Dakota 38

Film review by Justin Eagle GauthierDakota 38 movie poster

On the morning of December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota, thirty-eight Dakota men were executed. This event stemmed from the Dakota Uprising, an ugly series of clashes between the Dakota and settlers in the area. The hangings remain the largest mass execution in American history. This is not taught in schools. Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, succumbed to public pressure and signed the order of execution. In Silas Hagerty’s 2012 documentary, Dakota 38, viewers witness a 330-mile horse ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota to the hanging site in Mankato.

In 2005, Jim Miller, a Dakota elder, had a dream of the thirty-eight Dakota being hanged and holding hands. Following this, he experienced a vision of a horse ride across the plains to honor those thirty-eight and all the affected subsequent generations. We join the ride in 2008 and follow along with the riders, the film crew, and the people who help along the way. The annual ride is meant as a healing ceremony with reconciliation as one of the main objectives.  See full length movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pX6FBSUyQI

This film is full of emotion and many tensions surface throughout. Themes of racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and death are prevalent but balanced by counterpoints of humor, hope, and healing. An interesting moment near the mid-point of the film features the film crew, in a hotel room meeting, expressing disappointment toward the native community for not being more appreciative toward a host family that provided a meal and respite. Co-director Sarah Weston puts things into perspective by telling the crew that some of the riders had never been inside a non-native home and the display of shyness wasn’t meant to offend. This explanation is followed by an admission from one of the riders, Billy Ray Dumarce, “In the back of my head I always thought, ‘You’re probably uncomfortable with all of us in here, don’t trust us too much, or something.’ That’s just how I grew up.”

Dakota 38 was not produced for monetary gain. Instead, the film’s distribution is focused on healing, reconciliation, and education and is free to view on YouTube. This does not detract from the production value. Cinematography is only one of the highlights of the production, the documentary is chock-full of arresting imagery and hard-earned visuals. A reenactment of the hanging, in grainy film-stock footage style, serves as a gruesome visual reminder of the whitewashed past most Americans have no inkling of. This film should be required viewing in every classroom in America.  

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier is featured in several literary journals.  He is currently working on screenwriting projects and taking bids on a framing job for his MFA degree.