Applause broke out in St. Paul, Minnesota, city council chambers January 9 as the group approved a strongly-worded resolution recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and declaring 2013 “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring, and Truth-Telling.”
On December 14, St. Paul’s twin city, Minneapolis, passed a nearly identical resolution describing as genocide the Dakotas’ sufferings after the war, which included bounties placed on their lives, mass executions, incarceration in concentration camps, forced marches and removal from their homeland to nearby states and Canada. Many call themselves exiles to this day.
“It was an ugly page in our history, it happened right here, and we had to acknowledge it,” said Minneapolis city council vice-chair Robert Lilligren, White Earth Band of Ojibway. “It was also important that the Dakota community drive this resolution and the conversations that will result. During the meeting, council members made moving speeches in support of the document.”
Among Native people, there were tears as well as applause, said retired professor Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, Dakota and writer of the draft document both councils worked with. “We never heard such words from any level of the white government—such truth-telling.” Mato Nunpa, who is also board chairman of Oceti Sakowin Omniciye, or Seven Fires Summit, formed to advance the Dakotas’ 1805 treaty, said he feld “elated” and “vindicated.”
Unlike President Barack Obama’s 2009 national apology to Native people, which was signed quietly over a weekend and received little publicity, the Minneapolis and St. Paul documents will be widely promulgated. In Minneapolis, the city will act as a clearinghouse for 2013 events as they arise—symposia, film screenings, readings and the like—said Lilligren.
Mato Nunpa looked forward to communications the resolutions will inspire. He also deplored many of the activities that have occurred so far around the 150th anniversary, including the adoption by some Native people of the mantra “forgive everyone everything.” He called this the unfortunate product of Christianization.
“When the truth is taught, when there’s mutual respect, then we can talk about reconciliation,” said Mato Nunpa. “Then the healing can begin.”
Some suggested settlers’ descendants would object to the resolutions, said St. Paul council member Dave Thune. “But an aide whose several-times-great grandfather was a soldier who died in the war told me the truth-telling was good. I’d say my email is running about 100 to one in favor of the resolution—a clear sign of the public’s approval.”
About the documents’ no-holds-barred language, Thune said, “What followed the 1862 war was a government-sponsored extermination program. If you can’t say it, you can’t deal with it.”
Lilligren anticipated that these frank exchanges would bring Native people into city-government policy-making in a good way. “In the past, many have felt their only way of communicating with government was street protests.” Now, he said, the Native community can establish itself as a part of ongoing decision-making and implementation.
Mato Nunpa will soon meet with Redwood Falls, Minnesota’s council, which is considering crafting a document similar to the two enacted in the Twin Cities. “We won’t be actively soliciting a lot of cities to pass resolutions, but we’ll talk to those who contact us,” he said.