A prayer journey to remember the U.S.-Dakota War

October 26, 2012

By: Jerad Morey

The story of formal Methodist Episcopal interaction with the Dakota people begins in 1837, when missionaries from Illinois raised $1,200 to purchase the freedom of the black slave James Thompson, who then served as an interpreter between the Methodists and the Dakota people while a mission was built in what is now Saint Paul. The mission closed in 1842, but the Dakota and people who would become United Methodists had not encountered the last of each other.

In 1862, 560 Native Americans and people of European descent lost their lives in the Dakota Conflict, what was then referred to as the “Sioux Uprising,” a series of bloody altercations that began on Aug. 17 and culminated in the mass execution of 38 Dakota men by the U.S. government on Dec. 26.

Repeated failures on the part of the government to provide payments prescribed by treaties had caused significant hardship—including disease and famine—amongst the Dakota. Repeated attempts at a peaceful resolution with a federal government more concerned with the Civil War yielded nothing. Dakota people were dying and they felt they could not hope for the government to honor its word. On Aug. 17 Chief Little Crow acceded to his advisers' call for a war after a Dakota hunting party killed five settlers.

Two Evangelical Association clergy, Rev. Christian L. Seder and Rev. August Nierens, died in the first two weeks of the war. (The Evangelical Association would later merge with other groups to form what is today the United Methodist Church.) Seder was set upon as he was traveling home from preaching in Beaver Falls, and Nierens was killed at his house outside New Ulm after helping to defend that city from attack.

Prayer for remembrance and reconciliation

The current pastor of Oakwood United Methodist Church in New Ulm, Rev. Ric Jacobsen, held memorial services for each of the men in August of this year. “We recognized the service and sacrifice of these two men,” Jacobsen says, “and . . . we had a prayer rededicating ourselves to the calling that these two men received, embodied, and gave their lives for.”

In addition to the memorials, Jacobsen organized a Journey of Centering Prayer to four sites relevant to the Dakota Conflict. In New Ulm, journeyers contemplated the two days of attack endured by the city's residents and sanctuary-seekers. His group then thought about the Dakota women and children who were marched through the city to exile at Fort Snelling—these women and children “were pelted with stones, spat upon and physically attacked,” says Jacobsen. He says the cultural impact of the experience was such that Dakota people to this day avoid driving through New Ulm.

Another site on the prayer journey was Middle Creek United Methodist Church, near the area where Rev. Seder preached his final sermons. Of the 120 adults and children present at the 1862 services, 73 were killed over the next few days. “It was a sad moment to realize that these settlers—many of whom did not speak English—were paying a heavy price for the unjust and unfair treaties,” Jacobsen says.

In the church, the group prayed and imagined themselves sitting with God, mourning the deaths, “the unjust acts which had inflamed the Dakota people, and the despair of Dakota parents who saw their children starving from lack of game and government subsidies.”

Our houses on Dakota land

In New Ulm, United Methodists bathed the anniversary of the Dakota Conflict in memorial and prayer. In Saint Paul, the United Methodist-affiliated Hamline University has organized a Year of the Dakota.

“Our involvement began in preparation for the visit of [noted Osage Indian Christian theologian] Rev. Dr. George Tinker from Iliff School of Theology as our 2012 Mahle Lecturer in Progressive Christian Thought,” says Rev. Nancy Victorin-Vangerud, executive director of the Wesley Center for Spirituality and Social Justice at Hamline University.

The preparation involved a reading list including Tinker's “American Indian Liberation” and “Beloved Child” by Diane Wilson. Through this education Victorin-Vangerud came to believe that “settler peoples have the responsibility to learn about the history and founding of the state of Minnesota and of the indigenous nations that call this land home and hold a sacred responsibility to care for [it].”

“My university and my house are on Dakota land . . . and by way of unjust practices,” says Victorin-Vangerud.

The Wesley Center has found ways to mark the Year of the Dakota beyond hosting Rev. Dr. Tinker's lecture series. The Wesley Center at Hamline has partnered with Saint Paul Interfaith Network to show a film about the Dec. 26 mass execution—still the largest in United States history—and students volunteered to serve a meal at a “welcome home” event in Pipestone, acknowledging Dakota people symbolically “returning” from their exile in South Dakota.

“This seems a first step,” says Victorin-Vangerud, “learning, truth-telling, and acknowledging the past so that we can more faithfully work together in making justice.”

Reflecting on his ministries in New Ulm, Jacobsen echoes Victorin-Vangerud's sentiment. “I don't think we are there yet, but perhaps God will give us enough unity . . . to talk to each other about what reconciliation could look like.”

Oakwood United Methodist will help to locate accommodations for those participating in a prayer walk from Morton to New Ulm, Minn., starting Nov. 8. Oakwood and another church will serve breakfast to the pilgrims on Nov. 9.

The denomination is beginning the task of reconciliation. Last spring, indigenous representatives from the U.S. and other lands spoke during an “Act of Repentance toward Healing Relationships with Indigenous Peoples” at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference.

The first recorded action of United Methodism's ancestors in preparation for relationship with the Dakota was an act of liberation. It is not too much to pray that liberation may also be ahead for our two traditions.

Jerad Morey is a member of Mosaic in Brooklyn Park and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @Jerad.

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