A Road Made Of Bones

The Mass Execution of 38 Dakota Men in Mankato, Minnesota in December 1862

Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptation of those words.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Shadows of Voices

by Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan

In awe of the prairie wind and its beauty,
I listen for the shadows of voices.
An ancestral memory of
Forgotten rituals,
Forgotten oral narratives,
Forgotten humanity.
The conqueror in its insolence cannot hear the ancient heartbeat of the prairie.
The plowed and plundered grassland
has been sacrificed to a leader’s arrogance.
Damaged spirit is the prize for the powerful victor,
given to the vulnerable,
who are unable to save themselves.
There is a language on the ancient landscape.
Symbols that relate ideas traveling from time immemorial to humanity.
Shadows of voices sustain memory in the continuous orator wind.
Okiya from the wise relatives.
This same prairie wind that caused pioneer women to go mad.
The heart knows ceremony and its healing virtues.
Medicine that can only be felt.
Ancestral narratives tell of Eya’s genocide and oppression.
Imperialism has left its reminder,
a road made of bones.


The largest mass execution in the history of the United States occurred during the Civil War in Mankato, Minnesota.   It is impossible to disconnect the genocide of the Dakota people conducted under President Lincoln, who personally reviewed the sentences of all of the men executed, and Governor Ramsey of Minnesota, who carried out the brutal public execution of 38 Dakota men, from the history of the Civil War.  Lincoln maybe remembered as a hero and honored for his principles for his part in ending slavery, but that history ignores the genocide of native people that was carried out under his leadership, manifested in one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice that has occurred in the United States in December of 1862. 

Outlining the events that led up to the Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath is beyond this blog entry.  The University of Minnesota link below does a good job of outlining a brief history if you are interested in learning more.  The cause of the conflict was starvation and privation, a result of the Government and the Army being financially insolvent because of the cost of the Civil War,   resulting in an endless string of broken promises and  broken treaties as to what was owed the Dakota people in response for giving up land in Minnesota. Eventually desperation took over as the famine worsened and there was a conflict between Dakota living on reservations and settlers farming on their stolen land.  Native people, on the verge of starvation fought for their human rights and were met with a level of cruelty and genocide that far outweighed the wrongs committed.  The brutality of the genocide went beyond the executions and continued over multiple years in Minnesota and neighboring states in the unjust imprisonment and displacement of countless families and native tribes in Minnesota that has repercussions to the health and equity in our society to this day.   

https://cla.umn.edu/chgs/holocaust-genocide-education/resource-guides/us-dakota-war-1862

The poet and author LeAnne Howe’s book Savage Conversations, is a fascinating look at the connection between the Civil War, President Lincoln and the United States policies of genocide across the United States and specifically the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862.   It examines Mary Todd Lincoln’s institutionalization in a women’s sanitarium in Illinois thirteen years later. Mary Todd Lincoln’s brittle temperament was well documented after President Lincoln’s assassination.  Her erratic behavior and increasingly disheveled appearance and elaborate displays of grief were widely criticized, but it wasn’t until she began having visions that she was being haunted by an Indian spirit, a manifestation of the violence that had occurred during the Civil War against native people, that her son took actions to have her rights terminated and her voice silenced by being committed to an asylum.    Howe brilliantly poses the question whether the unacknowledged genocide of the United States government haunted Mary Todd Lincoln’s soul?  It took only 10 minutes for a jury in Chicago in 1875 to render a verdict against the former first lady after she gave public testimony she was visited nightly by a phantom spirit, a Dakota man, who “slits my eyelids and sews them open, always removing the wires by dawn’s first light.” Because of her status and ability to be represented by first rate lawyers, something the Dakota men who were hanged were denied, the first lady’s imprisonment was short lived and within a couple of years she was able to get her freedom back and spent the remainder of her life in the care of her sister, mostly traveling and living in Europe.   

As for Minnesota and our nation, we have only begun to confront our genocidal past.  It took 150 years, in 2012,  for then Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton to offer a formal apology to all the native tribes in Minnesota, acknowledging the state’s role in the injustices and invoking the word genocide, carried out against native people during and after the Civil War.  The question is now what reparations are appropriate to help heal the wounds that linger to this day and how do we go beyond apologies to living a shared dream of an equitable, sustainable future? 


Evidence of Red

by LeAnne Howe

First, night opened out.
Bodies took root from rotting salt
and seawater into evidence of red life.
Relentless waves pumped tidal air
into a single heartbeat.

In the pulp of shadow and space,
water sucked our people from sleep.
That’s how it all began. At least
that’s all we can remember to tell.
It began with water and heartbeat.

In minutes we tunneled through
corn woman’s navel into tinges
of moist red men and women.
Yawning, we collected our chins,
knees, breasts, and sure-footed determination.

A few thousand years before
Moses parted the Red Sea, and the
God with three heads was born in the Middle East,
the Choctaw people danced
our homeland infra red.

Finally when the stranger’s arms
reached to strangle the West,
Grandmother eavesdropped
on the three-faced deity
who said that chaos was coming.

When he puckered his lips and tried to kiss her
she made it rain on him.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten
you were born of water and women,”
she said, walking away laughing.