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Hope for an era of healing: Organizers hope Ness Church ceremony will wipe away tears

Dakota sun dancers from the Santee Sioux Tribe, from left, Lydia Conito, Gail Watterson, Terry Remick and Cecelia Kitto, perform Sunday during an outdoor prayer service at the historic Ness Church near Litchfield. Part of the observance of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the event was organized as a day of hope and healing. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 3
A drum group and Dakota sun dancers from the Santee Sioux Tribe perform Sunday at the Ness Church near Litchfield. Speakers at Sunday's ceremony emphasized reconciliation and moving forward from the wounds of the U.S.-Dakota War. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 3

LITCHFIELD -- The smoke from burning sage hung in the air as Dakota drummers and singers faced to the west to sing the Four Direction Song.

The Rev. Alan Kitto told the more than 300 people at Ness Church that they didn't need to stand and turn with the singers, as many of them were sitting in chairs.

But as the Native American singers began to sing, the crowd began to stand. It started with a few people here and there. Then more stood, and more still. By the time the singers turned north, east and south, everyone who was able was standing and turning to face each direction.

The powerful, spontaneous tribute could be a symbol of the reconciliation and healing sought during the ceremony observing the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War.

The Rev. Alan Kitto from the Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska oversaw a ceremony that was part religious service and part history lesson for the mostly-white crowd in attendance.

Ness Church is significant because the first five white settlers to die in the war were killed in Meeker County on Aug. 17, 1862, and they are buried at Ness Church southwest of Litchfield.

The first five deaths sparked a war that killed hundreds of people on both sides over the next six weeks. The war was fueled by broken treaties and thieving traders, and it was marked by senseless violence on both sides.

The aftermath of the war led to the hanging of 38 Native American men on Dec. 26, 1862, the largest one-day execution in U.S. history. It also led to the exile of most Dakota people from Minnesota.

At the ceremony Sunday, conducted in the shadow of a monument dedicated to the first five killed, speakers talked about the need for forgiveness and understanding as people on both sides work to move past the hurt of the past.

Herbert Chilstrom, a former president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said he had grown up helping to harvest fields across the road from Ness Church.

"This is a day of deep sorrow and deep joy," he said, sorrow for the loss of life on both sides but joy that their descendants are working toward reconciliation.

"As a child I heard only one side," he said, and he said he was thankful for people who have brought out the full story.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is one of those who has brought out the full story in books he has written. He is a former social studies teacher.

Urdahl called the war the most tragic event in Minnesota history and urged everyone to try to heal old wounds. Urdahl's granddaughter Violet, like him a direct descendant of a member of the burial party for the five settlers, laid a wreath at the monument to commemorate all who died in the war.

All of the speakers spoke of reconciliation and moving forward. They spoke of feeling the spirits of their ancestors in the place and of the need to heal the historical trauma of the war.

One was Jeff Williamson of Rosemount, a great-great-grandson of John Williamson, a missionary who stayed with the Dakota, even into exile.

Williamson said he had never been to a commemoration event before. "This was even better than I thought it might be," he said.

A Wiping of the Tears ceremony was a major part of the ceremony. Everyone in the audience was invited to file past four Dakota sun dancers. The women tapped people with eagle feathers and used small red squares of cloth to symbolically wipe tears from the cheeks of each person. They said the ceremony was meant to wipe away historical sadness and any other sadness in people's lives.

Kitto said the ceremony should help start the healing that is needed on all sides.

"Whatever has happened, we will leave it there," he said. "We're going to wipe the tears."

The ceremony was temporarily marred by the arrival of American Indian Movement leader Clyde Bellecourt. As Bellecourt approached the stage, Kitto shouted, "He is not Dakota; we don't want to hear him." Bellecourt is Ojibwe.

Bellecourt offered some historical perspective before saying, "We grieve for all those who were victims on both sides; it's time for reconciliation."

After the ceremony, Urdahl said the brief outburst demonstrated that "there is no consensus on how to deal with this," not even among Native Americans. "I think that was just an example of it."

Lydia Conito of Redwood Falls, one of the sun dancers, said she thought the ceremony was a good thing. The large turnout showed that people want to learn more about the war, she said.

"I got to know about a lot of people today," she said. "I didn't even have to talk to them; the spirit was there."

Kitto was pleased with the ceremony, too. He and his family are descendants of the 39th man on the 1862 execution list, which was cut short by President Abraham Lincoln.

He said he hoped his explanations of the songs and prayers helped people understand how close the Dakota religion is to Christianity. At one point he told the group that Dakota people had been singing a song "since long before your ancestors thought about coming here."

People were attentive during the ceremony, he said, and "This is the beginning of healing."

Kitto said he didn't think Bellecourt should have been involved in the ceremony, because he had talked about atrocities of the past. "This is a day to pray for the dead and wipe the tears," he said, "and start growing strength from the deaths this thing caused."'

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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