In 1862, 38 men of the Dakota Native American tribe were hanged in what’s been described as the largest mass execution in U.S. history. President Lincoln ordered the killings after the Santee Sioux uprising the previous summer left 490 white settlers dead.
Now, more than 150 years later, Lisa Yankton, a Minneapolis-based poet and member of the Dakota tribe, fears this history will be forgotten. So she’s retelling it through her poetry.
The Dakota people still recognize the hangings each year, but the event is seldom discussed in wider U.S. culture, she said. “[It] is the largest mass hanging in the history of the United States and no one talks about it,” she said.
She believes it is important for the Dakota to speak out about this history. “These are our stories and they need to be coming from our voices,” she said. “We’re the only ones who understand our own cultural system and our own cultural beliefs. And we’re the only ones who know our own history and can tell it truthfully.”
In addition to educating the public, sharing these stories helps the Dakota understand their own roots, she said: “To be a Dakota you must know the history of your people and what you’ve experienced, what you’ve been through. And we must never forget that because that composes who we are today. … You have to understand where you’re coming from in order to know where you’re going.”
Above, watch Yankton read her poem “Ma-Ka-To” at the 2015 AWP Conference and Bookfair in Minneapolis.
A while ago in Minnesota
Time before children and adult responsibility
An elder said to me
We are going to Ma-Ka-To for a pipe ceremony for the 38
We arrived in Ma-Ka-To
And went to a park
We climbed a snowy hill
Knee deep in snow
We stood in a circle on the sloped hill
There were fewer than a handful of us
Sage was lit and a sacred song was sung
The elder filled the sacred pipe and prayed
I was the only female
Too young to realize the significance of the event
However, my spirit knew and understood
The sacred pipe was smoked
An eagle arrived and circled overhead
This was a while ago
Before the park was renamed
Today, it is called the “Land of Memories Park”
Today there is a run starting Christmas Day midnight from
Ft. Snelling to Ma-Ka-To
Today there is a horse ride from South Dakota to Ma-Ka-To
Today there is a movie about the ride
But a while ago there was only a handful who stood on a snowy sloped hill
Lisa Yankton is a member of the Spirit Lake Dakota. During the Dakota Conflict, her grandmother fled from Minnesota to North Dakota with two children. She is a contributing writer to the Mystic Lake Declaration on Climate Change, a community editor with the Saint Paul Almanac and Haikus4Gambia Poet. Her community activities include coordinating the Dakota Conference, leading the Brooklyn Historical Society, teaching math at MCTC, and serving on the board of The Circle Newspaper. She is a Fellow at The Creative Community Leadership Institute.