One hundred and fifty years have passed since the Dakota Conflict of 1862, a dark time in Minnesota history when white settlers and the U.S. government clashed with the native Dakota Indians who called Minnesota their home. Much blood was shed on both sides.
Winona has welcomed home the Dakota people for years with a gathering to foster cultural understanding— the Great Dakota Gathering. It is a time for people from all cultural backgrounds to come together, to listen, to remember. In its ninth year, this year the gathering is commemorating the tragic conflict of 1862. The weekend is jam-packed with opportunities to learn more about the Dakota people and culture, to discover local history, and to connect with one another during the expanded Gathering that includes an emphasis on education and understanding.
Volunteers have been busy all year planning the Ninth Annual Gathering. Organizer John Borman said the event will likely be the most significant in recent years. It will be held Sept. 14-16, giving students from grade school to university the opportunity to be a part of the Gathering, he said.
Organizer Bill McNeil said that the educational components are some of the most exciting new features for this year’s Gathering. On Friday, there will be about 20 learning stations and teepees at Unity Park for area third graders to learn more about the Dakota people. Area colleges have teamed up to offer documentaries and speakers that highlight the Dakota history and culture.
“This is what’s great about this year,” said Borman. “We always wanted an educational component [for students of all ages].”
Back again this year will be the Grand Entry event, when native Dakota dancers fill the Unity Circle at the park with color, music, and traditional dances and ceremonies. This year will feature two Grand entries on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday—which aligns more closely with the traditional Wacipi, or “pow-wow.”
The Gathering, while well attended in past years, has been known for terrible weather, sometimes keeping those who have a long drive from northern Canada or other parts of North America from attending. This year, all indications are that weather will be wonderful, and organizers are expecting one of the biggest Gatherings yet. Free camping and hot showers on site will be offered, and a Unity Feast will be available free for Native American attendees, and with purchase of a Gathering button for others. Lots of hockey and moccasin teams will come for the tournaments, and many Dakota nations are expected to be represented.
One of the most meaningful events, said Borman and McNeil, is called a talk circle, an opportunity for everyone to come together and talk to one another about how they feel. Holding a feather gives one the chance to speak. The feather is passed around the circle so all will have a moment to express themselves. “A talk circle is a tradition that evolved to enable people to speak from their hearts,” said McNeil. When sharing cultures, when working through a past marred with conflict, the talk circle has become a meaningful and healing event for many. “Everybody that has gone to the talk circle has come away very moved from the experience,” said Borman. “People are coming to understand who the Dakota people are.”
A number of unscheduled events and ceremonies will be included during the Gathering, coordinated by Dakota spiritual leaders. “Given the year, we decided to turn it over to our Indian leaders to really decide what will happen [for spiritual services and events],” said McNeil.
At 9 a.m. on Saturday, the Veteran Honor Guard and the Akicita (Dakota for “warrior”) honoring ceremony will be held. “The purpose is not just to honor the warriors, but everyone who died in the conflict,” said Borman. Many of the events display great respect for veterans, a large part of just about any Gathering or Wacipi. This year, that display of honor and respect will have a deep meaning for many.
There may be different Dakota tribal groups across North America, McNeil said,but one core belief of the Dakota people is to not distinguish political or cultural boundaries. “Mitakuye Oyasin,” or “We are all related,” said McNeil, is a belief that, no matter what tribe or country a person may claim, people are all connected, all part of a bigger family. “It’s not just the Dakota,” he said. “It’s an expression of humanity: we are all related.”
Finding those ties, those connections, from across thousands of miles and hundreds of years—that, they said, is what the Dakota Gathering is all about.
For more on the Gathering, as well as a full schedule of events, visit the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance website: