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Diane Wilson opens the book on 150 years of Dakota history

Wilson’s “Spirit” Car was selected as this year’s One Minneapolis One Read title.

Diane Wilson

The Dakota people have lived in Minnesota for thousands of years. But in many ways, the contemporary experience of Dakota life dates back only 150 years, to 1862.

That August, a band of Dakota warriors, whose families faced starvation after a series of broken treaties, swindles and various mistreatments at the hands of white settlers, retaliated with a string of brutal killings across the state. Settlers and the U.S. government responded in kind, and by the end of summer, hundreds of men, women and children on both sides were dead and the Dakota people were forcibly expelled from the state.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though. In her memoir, “Spirit Car,” Diane Wilson, who has both Dakota and European ancestry, talks about the next 150 years for the Dakota people, starting from her own family’s perspective over five generations. After the war, the Dakota were imprisoned, executed and marched out of the state. Families were separated, and for generations, native children were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools, and Dakota language and spirituality were outlawed.

150 years of trauma

“In those next 150 years, our community lost its children, its language and its native foods, leading to extreme rates of diabetes. Native teenagers now have the highest rates of suicide and depression.

Poverty is persistent. This all connects back to 150 years of trauma. But 150 years is a very small part of the Dakota’s thousands of years in this place. So how do we turn this into something positive for the community and turn that into a better way of life for our children?”

In part, she says, by talking about it. “Spirit” Car was selected as this year’s One Minneapolis One Read title, and Wilson is participating in numerous discussions about her book as part of the events marking the anniversary of the War of 1862. You may have seen the billboards.

“Who puts a book event on a billboard? It amazes me. And on bus signs,” Wilson says. “To me, that is unprecedented, to ask the community, on a billboard, to read the same book, and take part in a conversation about it.

“The most common thing I hear from people is, ‘I didn’t know about this, I didn’t learn about it before.’ Many people had no idea this conflict happened, and knew nothing about the removal afterward or the impact this history had on the Dakota people. So that fact that so many people are willing to commit to the education part of this conversation is a good thing. The Star Tribune did this big series in the paper — that was unprecedented. The History Center taking so much time and effort to connect with Dakota, from Canada to Montana, to bring Dakota people into the planning of the exhibit — that was good. My feeling is that when we commit to educating our young people about the history of the state in a truthful way, it helps bring us all together.”

Also runs Dream of Wild Health

In addition to writing (Wilson’s “Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life” explores the impact losing so many children in the years following the war had on the community), Wilson is a farmer, and runs Dream of Wild Health, a 10-acre farm in Hugo devoted to crops with historical and medicinal significance to native people. Throughout the summer, the farm hosts groups of teenagers from the Twin Cities, who are able to work on the farm, learn about traditional diets, sell the crops at farmers markets and earn money for their labor.

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This, too, is part of the healing process. “The commodity diet so many Dakota were raised on created the health problems we face today. We aren’t going back to a hunting diet, but by bringing native foods back to our tables, cultural recovery is possible. It is possible to reclaim some of the things that were taken from us, and it is important to do this, for our children. History is too harsh; we have to look forward for the sake of those who come next. But understanding the past is key to moving forward.”


  • An Evening With Garrison Keillor and Diane Wilson, Minneapolis Convention Center, Sept. 24, 7 p.m.
  • Discussion, All My Relations Gallery, Minneapolis, Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m.
  • Discussion, Nokomis Library, Minneapolis, Oct. 11, 6:30 p.m.
  • An Evening With Diane Wilson, Central Library, Minneapolis, Oct. 11, 7 p.m.
  • Discussion, Washburn High School, Nov. 11, 7 p.m.
  • Discussion, Nokomis Library, Minneapolis, Nov. 15, 7-9 p.m.