The first ritual of the ride began suddenly. One moment two dozen native Americans and their horses, gathered on an icy bank of the Missouri river in South Dakota, were chatting and whinnying, drawing on cigarettes and champing on bits, stretching limbs in anticipation of a gruelling journey. The next, sprigs of burning sage, a form of purification among native Americans, were being wafted under the chins of humans and animals, to bless the bond between them that once made the Sioux people great.
I was joining them for the ride, but my mount, a stocky brown mare called Debbie Harry, after her unusual blonde-tinted mane, was not entirely happy about that. After hours cooped up in a horse box, on her owner’s long drive from Nebraska, she was agitated and, sensing a clumsy rider, wanted to see how far she might press her advantage. She turned a couple of frisky circles and lashed out wildly with her muscular neck. I pulled her up sharply and she settled – thankfully, for my companions, who were mostly Dakota Indians, members of an eastern branch of the Sioux, are harsh judges of horsemanship. Then Debbie and I turned with the others towards a tall Indian standing in the snow, with a bunch of smoking sage in his hand.
Tall and ramrod straight, he was wearing a cowboy hat and leather coat. He had craggy features and the silent charisma of a film star. This was Jim Miller, a rancher and spiritual leader from the Sioux reservation of Pine Ridge, a three-hour drive south. Miller had founded the annual 330-mile trek we were about to set out on.
Our route ran from Lower Brule, a small Sioux reservation on the western bank of the river, which we left on December 10th, to Mankato, in western Minnesota, which the riders would reach on Boxing Day morning. Miller claimed it had been shown to him 15 years ago, in a dream in which he found himself galloping over ground he did not recognise in the company of a column of men he did not know: “I didn’t know where we was headed,” he had explained earlier that day, over a breakfast of burgers and cola in Lower Brule’s casino. “But then these guys took me to the front of the column and every flag of the United States was flying there. And they said, ‘This is Mankato.’”
Miller claimed to have dreamed of the biggest mass execution in American history. On Boxing Day 1862, 38 Dakota men and boys were hanged in Mankato. They were dispatched on the same gallows, simultaneously, with a single blow of an axe to release the drop. A festive crowd of white settlers was watching; some had travelled for days, by horse or trap, to see the Indians jig on a rope. It was one of the most repugnant incidents of a bitter century for the Sioux.
The mass hanging followed a short war which the Indians had started in desperation. The eastern Dakota tribes had ceded vast areas of present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota to the government in return for annual payments in gold coin. But the Dakotas’ dues failed to arrive and, by August 1862, they were starving.
A few hundred Dakotas went on the rampage, killing around 800 settlers. They were skilful fighters, but useless strategists. After the government sent in a militia, they quickly folded, whereupon 303 alleged participants in the violence were sentenced to death by a kangaroo court. That only 40 ended up going to the gallows (including two hanged after the main event in Mankato) was down to an unpopular intervention by Abraham Lincoln. The officer he had sent to quell the Indians, General John Pope, was more in touch with the public mood. “It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux,” he wrote. “They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people.”
What followed, for all the members of the Horse Nation, as the seven disparate Sioux peoples thought of themselves, came close to matching Pope’s ambition. The introduction of a genocidal policy in Minnesota; the expulsion of the easternmost Dakotas to a scrap of barren land in South Dakota where many starved; and, as night followed day, more broken treaties, pogroms, epidemics and massacres, until, at Wounded Knee in 1890, the last Indian resistance to the bloody larceny of America’s westward expansion was ended.
Miller claims to have known nothing of the mass hanging and the horrors surrounding it before his dream. This is plausible: many of the 30-odd Indians gathered in Lower Brule said they had heard of the hangings for the first time through the ride. The story of the frontier wars was not taught in the public schools where they studied, and their grandparents had not talked about this painful past. “My great-great-grandfather was hanged in Mankato. My great-grandmother’s first memory was of clinging to the fringe of her mother’s tunic as the cavalry chased them out of Minnesota,” Peter Lengkeek, one of the riders, told me. “My grandmother was born in South Dakota around 1905. But when we asked her about these things, she’d just put her finger to her lips. She wouldn’t speak of them. It was too horrible.”
Mission boarding schools, which many native-American children were forced to attend for much of the 20th century, also contributed to this collective forgetting. Their aim was to bring the Indian soul to god by cleansing it of its pagan culture – including language, stories and native spiritual practices that were only formally legalised in 1978. “Kill the Indian and save the man”, was how one principal, Captain Richard H. Pratt of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, described his method in 1892. That was considered enlightened at the time; Pratt was speaking against the common view that the only good Indian was a dead one. “You spoke in your language, they put a bar of soap in your mouth and put you in front of the altar,” said Miller. It is no wonder that Siouan and other Indian languages went into rapid decline; of the 25,000 people reckoned to speak one of the Siouan languages, few do so fluently. “You didn’t talk, you didn’t tell,” said Miller. “The fear was too great.”
