Footsteps Paper

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Footsteps of Our Ancestors:

The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century

Essay by Justin Taylor

Introduction to Native American Studies 201

16 November 2006

November 7, 1862, was the beginning of a brutal forced march of Dakota women, children, and elders that took them 150 miles from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling in Minnesota.  There they were interred for the winter before being transported from their homeland.  Many of them did not survive.  Dakota people from the U.S. and Canada commemorate this painful journey by again walking the route of their ancestors.

For the Dakota, the Commemorative March is an opportunity to remember and grieve the suffering endured by their ancestors, as well as to relate a perspective of the event which has rarely been told.  This walk is also a way to re-connect or perhaps connect for the first time with many of the communities that still exist within the Dakota homeland.  In Voices of the Marchers from 2002, by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, the Mayor of Henderson, Keith Swenson welcomed the Dakota people and spoke about his own family’s history.  He mentioned his own sense of homesickness that he feels, even if he is only away for four days.   Angela Wilson mentions how this was bittersweet for them, because it was “very much appreciated being welcomed to a town that had previously been so hostile to [the Dakota] People, yet at the same time [the Dakota People] were now the visitors in [their] ancient homeland.”

There are many things I believe the Dakota have to gain from a commemorative march.  Walking is a way of putting ones selves in the mindset of their ancestors’ experiences.  While some have an opportunity to physically experience what it was like “way back then in the old days,” most people are left with their imagination, generated out of movies, television shows, and books.  Then there is the remembering of what happened, the old saying that you can’t understand what another has gone through until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, or in this case, many miles.

Perhaps this is a way of walking in their ancestors shoes, retracing the atrocities that occurred to the ancestors of the Dakota.  It is also a way of uniting a people and opening the hearts and minds to how things can be better, a sense of awareness.  It is also a sense of awareness to those who now live within the Dakota homelands and as quoted from Myla Vicenti Carpio, in the essay Reconnecting Past and Present, “What makes the march important is that, by reclaiming this history and these past experiences, we also change the present.”  The marching also brings about more recognition, in a very public way as Mary Beth Faimon, in the Ties That Bind essay points out with, “The networking among individuals, community, and church representatives, public officials, institutions, and the media that naturally occurred in the course of organizing the march forced a wider consciousness about the events of 1862.  The march itself brought into public awareness a reminder of the historical events in the towns and surrounding communities where they occurred.”

It is not often that I read a book that invokes such an emotional response in me, yet the emotional response I have felt is conflicted.  On one hand, there is my Father’s ancestry which makes me Native American, yet on the other hand there is my Mother’s ancestry which is English and “White.”  These differing ideas and my own personal passions made it very difficult to get through all of the essays in the book, without constantly thinking about the problems that exist from both perspectives.  The first essay that caused me to put the book down many times in sheer frustration and then caused my mind to race while reading through the rest of the book, thereby making it difficult to digest much of the other information, was the essay entitled “Thoughts and Reactions by Chris Mato Nunpa.”  Due to these difficulties, I’m going to next try and focus with just a few observations and comments on this particular essay, while expressing my thoughts on why it may have affected me so much.

My first comment in the section titled Thoughts and Reactions by Chris Mato Nunpa, is in regards to the comparison of Saddam Hussein rounding up all of the Kurds, imprisoning them in concentration camps and then force marching them out of the country.  Chris suspects that there would have been an outcry from Euro-Americans, yet what Saddam did do was in fact the very same thing and Saddam didn’t just do “Ethnic Cleansing” (The forced removal of a population by other means), but he attempted Genocide as well, by rounding them up and killing them by the thousands.  Yet I must also point out that 140 years ago, there are many things that the world would not view in the same light as they might today.  The world is a very different place.  Which brings up another question that plagued me throughout the entire book, why is it that this generation or any “white” person should be held responsible for what their ancestors may have done in the past?  My answer, they shouldn’t.  Any apology is ill-conceived and insincere no matter how heartfelt it might be by the apologizer, because it did not come directly from the original perpetrator of the crime.  No matter what apology is made, nothing can be done to reverse what happened or change it in any way.

