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Lincoln and Dakota 38

Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation


Last updated 3/17/2013 at 2:32pm

A leader does what he believes to be right, regardless of how popular or unpopular it’s going to make him or her. It’s clear that Abe Lincoln and his allies pushed through legislation that wasn’t in line with how most of the country thought about slavery and blacks at the time.

Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is deceptively titled; this isn’t a biopic in the traditional sense of the form. A better title would be “The 13th Amendment,” but it’s pretty easy to see why Spielberg and company didn’t go with that. Lincoln plays like a 19th century version of The West Wing. It focuses on a few weeks in Lincoln’s White House, and the struggles, contriving, deal making, scheming, and pleading it took to get an abolishment of slavery into the Constitution.

Backroom political deals may tarnish our notions of how a democracy really works, but surprisingly enough, they make great theater, if handled right. And screenwriter Tony Kushner (who penned the award-winning Angels in America years ago) does a great job of coaxing the drama out of horse trading, and maximizing the theatricality of a congressional debate, without losing the audience in the intricacies of Capitol Hill.

It’s a thoughtful reflection on how public morality intersects with politics and lawmaking. One of the questions I’m always confronted with during political elections is whether elected officials should be leaders or public servants. The difference is that a public servant is obliged to faithfully represent and reflect the opinions and desires of his constituency in his voting. A leader on the other hand does what he believes to be right, regardless of how popular or unpopular it’s going to make him or her. Lincoln lands strongly in the latter camp; it’s clear that Abe and his allies are pushing through legislation that isn’t in line with how most of the country thinks about slavery and blacks. Their sense of right and wrong informs their lawmaking more than the voice of the people. But one wonders what would’ve happened if they’d waited for public opinion to come around. Would it ever have happened?

A hundred and fifty-odd years later, everyone believes slavery is wrong. But how did we get here? Were Lincoln and his allies just ahead of us on the “road of progress,” or are we here because they led us here, pulling us by the nose when necessary? I don’t know enough about history or political theory to answer these questions—indeed, I have no idea how factual and accurate Lincoln the movie is in regard to these questions—but I appreciate a film that spurs me to consider them.

But before we glorify Abraham Lincoln too much, it’s worth remembering that he was president during some of the darkest years in the U.S.’s unjust and often murderous dealings with Native Americans. Dakota 38 is a documentary about the largest mass execution in American history, the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mancato, Minnesota. Lincoln signed that execution order, sending almost two score of courageous warriors defending their families from certain starvation to their deaths.

But Dakota 38 isn’t interested in pointing fingers or laying blame in anger and bitterness. It is the story of an honor ride from the Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota to Mancato to honor the fallen warriors, and to forgive and seek reconciliation with people along the way.

Dakota 38 chronicles the journey, focusing on conversations and interactions the riders have with people along the way. It’s a ten-day ride from Lower Brule to Mancato, and takes place in December, when the weather isn’t very friendly. I was amazed and surprised by how hospitable and respectful the South Dakotans and Minnesotans along the way turn out to be. Many people—many white people—respect what the riders have set out to do, and do everything they can to help and support them. It is powerful and moving to see people on both sides facing the painful events of long ago, and working to reconcile and restore good relations with each other.

Caroline Yang for

Riders from the Dakota 38 plus two reconciliation ride arrive in downtown Mankato on December 26, 2012, for a ceremony to commemorate the execution of 38 Dakota warriors on the day after Christmas in 1862. Dakota 38 is a documentary about the largest mass execution in American history, the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mancato, Minnesota. Lincoln signed that execution order.

At the same time, Dakota 38 recognizes that reconciliation is a long process, not a one-time event. And while an honor ride can help in the process of healing and forgiveness, it can’t completely fulfill that process. Both the riders and the hosts along the Dakota 38 trail recognize that there is a lot of work to do in order to heal the wounds of this country’s original inhabitants, as well as its immigrants. But it is good work, and worth doing. Though Dakota 38 starts in such a dark place, it ultimately left me feeling hopeful, showing that reconciliation and healing are possible, and people in both Native and White communities are seeing the need for it more and more, and pursuing it.

The makers of Dakota 38 have made it available for free as a gift on their website (www.smoothfeather/dakota38), and are encouraging people to watch it and screen it free of license. It is a film created to encourage healing and reconciliation, and I heartily recommend it.

Willie Krischke lives in Durango, Colorado and works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship with Native American students at Fort Lewis College. To read more of his reviews, go to


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