By: Carol Zaagsma
Clouds hid the sun on Nov. 10 as I stepped onto Minnesota Highway 22. I was joining those walking to remember, grieve, commemorate, and share the history of their ancestors, the Dakota women, children, and elders taken captive and forced to march 150 miles to concentration camps at Mankato and Fort Snelling in November 1862.
I had arrived at Centenary United Methodist Church in Mankato ready to offer hospitality indoors during breakfast for those who were walking from Nov. 7 through 13. The evening before, Centenary provided the Dakota Marchers a meatloaf dinner, and a comfortable place to sleep. On Saturday morning we were sending them on their way with warm breakfast.
As the marchers departed Saturday morning, they extended an open invitation to walk with them, even if just for a little while, with the offer of a ride back to Mankato whenever we were ready to return.
I was not in any way prepared to walk outside on a chilly, windy November day. But I accepted the invitation and walked a few miles with them.
As I walked that first mile, my ears started to get cold for lack of a hat. My thoughts soon turned from my own discomfort to that of the women and children on that forced march 150 years ago. They must have been fearful, not knowing where they were being taken, how long they would be required to walk, what they would eat, when they would sleep, if they would survive, or what they would find at the end of the journey. They probably were not given much time to gather what they would need for themselves and their children prior to the forced march. I began to see more clearly the gravity of this crime against the Dakota people.
At each mile marker alongside the road, we stopped for prayers. Someone would tap into the ground a wooden stick with red ribbons and leather strips. The name of a woman or child from the forced march of 1862 had been recorded on each leather strip. The names were read aloud, and then we would, one at a time, take a small pinch of tobacco from a leather pouch held by a Dakota woman, say a prayer, and sprinkle the tobacco at the base of the stake as an offering. I began to see more clearly this commemorative walk as a spiritual and sacred pilgrimage.
The marchers walked mostly in silent reflection, but conversation did occur from time to time. After one of the prayer stops, a Dakota elder initiated conversation with me. He was interested in hearing my impressions and reflections about the morning. Before long, our conversation turned to the concept of reconciliation, as it is an aspect of relationship I find essential in ministry. He had much to say about reconciliation, and how that word is so often spoken and prayed without the difficult, meaningful and intentional actions of repentance, forgiveness, restitution and justice behind it. As I listened, I began to see there is much yet for me to learn about the multiple steps toward reconciliation.
At the end of the third mile, as I said goodbye and hopped into the van for a ride back to Mankato, I recognized that this was not the end of my experience with the Dakota Marchers. Nor was it the beginning, as I cannot deny that the beginning of my experience with the Dakota Marchers occurred more than 150 years ago. So, I like to think of my experience that morning with the Dakota Marchers as a new beginning, for which I am thankful.
Rev. Carol Zaagsma is pastor of connections and Christian fellowship at Centenary United Methodist Church, Mankato.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church