Dakota riders head to U.S. border in search of connection with relatives on the other side

Travis Mazawasicuna and about 11 other riders rode their horses to the Boissevain border crossing this weekend, where they met with their relatives from the United States.

While an international border separates them, they are united by family, tradition and historical ties.

The Dakota Exile Healing ride is bringing together Dakota people from across North America to follow the footsteps of their ancestors after being forcibly expelled from Minnesota in 1863.

"Dakota people, they have relatives all over, both sides of the border, that's how big it is," said Mazawasicuna.

On Wednesday the group of Manitoba riders left the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, located about 260 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

They're part of the Unity Riders, who usually do awareness rides for different things including addictions and cancer. But Mazawasicuna said this ride was different. It was a chance to make people aware of his ancestors.

"In the United States we have bodies still in museums. We have Indian skeleton museums, artifacts that belong to us," he said.

"The main goal is bringing connection, bringing connection from a lot of people," he said.

Dakota War of 1862

The Dakota War of 1862, also known as Little Crow's War, was linked to treaty violations by the United States leading to hunger, poor hunting and a lack of economic opportunity for the Dakota people.

Following the conflict, 38 Dakota were hanged on the day after Christmas. It was the largest mass execution in American history.

Hundreds of other Dakota were held in a prison camp for years and by the time of their release one third had died.

More than one-quarter of the Dakota people who surrendered died the following year, according to the Minnesota Historical Society's U.S.-Dakota War website.

Survivors, mostly women and children, were held in an internment camp where they were harassed by locals and soldiers, while visiting missionaries tried to convert them. Over the winter, hundreds of people died at that camp.

In 1863, U.S. government officials said nearly every Dakota had to leave Minnesota. Steamboats shipped many of the internment camp survivors to South Dakota; other Dakota went to Nebraska, North Dakota and into the further reaches of traditional Dakota territory in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

154 years later

On Saturday, the descendants of the exile stood at the U.S.-Canada border together playing drums. The Canadian horses were unable to cross but the American counterparts would continue the journey south.

"It's beautiful because we are there in the rain, the light rain and the song was just echoing all over," Mazawasicuna said.

"Here's my relative standing at the border on her horse, she was pulling one horse, looking at the custom line on the American side. It was beautiful."

Seth Eastman rode up from Sisseton, a city on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

"The history says that we fled and we didn't flee. Our people, the Dakota People, it was a large nation and before states, before countries were established — United States and Canada — we had our boundaries and our territories already established," he said.

'Your moral obligation to tell'

During the war and the exile, Dakota took their people out of danger in the furthest part of the territory which is now called Sioux Valley, Eastman said 

"That's all our territory still, that's our traditional territory."

Eastman said the goal of the ride is education — letting his own people and the rest of North America know the history of the Dakota people.

"Once you know this stuff it's your duty, your moral obligation to tell," he said.

"We talk about moving forward and healing and stuff like that but nothing gets done, nothing gets fixed, nothing mends when these histories go unspoken, go unheard."

While the Canadian leg of the historical ride has been completed, the American journey has just begun.

Riders will stop in different Dakota and other Indigenous communities along the way to Fort Snelling, Minn., which is known as Bdote — a sacred area for Dakota people at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

It's also a place of pain.

"When they forcibly removed us and started doing the process exiling they put us in that concentration camp and where they had this concentration camp was right in the middle of our sacred area in Bdote," Eastman said.

It's an important end for the ride and a start to education and healing, he added.

"This is for the exile, [we are] doing this to honour the exile, to memorialize, to remember to educate."