A Poem to and for the 38 Dakota Men Who Were Hanged

Friday, March 31, 2017 - 5:30 am

A Poem to and for the 38 Dakota Men Who Were Hanged

“38”

Here, the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care, by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.

Likewise, the history of the sentence will be honored by ending each one with appropriate 
punctuation such as a period or question mark, thus bringing the idea to (momentary) completion.

You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”

I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.

Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an “interesting” read.

Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.

That said, I will begin.

You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, you might wonder, “What is the Dakota 38?”

The Dakota 38 refers to thirty-eight Dakota men who were executed by hanging, under 
orders from President Abraham Lincoln.

To date, this is the largest “legal” mass execution in US history.

The hanging took place on December 26, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

There was a movie titled Lincoln about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was included in the film Lincoln; the 
hanging of the Dakota 38 was not.

In any case, you might be asking, “Why were thirty-eight Dakota men hung?”

As a side note, the past tense of hang is hung, but when referring to the capital punishment 
of hanging, the correct past tense is hanged.

So it’s possible that you’re asking, “Why were thirty-eight Dakota men hanged?”

They were hanged for the Sioux Uprising.

I want to tell you about the Sioux Uprising, but I don’t know where to begin.

I may jump around and details will not unfold in chronological order.

Keep in mind, I am not a historian.

So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.

Before Minnesota was a state, the Minnesota region, generally speaking, was the 
traditional homeland for Dakota, Anishinaabeg, and Ho-Chunk people.

During the 1800s, when the US expanded territory, they “purchased” land from the Dakota
people as well as the other tribes.

But another way to understand that sort of “purchase” is: Dakota leaders ceded land to the 
US government in exchange for money or goods, but most importantly, the safety of their people.

Some say that Dakota leaders did not understand the terms they were entering, or they 
never would have agreed.

Even others call the entire negotiation “trickery.”

But to make whatever-it-was official and binding, the US government drew up an initial treaty.

This treaty was later replaced by another (more convenient) treaty, and then another.

I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and 
congressional language.

As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the 
new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties, and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow.

Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone.

However, as best as I can put the facts together, in 1851, Dakota territory was contained to a
twelve-mile by one-hundred-fifty-mile long strip along the Minnesota River.

But just seven years later, in 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the 
southern portion was (conveniently) allotted, which reduced Dakota land to a stark ten-mile tract.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as the Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni, which means water; and sota, which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused, and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.

The US treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.

It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within
assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting 
territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.

The previous sentence is circular, akin to so many aspects of history.

As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it
into the hands of Dakota people.

In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food 
or goods.

Without money, store credit, or rights to hunt beyond their ten-mile tract of land, Dakota 
people began to starve.

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

One should read “The Dakota people starved” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.

As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated.

Dakota warriors organized, struck out, and killed settlers and traders.

This revolt is called the Sioux Uprising.

Eventually, the US Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising.

More than one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.

As already mentioned, thirty-eight Dakota men were subsequently hanged.

After the hanging, those one thousand Dakota prisoners were released.

However, as further consequence, what remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was 
dissolved (stolen).

The Dakota people had no land to return to.

This means they were exiled.

Homeless, the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations in 
South Dakota and Nebraska.

Now, every year, a group called the Dakota 38 + 2 Riders conduct a memorial horse ride 
from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato, Mnisota.

The Memorial Riders travel 325 miles on horseback for eighteen days, sometimes through
sub-zero blizzards.

They conclude their journey on December 26, the day of the hanging.

Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.

Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues, or gravestones.

The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.

Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.

So, there is one other event to include, although it’s not in chronological order and we must
backtrack a little.

When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would 
not extend store credit to “Indians.”

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota 
people by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.

When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be 
executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.
      
When Myrick’s body was found,

                                                                                                             his mouth was stuffed with grass.

I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.

There’s irony in their poem.

There was no text.

“Real” poems do not “really” require words.

I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue, a revealing moment.

But, on second thought, the words “Let them eat grass” click the gears of the poem into place.

So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.

Things are circling back again.

Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.

And let the body                                                                 swing.

From the platform.
                  
                                                                                                       Out
          
                                                                                                                                                                             to the grasses.


WHEREAS“38” from WHEREAS. Copyright © 2017 by Layli Long Soldier. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

 


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is the recipient of the 2015 Lannan Fellowship for Poetry, a 2015 National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award for her first book of poetry, WHEREAS. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Reflections

  • Jennifer Mahoney

    Wow. Thank you for your beautiful work. I have never come across a poem like this.

  • Stefani Forster

    Reading after listening to On Being, today. This conversation with the writer was reflective, informative and so thoughtful. Thank you for sharing, Layli. This is an amazing work. Your discussion with Krista on religion and spirituality and the Standing Rock leaders and “citizens”, was just amazing. I found the link to Greywolf Press, thanks again for sharing your thoughts and poetry and words with us!

  • June Goudey

    Powerful! I had no knowledge of the 38 before this. A tragic moment in our history… not to be forgotten!!

  • Gee Roslie

    I’m listening to the unedited version of this interview for the second time, all 2 hours & 1 minute & wished it would have lasted longer. So beautiful, her poetry took my breath away. Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you.

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