Healing is about letting go, remembering for the sake of learning to not repeat the same mistakes.  Remembering the atrocities and helping to rewrite the history books to be more inline with the truth is an important part of remembering and healing too.  As Chris Mato Nunpa points out in the essay Thoughts and Reactions, “I would like to further suggest that the Indigenous perspective is the ‘truth’ about what really happened in this country and in Minnesota.  What we all have been taught in what I refer to as ‘Euro-American history’ — what is generally called U.S. history or American history — is a constructed series of myths.”  I would also like to note, that all history is recorded by the victors.  That leaves many parts of history in question; because we all know there are two sides or two perspectives to every story.  In all of history what is the other side of the story?

This leads me to another question, when Chris Mato Nunpa dives into religion, I’m a little unclear, but I believe he says that to proselyte in foreign countries is a form of imperialism.  Yet, I would think that it is not the proselyting itself, but the method that is used.  Is it forced or is it left to individual choice?   Then there is the reference to a comment made by Wulff’ that says, “I really don’t think of myself as a Euro-American, but as an American.”  He refers to the fact that Euro-Americans consider themselves to be “Americans,” then refer to others as Afro-Americans, Mexican-Americans or Native Americans or some other hyphenated term.  He references the reason for this is because it is OK for “Euro-Americans to hyphenate names but they themselves want to be referred to as ‘Americans.'”  He considers this to be a double standard.  My argument to this statement would be that most Ethnic groups maintain their differences out of choice not out of a desire by “Euro-Americans” to label them.

In fact, in the politically correct society we live in, most “Euro-Americans” do not know what to call someone of another Ethnic group, because they refer to themselves, as an “Ethnic Minority” and often times are angry if others do not refer to them by their cultural “label”.  We are all Americans and should all be referred to as “Americans,” nothing more, nothing less.  Most ethnic groups have such a strong need to maintain cultural identity that they first identify themselves and then expect everyone else to identify them the same way and often get upset when others don’t refer to them correctly.

Many Native People want to be referred to as Dakota, Hopi, Apache or Cherokee or whatever tribe they may be from and they don’t want to just be called “American” any more than most other ethnic American groups want to be referred to as just “Americans.”  I believe it is a sense of pride and self-identification, something that distinguishes them in some way as different.  I also think that the reason most so-called “Euro-Americans” don’t want to refer to themselves as “Euro-American is because they don’t consider themselves attached to Europe any more.  They consider themselves “Assimilated” into or a part of “American” Society, they wish to drop the labels and be recognized for who they are now.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have traditions and cultural practices that might be different than other Americans, it just means, their identity as an “American” is not blurred by their own separate and distinct cultural identity.  In truth what is an “American?”  An American is only a “mutt,” they are just a mix of many different cultures, races and ethnic groups.

Don’t get me wrong, as a Native American; I don’t want to lose those parts of my cultural identity either.  I believe that we should and we must preserve our languages and we need to embrace our arts, dances and other cultural teachings and practices.  But obviously some things have changed, as the world we live in has changed, so we must also adapt to the world around us or find ways to co-exist with the “new” world that exists today.  History proves that those who learn to adapt, survive the longest.

Through the next part of this paper I would like to note something that struck me in perhaps the wrong way about the overall feel that I got from this book.  Overall, it seemed very negative, but I guess that may be a direct result of what the book is about, the hard realities of a time and a particular incident that forever altered the annals of “American” history.  But it seems in many ways to directly insult “white” people and then to blame all of the problems on them, it makes it seem like it is a natives vs. white’s attitude.  In a much more generalized way, it lays things out.  Perhaps the purpose of this harshness is to swing the pendulum of absurdity as far in the other direction as possible, to get “Whites” to take notice that all is not well in America.  But in my opinion it is much harder to get people to listen, when you are openly attacking them or are overly blunt about things.

