SANTEE INDIAN RESERVATION, Neb. — The riders gathered in a muddy parking lot in the pouring rain, no one minding the muck or the wet.
The older men with broke-down backs from their bronc-breaking days joked between cigarettes about needing to ride sawhorses. Teenage girls trotted on a couple of mares in need of a stretch. And one of the youngest among them, a 5-year-old from South Dakota, soaked his Converse sneakers in giant puddles as they all waited to begin.
These members of the vast Dakota Sioux diaspora met here on a gray Memorial Day to remember a series of events that occurred 152 years ago: a war, an imprisonment, a mass execution and an expulsion from an ancestral home in Minnesota to the rugged no man’s land of central South Dakota. Some members of this group later left South Dakota for Nebraska.
The full story, which involves broken treaties, unfair dealing and a tidal wave of white immigrants, was not widely known, even among Dakota people who might have heard bits and pieces over the years.
That is one big reason why Jim Hallum organized this weeklong, 180-mile memorial ride from his Santee Reservation in northeast Nebraska to the Crow Creek Reservation in central South Dakota. He wanted to raise awareness of a dark chapter of our shared American history and find healing.
“My grandmother never talked nothing about this,” said Hallum, who is 56. “But I wonder what (elders) knew and I wonder what their mothers knew. But they wouldn’t say nothing. I didn’t know about it until I did a little research.”
This was a common sentiment among the riders, regardless of age or tribe. One 15-year-old South Dakota girl who came was incredulous.
“We’re from Minnesota?” she asked of her tribe’s past.
This week’s ride highlights a tumultuous period for American Indians.
In 1862, drought, broken government promises and corrupt middlemen called Indian agents made matters worse for the already-squeezed Dakota Indians, reeling from a bad treaty a decade earlier that stripped them of most of their ancestral Minnesota land. Their reservation was too small and waves of white settlers were encroaching on even that little space as game stocks diminished. What’s more, the annual government payment that covered food and provisions had not arrived. People were hungry. Children were getting sick. Accounts tell of one storekeeper who notoriously showed his indifference when he said if the Indians were so hungry, they could eat grass.
In August, four braves killed five white settlers, sparking a six-week conflict now called the U.S.-Dakota War. Not all Dakota Indians wanted to do battle, and some actively helped or protected settlers. But the warring faction, led by a chief named Little Crow, hoped to push back the white “invaders” and had some early success, given the nation’s preoccupation with the Civil War. The Dakota killed an estimated 600 whites, most of them immigrant settlers. Many were children. An estimated 75 to 100 Dakota soldiers were killed.
But the Dakota would wind up losing even more. So much more.
The U.S. government came down hard. Hundreds of Dakota fighters were rounded up and imprisoned. President Lincoln signed off on the death sentences for 38 of them, who were hanged the day after Christmas in Mankato, Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
But many others received de facto death sentences.
Gen. John Pope said he wanted “utterly to exterminate the Sioux ... destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the Plains. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts and by no means as people.” Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey formally ordered the Dakota out of his state. Congress took all the Dakota land in Minnesota. Bounties were placed on the heads of Dakota men, women and children.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society, after the mass execution, the remaining prisoners were sent to Davenport, Iowa, where about 120 died. An additional 1,700 Dakota people had to march to other prison camps, where between 100 and 300 died of disease and malnutrition. Still others would die during their boat and boxcar journey out of Minnesota and during raids by U.S. soldiers on Indian encampments in what was then Dakota Territory.
Yet the Dakota people carried on. They survived. Some moved to communities elsewhere in South Dakota. Some settled in the Missouri River Valley in northeast Nebraska. They are the Santee.
And Jim Hallum is a descendant. Hallum was born in Wisconsin, moved around and settled in the village of Santee, which sits about 9 miles north of Nebraska Highway 12.
Hallum works for the Nebraskan Indian Community College in Santee. He teaches cultural education.
Hallum said he learned more about this history while on a different memorial ride that occurs every December to mark the public execution of the 38 men who were hanged in Mankato and of two more men who were executed a year later.
Hallum thought another ride should be held to honor the suffering and resilience of the tribe’s women.
Hallum tapped friends and members of something called the Sacred Horse Society, which is a group that aims to keep youths away from drugs and alcohol. He organized this first-ever ride, which ends Monday in Crow Creek. Hallum said the riders will honor some 900 women and children with gifts. There will be a ceremony called Wiping of Tears.
The journey is meant to remember. It is also meant to heal.
“We’re still walking with this hurt,” Hallum said. “When I’m talking about it, I’m crying. It’s the historical trauma we all have inside us. It’s like a sore that’s festering, that’s always there and we need to heal from it. We remember and heal from it and learn from it. We remember who we are and where we came from.”
Hallum draws strength from the resilience of the Dakota people who survived, made a living on the Great Plains and proudly exist today despite the many social problems they face. He sees hope in the future, and that future was evident in the wet parking lot off Highway 12.
The first riders to show up were teenage girls, including Hallum’s daughters Hazel, 17, and Victoria, 16. Hazel says she wants to go to medical school but isn’t sure how to pay for all that education. A waitressing job at the Santee casino called Ohiya prevented her from being on all of this week’s ride.
But Hazel got Memorial Day off so she could ride at least that one day.
“I told them I HAD to go,” she said. “It makes you feel good about where you’re from.”
The participants are riding in shifts, with riders and horses taking breaks. The group, which has grown during the week and could top 40 riders before it ends, is accompanied by trucks hauling horse trailers. They are camping or staying in church basements and plan to take Sunday as a day of rest before riding into Crow Creek.
Riders ranged in age from “pushing toward 60,” as one of the bronc riders said, to a little boy named Hehaka Little, riding alternately with his mother, Jessica, and father, Perry.
“Some day,” said Perry, “he’s going to be leading a ride.”
On Memorial Day, Hehaka danced in the rain puddles as his parents joined a group to pray. Standing in the rain, they chanted in Dakota. Then, rather miraculously, the sun came out. And this group of Dakota riders smiled and began their journey.
Riding out front were Jim Hallum and Hazel.
Jim held a staff made with eagle plumes to signify the lives lost.
Hazel wore a hoodie that said, “Dream on, dreamer.”