, the site has become an annual gathering, but the 300 or so people who gathered to mark the event's 150th anniversary was probably the largest the commemoration's ever seen.

The participants included a group of Dakota horseback riders and supporters who left South Dakota three weeks ago for Mankato. The number of riders increased as the group moved east into Minnesota. There were more than 50 horses as the group entered downtown Mankato for the ceremony.

Stories marking the 150-year anniversary
Photos: Dakota 38 Memorial Dedication

One organizer of the horseback ride, Peter Lengkeek, told the crowd it was a wonderful sight for the riders to see the gathered crowd. He said the location is a historic reminder of probably the most important event in the Dakota people's history.

The war in 1862 started after the U.S. government failed to keep promises spelled out in treaties signed with the Dakota. By the time the war started in August 1862, conditions were so desperate some Dakota were starving. After the conflict ended, there were calls for revenge against the Dakota, mainly because of the hundreds of civilians killed in the war. The 38 Dakota hanged were found guilty of various war crimes. Many historians believe the trials were a sham.

The injustice of the executions still haunt the Dakota, Lengkeek said.

"In 1862, those 38 were hung as criminals," Lengkeek said. "They died because they were protecting the children, the women, our way of life. And for that I am ever thankful."

Carl Maza
Carl Maza, right, and other riders listen to a speaker at the Dakota 38 Memorial Dedication in Mankato, Minn. on Wednesday morning, Dec. 26, 2012.
Jackson Forderer for MPR

There were calls for reconciliation at the event to heal lingering wounds on both sides. State Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican who has studied and written about the war, called the conflict Minnesota's greatest tragedy. After the war, the Dakota were exiled from the state to Nebraska, South Dakota and other locations. Urdahl said the only way true healing can take place, is for all citizens to educate themselves about the events that lead up to the war.

"Unfortunately, what happened in Minnesota in 1862 received scant attention nationally," Urdahl said. "And still today, is not given the attention that it deserves. Because of that there's still a lack of understanding."

During today's ceremony, participants dedicated a new monument displaying the names of the 38 executed Dakota.

Mankato resident David Brave Heart is a descendant of Dakota survivors of the war. He said his family demonstrates that reconciliation between the races is possible. Brave Heart said his wife, Sara, is descended from settlers who died in the 1862 war. The two have organized seminars to educate people about Dakota history.

"It's hard to forgive. It's hard to be compassionate. It's hard to walk that path after all that we have been through," Brave Heart said.

The Brave Heart family sang a rendition of the song the Dakota men sang on the gallows as they awaited execution.

The anniversary of the war and the hangings has brought unprecedented attention to Dakota history. While that may subside in the future, the ceremony in Mankato will continue each December. So will the horseback ride from South Dakota through southern Minnesota. Organizers say the event has become too important to them to drop, even though the landmark 150th anniversary of the events is over.