Some of the ideas I think that come across are, every white person in the world hates indigenous peoples, every white person is greedy and in lust of land and money.  Every white Euro-American thinks that the world is theirs and everyone else can just get out of the way.  Every white Euro-American is of an imperialist mindset and believes in the “Religious” ideal of Manifest Destiny.  Every “Christian Religion” believes in “Manifest Destiny.”  Of course the other theme that I got from the book is that the indigenous and non-white peoples throughout the world are the ONLY people that have ever been wronged.  It was as if, the book was saying “All whites owe non-whites, for the past wrongs that were perpetrated by their ancestors!”  I’m sure this was not the intent or feeling at all that the book is trying to get across, but those “whites” I’ve shared some of the essays with, have felt the same way as I did.  Now I would be remiss if I did not also include at least one positive moment listed in the essays that does give an amount of hope to all the negative feelings.  Such as this one by Edward Valandra, in the essay Oyate Kin Unkanikupi Pelo, when he says, “The march has even created a healthy way for Whites and other non-Indians to ally with us, the Oceti Sacowin Oyate.”

As most “Americans,” I feel badly about what happened to all indigenous People, including my own, because the evils that occurred were wrong, it was a century full of mistakes and problems.  One bad choice leads to another and then another and so on.  Many bad choices were made by both the white settlers, often with limited information and knowledge and many bad choices were made by Native Americans, as even Angela Wilson herself acknowledges in Decolonizing the 1862 Death Marches.  “This is not an excuse to the acts of violence perpetrated by Dakota people.  This violence did not advance the Dakota cause, and it is a reality that White families were killed during the war.”

I know that Native Peoples want to be treated as equals and be recognized for whom they really are, but at the same time, there is an expectation that they are “owed something.”  It is a double standard in many regards.  Many of the essays and much of the information we have studied this term make it clear that it is understood that for white people it is all about money, yet for Native Americans it is about money too.  If we take money out of the equation and recognize them as countries within another country, then they would need to take care of themselves, raise their own armies, set and lay taxes, create border patrols and do all the other things that independent nations must do.  But more importantly they would need to do this without the assistance, financially from anyone else.  But the moment anyone even suggests that the trust relationship be terminated and they not receive any of “Americas” tax dollars, but they be recognized as “Americans,” we go back through the same vicious cycle of not recognizing Native Americans for who they are and something reminiscent of the assimilation policies.  Yet, we can’t just allow them to be their own country either, or perhaps we can.  This is a question, yet to be answered by the legislative body of America.  Native Americans are sovereign, yet they have a “special relationship” with the government due to their trust status.  Sovereignty is when a nation or individual is free to make all of their own choices, without any outside influence, including financial.  The moment a sovereign asks for some benefit they must then give up some responsibility.  I don’t think this is something that most Native Americans understand and if they do, then perhaps they to, would just rather not think about it or just chalk it up to, that doesn’t really matter, because they owe us for all the bad things that happened.  In order to obtain more responsibility and freedom one must first give something up in the relationship that already exists.

Can justice really ever be satisfied?  As I already pointed out, I don’t think the sins of our fathers should be held over the sons and daughters.  I also don’t believe an apology will ever heal all wounds.  Healing comes from within.  Angela Wilson learned this after carrying the shackles her ancestor had worn in 1862, in the Voices of the Marchers From 2004 essay she says, “Compassion filled my heart, and I understood at my core that all of our People suffered deeply during the war and as a consequence of colonialism, no matter which side we were on.”   Then she further says, “I think I did more growing, maturing and healing during those last two miles than I had in all the miles past.”  As she mentions everyone suffered from this great tragedy, no matter what side of the war they were on, colonialism itself is to blame, not just the “white” people.

One final thought, on a subject that I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand, is how or why do people hold grudges and can’t just forgive, heal and move on.  I do say this from experience.  I’ve had things, which I will not discuss here, that have happened in my past that were of such a traumatic nature that I was destined to be a statistic, someone that spent the better part of their life in a jail cell.  But I’ve healed on my own at the shock and bewilderment of many professionals, who wonder how it is that I’ve never needed or had professional therapy.  I was able to heal, by discovering who I was and not taking the energy or time to worry about the choices other people had made; no matter how those choices affected my life.  What is the difference between two people with the same horrible background, when one becomes somebody famous or successful and the other becomes a menace and failure?  The difference is the choices they made, to take charge of their lives, to forgive, to let go, to move on and most importantly to heal.

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Word Count: 2875

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