When the Dakota people--mostly women and children--who'd survived their three years at Crow Creek were finally permitted to leave that barren place where they'd never felt at home, they were directed to Knox County, Nebraska, where the Missouri River takes a turn northwest and cuts through through the heart of what would become the state of South Dakota. Several hundred old Dakota men, women, and children walked south and a bit east, some 160 miles, and reached Niobrara, their destination, on June 11.
Meanwhile, the 250 Dakota men had been shipped by steamboat up the Missouri, Rev. Williamson continuing to conduct school and worship services just as he had for three years at Ft. McClellan. By the time the women and children arrived, the men were already there.
They hadn't seen each other since a regiment of Minnesota volunteers marched them, their men in chains, to Mankato from what had been their river valley reservation. Four years had gone by. Some letters had been written, although few in either place had known how to read or write. Hundreds had died at Ft. Snelling and Crow Creek. That day, who was still alive and who was gone was often news and always painful.
For the most part, all of them--hard as that is to believe--had converted to the white man's religion, to Jesus. For the most part, all of them had been baptized.
In truth, the Dakota War of 1862 had been as foolhardy as Little Crow, their chief, had told his warriors it would be before they'd begun. But it had been a war of honor by people so completely impoverished that didn't know how they would live. It had been a war of sheer desperation that had resulted in death and suffering--and, strangely enough, faith.
For the first time in four years, four years in which neither group had any idea what would happen, four years of suffering and death--for the first time in four years, they were reunited. They held each other; they cried in tumults of joy and grief.
The River Bend Church tells the story of that reunion, part of its own history, in remarkably hushed, even reverential terms.
The reunion of the two groups, after nearly four years of separation, was both a time of celebration and reflection. The darkest period in the history of the eastern Dakota people would be past.That's all it says. I can only imagine the waves of joy and sadness that washed over those who'd endured, the day they once again found each other in each other's arms. The discovery of who wasn't there had to be something of hell; the discovery of who was, a taste of heaven--all of it happening at the very same moment. I don't think it's any wonder why those who lived through it, the church says, didn't want to talk about it. There are no words.
My wife's family is buried here, in Orange City, Iowa. Many of mine are in a little country cemetery just north of Oostburg, Wisconsin. Whenever I'm there, I visit, often in the early morning. I stop by because in some unknown way I'm drawn there. I don't feel obliged to visit; guilt doesn't trigger some thirst for forgiveness or recognition. When I stand there in that graveyard I look over all the graves--grandparents and uncles and aunts and distant relatives.
If things go according to plan, we'll be buried in Orange City, where so many of wife's people are, 500 miles almost exactly from that little country cemetery where my people rest.
Modernity and culture make it impossible for me to understand the draw of sacred land most native people somehow retain. I'm too white and too much a capitalist. Besides, very few people today live in the same neighborhood where their families originated; and we're all immigrants--with the exceptions of our indigenous.
I say all of that because when I think of what the faces of those Dakota people must have looked like on the day they were reunited, I know
they were not home, not in their land, not anywhere near their sacred spaces. They were united once again, and safe. Even though so many had been baptized, even though so many were believers in Jesus, they had to know they were nowhere near the ancestors. They were not home.
The hushed voice River Bend Church uses tell this part of its story, the reunion the people experienced on the banks of the Missouri River in Nebraska, is the only voice tender enough to carry the story. What those people must have felt goes beyond imagination and well beyond words.