Dakota scholar and activist Waziyatawin was expecting change following the release of her book: “What does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.” She was not expecting it to come from within.
A Granite Falls resident, Waziyatawin, formerly Dr. Angela Cavender-Wilson, published her book in 2008 with a timely release that coincided with Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial year and the accompanying celebration of 150 years of statehood.
Looking back 200 years, Waziyatawin’s text recounts the origin of Minnesota’s state that is built upon a host of injustices that include land theft, broken treatises, the destruction of Dakota culture and the genocide of indigenous peoples.
To celebrate the establishment of a state founded on such circumstances is reprehensible, she says.
The loaded word: genocide, is used throughout her work and plays an integral part of Waziyatawin’s assertion that such egregious injustice requires substantial retribution if past wrongs are to be made right.
She substantiates the use of the term through scholarly deduction that matches each aspect of the United Nations criteria for defining genocide with historial accounts.
“The Minnesota Historical Society continues to resist using appropriate and accurate terminology such as ‘genocide, ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and ‘concentration camp,’ preferring instead more benign terms that diminish the horror of Minnesota history,” her book reads.
Justice Look Like?
Upon establishing a foundation believed to call for retribution, Waziyatawin uses the remainder of the text to illustrate an answer to the book’s title and query: “What does justice look like?
Laying out “four possible stages” for reparative justice, she suggests:
•The establishment of a “Truth Commission” that recognizes the history of “genocide.”
•A process to “Take Down the Fort.” Both “literally and metaphorically,” in which locations, objects and place names are removed that hold negative connotations, and are representative of the subjugation, of Dakota. “The Fort” refers to Fort Snelling where the Dakota who remained in the state were interned during the winter of 1862-63 before being sent to Crow Creek.
•Land restoration and reparations. Including relinquishing all public lands to Dakota.
•An end to American colonization of Dakota people and homeland. Which entails “overturning the institutions, systems, and ideologies of colonialism ... in a nutshell, we all must rethink our way of being and interacting in this world to create a sustainable, healthy, and peaceful co-existence with one another and with the natural world,” she said.
In effect such initiatives would go to great lengths to provide Dakota with a semblance of that which they had prior to white settlement as well as to wipe-away the scars that came as a result of “genocide” and subsequent oppression.
A change in belief
Waziyatawin indicated that when she wrote the book she had held belief that the only reason that steps toward such justice had not already been established was due to an ignorance of accurate historical account. She believed that most were just not aware that the state had performed such injustices as offering $200 rewards for “dead Indians” in 1863. Nor did she believe that most people were aware of the daily reminders of historical malfeasance, failing to associate such place names as Ramsey State Park, Ramsey County, or Ramsey Medical Center etc. with a figure, Alexander Ramsey, who was the, “architect of Minnesota’s policy of Dakota extermination and forced removal.,” in Waziyatawin’s words. “The Sioux Indians must be exterminated or forever driven beyond the borders of the State,” in his own words.
Page 2 of 2 - Waziyatawin said that she has spent the majority of her adult-life to teach, research and write about Dakota issues so that the veil of ignorance could be lifted, but in recent years she has come to the realization that “truth-telling” is not enough. Even when people were made aware of these issues they refused to change – so she would have to.
The Dakota scholar, said that the transition of her beliefs came while she participated in Dakota Commemorative marches, protested Sesquicentennial events and after speaking to legislatures where, despite being informed of the historical account presented by Waziyatawin, individuals refused to make amends and often became more defensive of their ancestors’ actions.
The most clear-cut example, she said, came in 2007 when she was invited to speak with Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and the Executive Director of the Sesquicentennial Commission, Jane Leonard, regarding Dakota involvement in the sesquicentennial planning.
“They chose to disregard the history because it interfered with their desire to celebrate Minnesota's birthday,” she said. “The truth about Minnesota's land theft and genocide was irrelevant in their minds.”
Waziyatawin went on to protest roughly half a dozen or so Sesquicentennial events and was arrested for disorderly conduct on three occasions, including during an event at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, where she was arrested alongside her daughter, recent YME graduate, Angela Cavender-Wilson. She said that none of the charges held up in court.
Waziyatawin says these experiences have come to make her more cynical and radical.
“Even when people know the truth it’s not about the truth, it’s about power and it’s about maintaining that power over the subjugation of the Dakota people and the land,” she says.
In the context of a planet she views on the brink of collapse, Waziyatawin views the Dakota call for justice as but a portion of the greater cry for change and as justification for extremes.
“The survival of everyone, and all plants and animals, are in jeopardy” unless there is vast shift in the way individuals live, she said, and went so far as to agree that she was at war upon being asked the question.
Said Waziyatawin, “We need to do whatever is needed to achieve our goals ... we maintain the moral position no matter our actions.”