Miller said his revelation came to him from Wakan Tanka, or Great Mystery, the deity of the Sioux: “That’s where I got this dream from,” he said, and I met no one on the ride who doubted that this was so. A former alcoholic, Miller has carved out a role for himself as a medicine man. He takes religious artefacts, such as sage sticks and native tobacco, into prisons, where Indians are over-represented. He also leads traditional ceremonies, such as the Sundance, in which participants attach themselves with skewers to a pole then, half mad with dehydration and pain, rip themselves free, as a flesh offering to the spirits.
I was more sceptical of Miller’s vision. I found him a bit theatrical; a veteran of Vietnam, he claimed to have killed 38 men there, the same number as were hanged in Mankato, which seemed a striking coincidence. Yet my scepticism about his vision did not extend to his creation, the ride, which I had come across, unadvertised and little covered by the media, while researching the Indian wars. As an effort to recover a lost history and affirm a once-reviled identity, I found it fascinating.
“This ride has opened up so much shit for so many people,” was how Miller put this. “The greatest thing for me is to help our people find their roots, to show them where they come from. The ride has told them, you can do this, you can talk about your religion, you can talk about the abuses you endured.” During the three days and nights I spent with the riders, astride Debbie Harry or chatting in one of the pick-up trucks that followed us, or in the casinos and community centres where we ate and slept, I found this to be powerfully true.
As we gathered to begin the ride, the sky over Lower Brule looked full of snow and, at -10°C, it was bone-achingly cold. By the end of that first day’s journey, which would take us 15 miles to Crow Creek reservation, the treeless waste to which the Minnesota Dakotas were first deported, the lobes of both my ears would be painfully frost-bitten. “It will be hard,” intoned another stony-faced Indian, Wilfred Kimble, a resident of Crow Creek, who was acting as the staff-carrier, or chief, of the ride. He stood beside Miller, wearing a bright green anorak, luminescent against the snow. In his gloved hand he carried a staff decorated with a row of 38 eagle feathers, fastened with beadwork and yarn and fluttering in the icy breeze. “If you see someone struggling, help him,” said Kimble. “If your horse is in trouble, go easy. You need him.”
A pair of dismounted riders launched into the warbling harmony of a Sioux prayer song, calling on Wakan Tanka to bless our journey. Unprompted, the horses started pacing around the singers in a tight circle. Faster and faster we went, hairy bellies and bony knees bumping together to the prayer’s rise and fall, until the young rider entrusted with Kimble’s staff suddenly broke away and we all streamed after him, unwinding the horsey coil. We were off at a bumpy trot, gasping in lungfuls of cold, heavy air, hugely exhilarated.
Skirting a frozen road, we stretched out in a column along the verge, heading east towards Crow Creek. A girl, her hands and legs numbed by the cold, fell nastily and was scooped up by one of the pick-ups. There was little talk. It was too cold to chat and the riders were finding their rhythm, scanning the icy ground for hazards, measuring their horses’ fitness and mood. Around half rode bareback, some without using bridles. Masked against the icy wind, they glared silently ahead, to where the eagle-feather staff was bobbing.
But beside me, a young man rode bareheaded, defying the weather. He was Miller’s son-in-law Brandon, who had driven over for the day with his wife and children from the city of Sioux Falls. His shoulder-length black hair streamed behind him, speckled with ice crystals. “Aieeeeee!” he suddenly shrieked, and veered away to the right. Ahead of his horse, a dark lupine shape streaked across the snow. Then Brandon slowed and trotted back to the trail. “Coyote,” he grunted. “The enemy.”
The Sioux were not always horsemen. Contrary to the linear view of human progress, from hunter-gatherer to cultivator, they were once farmers, settled in the south-eastern part of the United States. They migrated northwards between the 11th and 14th centuries, and returned to full-time hunting after coming into contact with the buffalo herds swarming over the Midwestern prairies. They became adept at killing buffalo by herding them over small cliffs, known as buffalo jumps; horses, brought to America by the Spanish and acquired by the Dakotas around 1760, made them still more effective.
So did guns, which the Dakota bought from French fur trappers around the same time. The result was a century of high living and hard fighting for the Sioux, in which they gorged on buffalo, fought other tribes and extended their domains. By the mid-19th century, when white settlers began seriously to encroach on Sioux territory, the average Sioux man, at 173cm tall, was at least 2cm taller than the average American. When the white man – or wasichu, as they are called in Siouan (literally: “he who skims off the fat”) – assumed an air of racial superiority over the Indian, the Sioux wondered what he could possibly have in mind.
It took a while, but the atrocities, expulsions and assimilation policies crushed much of that spirit. Consigned to reservations, which were mostly poor and remote from the rest of American society, native Americans were constantly reminded of their Indian-ness and also, through the state’s attack on their culture, that this identity was nothing to be proud of. “I’m 60 now and until 20 years ago I was so messed up about my culture I didn’t want to be an Indian,” said Chauncey Long Crow, a tribal historian from Crow Creek, which is located in the poorest county in America. Rotund and laconic, with a walrus moustache and low opinion of many of his fellow humans, he acted as my guide to that reservation. “I wanted to be called Charles or Philip or something. I was going to change my name,” he said.
