from 38

by Layli Long Soldier

copyright ©2017 by Layli Long Soldier

Keep in mind, I am not a historian.

So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.

Before Minnesota was a state, the Minnesota region, generally speaking, was the traditional homeland for Dakota, Anishnaabeg and Ho-Chunk people.

During the 1800s, when the US expanded territory, they “purchased” land from the Dakota people as well as the other tribes.

But another way to understand that sort of “purchase” is: Dakota leaders ceded land to the US government in exchange for money and goods, but most importantly, the safety of their people.

Some say that Dakota leaders did not understand the terms they were entering, or they never would have agreed.

Even others call the entire negotiation, “trickery.”

But to make whatever-it-was official and binding, the US government drew up an initial treaty.

This treaty was later replaced by another (more convenient) treaty, and then another.

I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and congressional language.

As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow.

Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone.

However, as best as I can put the facts together, in 1851, Dakota territory was contained to a twelve-mile by one-hundred-fifty-mile long strip along the Minnesota River.

But just seven years later, in 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted, which reduced Dakota land to a stark ten-mile tract.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as the Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.

The US treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.

It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.

The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.

As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.

In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.

Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their ten-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.

As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated.

Dakota warriors organized, struck out and killed settlers and traders.

This revolt is called the Sioux Uprising.

Eventually, the US Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising.

More than one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.

As already mentioned, thirty-eight Dakota men were subsequently hanged.

After the hanging, those one thousand Dakota prisoners were released.

However, as further consequence, what remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was dissolved (stolen).

The Dakota people had no land to return to.

This means they were exiled.

Homeless, the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.

Now, every year, a group called the The Dakota 38 + 2 Riders conduct a memorial horse ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Mnisota.

The Memorial Riders travel 325 miles on horseback for eighteen days, sometimes through sub-zero blizzards.

They conclude their journey on December 26th, the day of the hanging.

Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.

Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues or gravestones.

The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.

Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.

So, there is one other event to include, although it’s not in chronological order and we must backtrack a little.

When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to “Indians.”

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakotas by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.

When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.

When Myrick’s body was found,

                              his mouth was stuffed with grass.

I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.

There’s irony in their poem.

There was no text.

“Real” poems do not “really” require words.

I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.

But, on second thought, the particular words “Let them eat grass,” click the gears of the poem into place.

So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.

Things are circling back again.

Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.

And let the body

                              swing.

From the platform.

                              Out

to the grasses.

Notes on the Poem

Layli Long Soldier's "38" from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Whereas is a potent centerpiece of, as the prize judges express it in their citation, "an intricate and urgent counter-history, a work of elegy, outrage and profound generosity", striving for interconnection in the present while grappling with the past. We are privileged to be able to see and hear Long Soldier present this complex work with startling and edifying clarity. Long Soldier's presentation of "38", which was part of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings at Toronto's Koerner Hall on June 6, 2018, could be construed as commencing almost apologetically. She seems to caution: "Keep in mind, I am not a historian." From this ostensibly modest start, the poem and how she performs it build to a firm, resolute force for truth that stuns with its final, striking words. In the poem's closing crescendo, Long Soldier deftly deconstructs the very use of words to convey her message: "“Real” poems do not “really” require words." Long Soldier simultaneously reinforces her message, bolsters her poetic platform, yet also shines spotlights on the images - the grasses, the swinging bodies - that resonate long after the words have stopped reverberating. How the poem's subtle, cumulative power and wisdom mount with each line - whether read quietly and with reverence, or taken in via Long Soldier's measured yet fierce delivery - is pure and palpable.

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