VIII. But Where are the Teeth?

In the colonial context of the mid-nineteenth century when America was still in its expansionist frenzy, how were Dakota people supposed to find justice for all the wrongs that continued to be perpetrated by the U.S. government and its citizens? How were they to hold the United States accountable for violation of its treaties? How were they to hold the swindling traitors accountable for their fraudulent accounting practices? How were they to feed their families amidst depleting game and encroaching settlers? How were they to live side-by-side with a people who would advise them, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung?”How were they supposed to contest the theft of our homeland? In a colonial context, there is no justice for the colonized. The choice was to accept subjugation, the eradication of everything Dakota, and a status as a racially inferior human being, or to seek freedom and perhaps die trying.

From the Dakota perspective, people who risk their lives in the name of justice and freedom are the most righteous. My unkanna Eli Taylor relayed this about the Dakota men who were hanged:

Wicahcadakiya otke wicayapi, hena maka tehindapi.

They hanged some old men, those who cherished the earth.

Tokatakiya takozakpaku cincap hena tak sanpa hena makak tehindapi.

Their future grandchildren's children will cherish the earth even more.

Hena otke wicayapi.

They hanged them.

Etanhan tokatakiya wanna hena wowaste ecunpi hena.

They have blessed the future now.

Hena tak sica ecunpa otke wicayapi sni.

They were not hanged for doing anything bad.

Hena taku wowaste un t'api he wowastek he tuweda kapeya sni.

They died for doing good, no one can compare to what they died for.

Wowaste un hena otkewicayapi.

For that righteousness they were hanged.

Okicize ekta yek hena wowastek un hena wicaktepi.

They killed the ones who went to war for that righteousness.

The righteousness of fighting for our people and our land in the context of the colonial project was also expressed by at least one of the men who would swing from the gallows. Sometime before he was hanged in 1865, Little Six told Colonel Robert N. McLaren: “I am not afraid to die. When I go into the spirit world, I will look the Great Spirit in the face and I will tell him what the whites did to my people before we went to war. He will do right. I am not afraid.”

In the twenty-first century, Dakota people are still asking the same questions about how to achieve justice and, at least some of us, still maintain a firm sense that our struggle is just and that our struggle is righteous. But, what must we do to achieve it? In spite of the passage of this U.N. Declaration and, theoretically, international support for the case that Dakota people would have against the U.S. government, in many ways we are faced with the same dismal prospect for justice because the colonial context has not changed. Our land is still stolen, the bulk of our population still lives in exile, we are still fighting against cultural eradication, and colonizer interests are always given precedence over Indigenous interests. As Dakota people today, how do we seek justice any more effectively than our ancestors did in 1862? Because none of the injustices have been righted, 150 years after the U.S.-Dakota War that launched Minnesota's campaign of genocide against Dakota people, we are still treated as an expendable population within our homeland of Minisota Makoce (Land Where the Waters Reflect the Skies).

Waziyatawin is a Dakota writer, teacher, and activist from the Pezihutazizi Otunwe (Yellow Medicine Village) in southwestern Minnesota.