Dakota elder, scholar present experiences from American Indian perspective

ST. PETER – A roundtable discussion moderated by a Dakota scholar and activist and a presentation by a grandson of one of the 38 Dakota hung on Dec. 26, 1862 in Mankato drew more than 100 people Sunday at Alumni Hall at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Rev. Sidney Byrd, 94, talked about what life was like for him as a youngster at an Indian boarding school.

“I was beaten if I spoke Lakota,” said Byrd. “We had to get signed passes to leave the reservation or we could be shot, no questions asked. Federal trials were held to determine if we were human beings or regarded as dogs. Fortunately we won that case, but we’re still struggling to take our rightful place in this great nation,” he added. “My cousin fought for America in two wars before he was killed in action. He was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery because it was said to be for whites only. We’re all related. We’re all belong to the human race.”

Moderator Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, 72, taught Native American Studies at Southwest State University for many years and now teaches at Metro State University in the Twin Cities.

He said other Metro State teachers helped him promote the passage of resolution by the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Redwood Falls city councils commemorating Dec. 26, 2012 to Dec. 26, 2013 as the Year of the Dakota.

“The resolution should be passed by the Mankato City Council too,” Mato Nunpa said. “I was saved and civilized by reservation missionaries in 1947, 1948 and 1949. They told us they came to lead heathens out of the darkness. I later discovered the beauty of Dakota spirituality.”

Mato Nunpa talked about history classes that don’t teach about Indian genocide.

Roundtable handouts included a photocopy of an old newspaper story about how the State of Minnesota offered a $200 reward for “every red-skin sent to purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth,” according to the Sept. 24, 1863 edition of The Daily Republican in Winona.

“Heinous and barbaric genocide was perpetuated by the U.S. government on the Dakota,” Mato Nunpa said. “To use Al Gore’s words, it’s ‘an inconvenient truth.'”

“I feel like I was duped about history up to this point before taking Dr. Baer’s classes,” said a GAC student. “Now I feel I want to teach about this. There were many truths that were ignored.”

Morton native Lenore Scheffler, now one of four Dakota lawyers in Minnesota, said former Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey and Gen. Henry Sibley would be surprised to learn Dakota women became lawyers.

“Never forget where you came from so you can keep moving forward and avoid repeating history,” Scheffler said.

Byrd said 36 of the 38 Dakota men hung at Mankato the day after Christmas in 1862 embraced their Christian faith, saying their deaths were a day of victory because they were going to be with their Creator forever.

Another roundtable participant said history written by the conquerors reads much differently than does history written by the conquered, who didn’t have as many sins to hide.

“I grew up in a white family in a little white town where that history was whitewashed,” the man said.

A woman at the roundtable said she didn’t learn who Chief Little Crow was in her history classes but learned the truth recently.

“If not for the suffering of many Indian women and children, these Dakota wouldn’t be here with us today,” she said. “Lots of the Dakota forced to march to Fort Snelling and other places lived into their nineties despite malnutrition and disease. Some of them lived in chicken coops. The genocide really began in 1863, when the U.S. government had entire villages of Indians wiped out, clearing land so settlers would move in.

“The U.S. government continues to run rampant all over the world. Look what we’ve done in Middle East for oil,” she said.

Mato Nunpa recommended reading “The Footsteps Of Our Ancestors” and “What Does Justice Look Like?”

“Like I once heard another Dakota speaker say, If I have offended any of you, you’ll get over it,” Mato Nunpa said.

Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian Director Kevin Gover will talk at GAC Alumni Hall at 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 27.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com).

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