By David Bailey
ST. PAUL, Minn (Reuters) - The day after Christmas will be somber for Dakota Indians marking what they consider a travesty of justice 150 years ago, when 38 of their ancestors were executed in the biggest mass hanging in U.S. history.
Overshadowed by the Civil War raging in the East, the hangings in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, followed the often overlooked six-week U.S.-Dakota war earlier that year -- a war that marked the start of three decades of fighting between Native Americans and the U.S. government across the Plains.
President Abraham Lincoln intervened in the case, demanding a review that reduced the number of death sentences. But he allowed 38 to be executed, including two men historians believe were hanged in error, even as he was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation to free black slaves in the South.
This month, in an annual event that started in 2005, some Dakota are making a 300-mile trek on horseback in frigid winter temperatures to revive the memory of this footnote in U.S. history.
"It was just a terrible trauma that they had to endure, and we continue to have to endure this generational trauma to this very day," said Sheldon Wolfchild, former chairman of the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwestern Minnesota.
This year's ride began on December 10 in Crow Creek, South Dakota, the reservation the Dakota were exiled to from Minnesota after the executions. It ends on December 26 in Mankato, where riders will attend a ceremony to remember the hangings.
Riders travel east across South Dakota, crossing the border into Minnesota and heading southeast to Mankato. Some ride the entire route, others join as their schedules permit. Support vehicles follow them.
The ride was captured in the documentary film "Dakota 38," which won a special jury award this year at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival.
"During the ride ... it feels as close to how we might have been in a camp," said Gaby Strong, who has participated in the ride or support for it each year. "That is really what we are doing over the course of the 10 or 15 days that we are all together."
Strong, 49, who lives in Morton, Minnesota, near the site of a key 1862 battle in the U.S.-Dakota war, said the ride has helped form bonds among the Dakota Sioux, especially the young.
"It's about healing, not only just for me, but for my community," said Vanessa Goodthunder, a rider and participant each year. "We are just bringing home our ancestors. You meet a lot of new people, and I get a lot of different perspectives."
Goodthunder, 18, who is majoring in American Indian studies and history at the University of Minnesota, said the rides have helped young Dakota connect with each other and their history.
"It's your identity. It is who you are," she said.
Over the next three years, Americans will commemorate the 150th anniversary of a host of Civil War battles. Almost forgotten are the conflicts with Native Americans that occurred in the second half of the 19th century as the United States rapidly expanded west.
Few of those conflicts are well known, with the exception of "Custer's Last Stand" -- when flamboyant officer George Armstrong Custer and his men were killed by Sioux leader Crazy Horse and his warriors in 1876 -- and the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, which many historians consider a massacre and the end of the Indian wars.
Thousands of Native Americans, white settlers and U.S. soldiers were killed in the Indian wars. Native Americans were coerced to cede their lands and then forced onto reservations.
In the Upper Plains, that included members of the Great Sioux Nation, which comprises Lakota to the west, Nakota in the middle and Dakota to the east around Minnesota.
The seeds of the Dakota war were planted years earlier, in the 1830s, according to historians, when the fur trade that had been the basis of the region's economy since the late 17th century began to fade and land became valuable for settlement.
Under treaties in 1851, the four main Dakota bands ceded about 35 million acres of what is now southern Minnesota, parts of Iowa and South Dakota. In exchange, the U.S. pledged payments and allowed the Dakota a narrow tract of land about 10 miles wide on either side of the Minnesota River. Settlers swarmed onto the newly opened lands.
In 1858, just after Minnesota became a state, Dakota chiefs were summoned to Washington, D.C., and told they would have to give up the northern half of that narrow reserve, said St. Cloud State University historian Mary Wingerd.
By summer 1862, the Dakota, now largely dependent on government treaty payments that were long delayed, were starving. On August 17, young Dakota men out hunting killed five white settlers.
The hunters pressed Chief Taoyateduta, known as Little Crow, to back a war. Some Dakota, but not all, fought soldiers and settlers in the short, bloody war in August and September 1862.
Hundreds of settlers were killed and hundreds more taken hostage in the war during attacks on forts, federal Indian agencies, cities and farms around southwestern Minnesota. Thousands of settlers fled east, fueling a statewide panic, and federal troops marched in to quell the Dakota fighters.
The U.S. was victorious on September 23, 1862, and Little Crow left Minnesota.
Afterward, more than 2,000 Dakota were rounded up, whether they fought or not. Almost 400 men faced military trials, which often lasted just a few minutes, and 303 were sentenced to die.
Lincoln demanded a review limiting the death sentences to those Dakota who raped or killed settlers. The number sentenced to hang was reduced to 38, but even in these cases the evidence was scanty, said Dan Spock, history center director at the Minnesota Historical Society.
The 38 condemned men stood on a large square gallows surrounded by soldiers. Thousands watched as a single blow with an ax cut a rope and dropped the scaffolding.
Wingerd said she could understand why the Dakota fought, but the brutal killings of settlers could not be condoned and she could not agree with people who believed that no one should have been hanged.
"We have to understand it as a huge tragedy with victims on both sides," Wingerd said of the deaths of settlers and the forced marches and scattering of most Dakota from Minnesota.
"In fact, the Dakota nation did not go to war and most of the people who were expelled from Minnesota were guilty of nothing," Wingerd said.
About 1,700 Dakota women, children and older men who did not fight were marched to a prison camp at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where up to 300 died that winter. They were exiled to Crow Creek, South Dakota, in 1863, but some began to return to Minnesota almost immediately.
"They continue to come home and this ride represents that," Strong said of Minnesota. "We continue to come home. This is our homeland."
Wolfchild said he wants authorities to recognize sacred Dakota sites in the area that is now the Twin Cities and its suburbs to help heal the lingering wounds from the broken treaties, Mankato hangings and exile.
"I would like to be buried where our people originated from," he said.
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Greg McCune and Douglas Royalty)
(This story corrects the spelling of the name in paragraph 26 to Dan Spock)