Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Diane Wilson opens the book on 150 years of Dakota history

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.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/20/2012 - 11:57 am.

    “We aren’t going back to a hunting diet”

    Sure we are. The high-protein, low-fat buffalo meat that our ancestors lived on is heart healthy and vital for brain and neurosystem development, especially in youngsters. You can trace the decline of the dakota people to the decline of the great buffalo herds more than anything else.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/20/2012 - 01:02 pm.

      To what do you attribute

      the decline of the buffalo herds or the Dakotas’ inability to follow the herds before they were eradicated?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/20/2012 - 02:19 pm.

        The buffalo were the life blood of the Dakota

        Nearly 30 million buffalo roamed the plains in 1800. The Sioux harvested the buffalo for meat and to make clothing, tools, teepees and for fuel for their fires. By the mid to late 1800s the buffalo had been hunted to virtual extiction by the white hunters who were paid by the federal government to supply the army and railroad construction crews. Some hunters from the east only took the hides and horns to satisfy the demands of the NY fashion industry.

        By the end of the century the buffalo herds were gone and with them a major part of the Dakota livelihood.

        • Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/20/2012 - 03:31 pm.

          The construction of the first

          transcontinental railroad was authorized July 1, 1862, less than two months before the beginning of the Dakota War and long after the Dakota had been confined to a small reservation along the Minnesota River. Clearly, the decline of the Dakota was primarily the result of things other than the depletion of the buffalo herds.

    • Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 09/20/2012 - 04:01 pm.

      The Dakota people from the Minnesota River Valley, also later known as the Santee when some of the refugees joined the Lakota farther west, did not make much use of buffalo meat. There were few bison herds in either Iowa or Minnesota east of the Buffalo Ridge on the Minnesota/South Dakota border, even before white settlement. In those areas the largest major herbivore were the prairie elk, until white settlers massacred the heavily yarded elk herds during the harsh winters of the 1850s. Their meat was far more commonly whitetail and elk venison and gathering of such vegetable staples as wild rice and maple sugar, heavily augmented by fish. There was also some small scale local corn, bean, squash agriculture, but not much, since the Dakota were reeling from the loss of the Rice Wars with the Chippewa farther north earlier in the mid 1700s.

      A remnant of the Iowa elk herd persisted in NW Iowa into the 1870s. It’s Minnesota branch is still around in some small quantity in the extreme NW portion of Minnesota. BTW the word for meat in Dakota and Lakota Sioux is traditionally the same one as for venison even when applied to bison farther west.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/20/2012 - 04:06 pm.

      Bison & Prairie

      I was disappointed to hear that the native prairie corridor being planned for the Minn/South Dakota border will be grazed by cattle, not bison. Here we have a chance to perhaps establish a couple of small herds in some semblance of a natural life, but no, lobbyists win again and cattle, which damage the prairie rather than live in balance with it, will be grazed. It seems we never learn the simplest lessons – or do, but ignore them anyway.

      Despite this, I am pleased that at least some prairie will be restored. I hope they restore the pothole wetlands along with it. Having grown up in Pipestone, amidst the “green desert” of corn fields, I have always yearned to see some of it restored to the beautiful and intricate ecosystem it once was.

      Personally, bison meat is great, I generally buy it in preference to beef, although lately it’s become very expensive. Grass fed beef has some of the same health benefits, but it too is rather pricey. It’s the grain fed beef that is unhealthy.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/20/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    Those interested in a non-European perspective

    on the taking of Minnesota may find this site worth their time.

Leave a Reply