At just past midnight on the morning after Christmas, Emmett Eastman walked briskly over a thin layer of snow in an open field near historic Fort Snelling, reached Hwy. 55 and began jogging across the Mendota Bridge.
It was the first leg of a group relay run to Mankato to mark the 156th anniversary of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, the hanging of 38 Dakota Sioux Indians in Mankato in 1862. About 50 people participated in the relay, but Eastman was the run’s most eminent presence and the eldest among them, having turned 87 on Christmas Eve.
“I do it to memorialize my ancestors, the ones who were hanged, the ones who were incarcerated,” he said.
For Eastman, a Dakota Sioux, the run is deeply personal. His great--great-grandfather was Wakinyan Cistina, whose English name was Little Thunder, one of the 38 who was hanged. Eastman has participated in the relay 32 times, missing only the first one in 1986. He lives on the Sisseton Wahpeton Reservation in South Dakota, but often visits his daughter Anne White Eastman in New Prague. She has accompanied him on runs and did so again this year. She did much of the driving, picking him up after a mile.
“My runs represent a prayer step,” he said. “Each step is a prayer for world peace and dignity.”
The relay is an annual tradition. About 80 people gathered near a small bonfire in a field next to the historic park, mostly Indians, but some whites, both runners and drivers.
In Mankato, about 500 people, mostly Indians from the region, assembled by 10 a.m. at Reconciliation Park in Mankato, site of the hanging, for a short memorial program. They greeted runners as well as 70 Indians on horseback who rode in from South Dakota.
The crowd included Gov.-elect Tim Walz of Mankato, who stood silently with his daughter, Hope, a 17-year-old high school senior. They’ve been coming for several years, he said.
“This history here in Mankato is a painful one,” he said. “But this Reconciliation Park was meant to tell the story and it’s a place for telling the history, especially for the Dakota.”
The Dakota uprising was sparked by a surge of settlers pushing Indians off their land.
“A series of broken peace treaties culminated in the failure of the United States that summer to deliver promised food and supplies to the Indians, partial payment for their giving up their lands to whites,” wrote Jon Wiener in the Nation in 2012.
But before the revolt was put down, 490 white settlers, including women and children, were killed by the Indians. In quick mass military trials in which the Indians had no lawyers, 303 Indians were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of 264, but agreed to hang 39, later reduced to 38.
While Little Thunder was hanged, Eastman said his grandfather on his mother’s side, Jacob His Many Lightning, had his sentence commuted. He was released from prison after six years, after taking the English name, “Eastman,” his wife’s name, and becoming a Christian.
Eastman’s father was the only Indian farmer in Sisseton, S.D., where he grew up. Eastman and his sister were the only Indians at a local school and remembers students called him “dirty Indian.” He said he believes there’s less racism now.
Eastman worked at a boarding school in Wahpeton, N.D., for 25 years, looking after the children in the dormitory He was laid off at age 52.
He joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), and ran in the 1972 Boston Marathon. With the support of AIM leader Dennis Banks, he joined Sacred Run International, which sponsored runs worldwide. He said he has run hundreds of marathons in 22 countries, but was slowed after he slipped on the ice while attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2012.
Eastman is the father of eight children, some of whom have participated in the run to Mankato. Daughter Anne, 35, is often one of the runners, including this year. She named her youngest son, 4, Wakinyan Cistina White after his ancestor who was hanged.
At the Mankato memorial, the names were read of the 38 who were executed and two other Indian leaders who were later hanged. People then drove 3 miles to Land of Memories Park, where another memorial was held, attended by about 150 people.
At the end of the ceremony, it was announced that Eastman had turned 87. The crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” which has become a tradition, too. Eastman said he was embarrassed “but it made me feel great.”
Said his daughter, Anne, who stood beside him. “I’m very proud of my dad.”