Dennis Red Owl pushed his 86-year-old mother's wheelchair over a crack in the asphalt Friday where South Dakota Hwy. 34 meets Minnesota Hwy. 30 at the border.
Elder Ada Red Owl, wrapped in a shawl, bowed her head and swept the smoke of burning sage over her face. A "Welcome to Minnesota" sign stood just across the road.
Traffic was halted as drum beats and prayer chants filled the unseasonably crisp air among the cornfields. More than 300 people circled around Ada and seven other Dakota grandmothers -- four on each side of the border -- as they exchanged eagle feathers at a symbolic welcome-home ceremony for exiles on the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
In the wake of the war, in which hundreds of settlers, U.S. soldiers and Dakota fighters were killed, Congress passed a law in 1863 banishing the Dakota from Minnesota. Several hundred Dakota had gone to war after broken treaties and late annuity payments left their
families starving to death in a narrow reservation along the Minnesota River. Their intent was to win back their land from a wave of immigrants sweeping into early Minnesota. The federal law, although unenforced, remains on the books.
"None of us would be here today if it weren't for these women," said J.B. Weston, a tribal preservation officer from the nearby Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation, referring to those who survived the first harsh winters after the war. Weston, who organized Friday's event, said the eight women in Friday's ceremony were chosen to honor those survivors.
Dennis Red Owl had driven over from Lincoln, Neb., stopping to pick up his cousin, Grace LeMere Mantich, in Omaha. Then they gathered up Ada and another cousin, Brenda Frazier, in Sioux City, Iowa. The family, which like thousands of fellow Dakota traces its roots to Minnesota, was scattered after the brutal six-week war a century and a half ago. "But here we stand," said Mantich, as hugs, smiles and tears were shared after the prayer ceremony.
Arvol Looking Horse, an elder from the Cheyenne River Tribe in South Dakota, led 11 eastbound riders on horseback over a crest on Hwy. 34 about 11 a.m. Two friends from Winona, Minn., Barbi Bell and Richie Swanson, held out a cardboard sign on which they had written: "Welcome Home."
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, Pipestone County Sheriff Dan Delaney and state Rep. Dean Urdahl were among those lining the two-lane highway to greet the riders and those who walked behind them. "This is long overdue," the sheriff said.
Theresa Two Bulls, an Oglala Sioux tribal member from Pine Ridge, S.D., cradled an ancient family ceremonial pipe as she stood on the roadside.
"Something good is going to come from this," Two Bulls said. "We, the first Americans, are not going anywhere and neither is the white society. So it's time to join hands and begin walking hand in hand, and living in harmony for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
Gov. Mark Dayton declared Friday a day of remembrance and reconciliation. Aug. 18 marks the 150th anniversary of the first day of the war that left about 600 settlers and soldiers killed, and ended with what remains the largest mass execution ever on U.S. soil as 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato. Many more Dakota died when they were force-marched to a stockade at Fort Snelling and ultimately exiled west into the Dakota territory.
"I have a heavy heart," Looking Horse said, beneath a bonnet of feathers and fur. "But at the same time, this feels good."
As Dennis Red Owl wheeled his mother toward an afternoon of speeches and commemorations at the sacred quarries at Pipestone National Monument, he talked about his ancestor, Hinhanduta or Red Owl. He had signed some of those unfulfilled treaties and died before the war that scattered his descendants.
"After all these years," he said, "we've survived and it is nice to be welcomed home."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767