MANKATO, Minn. — Todd Finney and five generations of his Dakota family members stood out in the cold last weekend at the spot where, exactly 159 years ago, 38 Dakota akicita — warriors — were hanged at the order of a U.S. president.
A Wahpekute Dakota from Medford, Finney said his people were told they would never be able to come back to Mankato. The return each year of the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Ride, which his uncle Jim Miller took part in founding in 2005, ensures that dozens of Dakota continue to honor their ancestors in Reconciliation Park.
"To see this many people here," Finney said to a large crowd gathered around the buffalo monument, vapor clouding from his breath, "people that come in a good way — it's hard for me not to cry tears of joy."
Men, women and children of the Dakota and Ojibwe nations rode 330 miles on horseback from South Dakota over 17 days. Native American runners, supported by a caravan, also traveled to Mankato for the 34th annual 38+2 Memorial Run, leaving Fort Snelling in St. Paul on Christmas Day, the Mankato Free Press reported.
The traveling groups and other spectators gathered at the site where on Dec. 26, 1862, about 4,000 spectators came to watch 38 Dakota men die.
The hangings followed the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which arose when the government failed to provide goods promised to the Dakota in contentious treaty negotiations led by Henry Sibley, who later became Minnesota's first governor.
The July 1851 Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux was an agreement to exchange vast swaths of Dakota homeland for payments and goods. The Dakota believed they would get a lump-sum land payment but were given only $305,000. Much of the immediate cash went to cover debts fur traders such as Sibley claimed were owed to them.
The U.S. said the remainder would be doled out in annual payments of money and goods.
After a bad crop year and widespread hunger in 1861, the payment owed to the Dakota in June 1862 didn't arrive on time. A federal agent refused to give them food without the money.
After a disagreement about whether to steal a white farmer's eggs, four Dakota men shot and killed five settlers in Acton on Aug. 17, 1862. A band of Dakota agreed to fight area settlers after the men reported their killings and persuaded a reluctant Chief Little Crow.
In a short period that fall, estimates say more than 600 white settlers and 75-100 Dakota were killed.
The initial list of Dakota to be hanged, after haphazard trials convened by Sibley, numbered 303. Dismayed at the quantity, the office of President Abraham Lincoln reviewed trial transcripts and ordered that only men guilty of raping women be hanged. When only two men were found guilty of rape, Lincoln expanded the criteria to include those who had participated in "massacres" of civilians rather than just "battles." He then made his final decision and forwarded a list of 39 names to Sibley. The number was later reduced to 38.
It remains the largest mass execution in American history.
Two more Dakota, Medicine Bottle and Shakopee, were hanged two years later.
Finney said the event seeks to promote history that subverts narratives long told by U.S. victors of the Dakota war with white settlers. His favorite moment came in 2019, when Mankato native Gov. Tim Walz attended the ceremony and gave a tearful apology.
He said Walz quietly asked leaders of the event, "What more can we do?"
Finney told him nothing was needed but to continue the process of healing and sharing his ancestors' story.
"Healing is a process," Finney said Sunday. "Forgiveness is a gift."
Speakers also used the memorial to advocate for current issues plaguing Native Americans.
Mary Kunesh, the first Indigenous woman elected to the Minnesota Senate, led a task force that focused for 18 months on investigating cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The effort culminated this year with a 163-page report to the Legislature and creation of a statewide Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office.
Several others lamented the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, who for 44 years has been behind bars for his alleged involvement in the 1975 killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier says he was present for the shoot-out, which also left one Native American dead, but steadfastly denies having killed anyone.
Riders carried a staff made for Peltier and had a moment of silence to pray for the man whom human rights groups designate a political prisoner. A 77-year-old diabetic with heart problems, Peltier has grown increasingly frail in prison.
Finney and others hope the chosen theme of Reconciliation Park, "Forgive everyone everything," resonates as the Dakota seek to rebuild their culture.
"If you hear my voice," Finney said, "you are my relative."