High rates of drug and alcohol addiction, sickness and suicide among native Americans suggest that this self-loathing remains widespread. The group meetings Kimble convened at the end of each day’s ride also offered glimpses of it. Most of the riders seemed to be grieving for someone and to have struggled with the bottle. “There are some who aren’t alcoholic, you do meet them, but not many,” said Richard Milda, a broad-shouldered elder of mixed Dakota and Crow blood, who took the lead in the prayer songs, and was a former drunk himself. “Both my parents were drunks and I was a big drunk,” said Jim Hallam, Debbie Harry’s generous and amusing owner. He had three sisters and four brothers, all of them drunks, he told me – “and one’s in prison and he ain’t ever coming back.” It was hard to reconcile the hardy, practical, graceful riders I saw by day with the scarred, grief-stricken people many of them turned out to be. But the ride, paradoxically given what it commemorated, was not a sad event; it was grave, but in some ways triumphant, and the riders did not seem like victims.
Carl Ester, a 16-year-old rider, had learned about the ride on Facebook. It inspired him to read up on the Mankato hangings and the explusion of the Sioux from Minnesota. “That was the first time I heard about us coming from there,” he said, sitting in Hallam’s pick-up, as its owner gave approving grunts from behind the wheel. Partly fuelled by this interest, Carl said he wanted to graduate from high school – “not many people do that” – and go to college to study archaeology and native history. Meanwhile he is embracing Indian culture: “Did my first Sundance last year. Did two this year.”
Native-American culture began a slow recovery in the 1970s, after Richard Nixon, fearful of the potential for a second civil-rights movement, ended assimilation and spoke up for Indian rights. The emergence of New Agers also helped. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to be an Indian, even white people,” said Longcrow, sounding perplexed. The ride is testament to this renaissance. It is in some ways a meditation on everything the Dakotas have lost – freedom, ancestral lands, the lives of the hanged men and many more. But it is also a celebration, with songs and prayer, of the cultural identity many Sioux have re-invigorated or regained.
The riding is central to that. My companions were outstanding horsemen. They wheeled and moved together, picking their way over slippery, broken ground, then bursting into joyful canters on the flat. Most had been riding almost as long they had been walking. Yet the empathy many showed for their animals was even more striking than their horesemanship.
Though not hostile, many of the riders seemed wary of me. But on the subject of their shaggy ponies – Beans, Wasei, Toy Story and the rest – they were effusive. “It’s like I become a different person when I ride,” said Wesley, a 25-year-old, four-time veteran of the ride, over a supper of stewed buffalo and mashed potato in Woonsocket, South Dakota, where we were bunking that night. “I just try to understand what the horse is thinking and go with that.”
For some, riding was a spiritual exercise: it made them feel close to the ancestors they believed were accompanying them on the journey. “When I reached Mankato once, an elder came up to me and said, ‘I saw a woman riding with you, and whenever your horse bucked she calmed it down,’” said Heather Belgarde, a 20-year-old former drug addict who rode like a goddess. “I said, ‘I know who that was,’” she continued, tears streaming down her cheeks, as she explained that her grandmother, whom she adored, had recently died. “And the elder told me: ‘It’s OK, she is at peace now.’”
The hardship of the riding, in that terrible weather, made the prayers seem all the more appropriate. This was not simply because the riders needed all the help they could get. There was also a sense that their physical and spiritual exercises reflected that same deep commitment. Getting through each long day was a physical feat; participating in the endless prayers and songs and confessional meetings was an emotional and spiritual one. The riders prayed with Dakota songs, in spoken English and, one beautiful morning, shortly after dawn, as Kimble knelt in the snow to load his sacred canupa pipe, with tobacco and invocations for a good journey. They prayed for their ancestors and themselves. They prayed for the drunks and the depressed – for the men hanged in Mankato in 1862 and for some Dakota women, imprisoned in a nearby penitentiary, who had held a pizza-making fundraiser to contribute to their costs. They prayed for their past and present.
It was a disorienting, and at times haunting, elision of events and time. I sensed in it not naivety or confusion, but a tradition of oral history, lost for decades, flooding back. “Signs, dreams and visions, these are what guide our people,” said Miller, more wisely than I had at first understood. The Sioux, having no written tradition, used such methods to maintain a selective memory of their past, as historians do everywhere, in order to help explain their present circumstances and shape their future action. The Dakotas, having been robbed of their calamitous history, along with much else, were now using these same traditional methods to recover it. It was painful to reflect on so much suffering; but emblematic of a people taking back control of their destiny, which was glorious to witness. The ride, many said, was the most important event of their year. They looked forward to it. They felt it was important. It made them feel better and stronger.
On Christmas evening 1862, the condemned men in Mankato asked special permission to perform a death ritual. Arising in their prison cell they “extemporised a dance with a wild Indian song”, according to an observer, before their gaolers bolted their shackles to the floor. One hundred and fifty-four years later, on Christmas evening, Kimble took out his canupa in the Best Western hotel in Mankato, and smoked it with his riders.
Then they gave thanks for the ride, now completed. They prayed for their ancestors and “all the many problems we have in continental United States”, said Kimble. When we had first spoken, before I set out for South Dakota, I asked him what the point of the ride really was. “The ride”, he said, “is a prayer.”