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The Last Ride

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

From Dec. 9-26, 2022, I accompanied the Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye horseback ride, which proceded from Lower Brule, South Dakota, to Mankato, Minnesota. The latter location has the ignominious distinction of being the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The event became known as the Dakota 38. I collected thousands of images, which I am now rolling out to the public at large.


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History of the Dakota 38

As a result of generations of encroaching settlers causing the cessation of lands, violated treaties spanning multiple decades and starvations as a result of the Dakota being relocated to reservations devoid of game, tensions between natives and settlers reached a breaking point during the time of the Civil War. On Aug. 17, 1862, four young natives killed five white settlers in Acton, Minnesota, sparking the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. In the following weeks, the Dakota attempted to drive out settlers from their native lands in the Minnesota River Valley, claiming the lives of 358 settlers, 77 soldiers and 29 volunteer militia members. An unknown number of Dakota were killed in the conflict, but about 2000 had surrendered or were taken into custody, the majority of whom were non-combatants or who had opposed the war altogether and had, in fact, tried to warn settlers of the incoming attacks.

President Abraham Lincoln approved the hanging of 39 Dakota men of the original 303 who were sentenced to death following hasty trials. One was later granted reprieve at the last minute.


On the morning of Dec. 26, 1862, the townspeople of Mankato gathered near the Minnesota River en masse to watch the simultaneous hanging of those 38. At 10 a.m. the square scaffolding gave way beneath the men’s feet, ending their lives with the cut of a single rope. Two Dakota chiefs were later captured and executed at Fort Snelling.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The remaining captive Dakota were kept in concentration camp conditions, leading to hundreds of deaths before their banishment from Minnesota. After being imprisoned in Nebraska, the surviving Dakota were relocated to Fort Thompson, South Dakota, which became the Crow Creek Reservation. While being relocated, the Dakota were forced to walk without shoes or proper clothing, many fearing death from the elements or by the soldiers escorting them.



The Dakota 38+2 Memorialized

Generations after the Dakota 38 hanging, Lakota dreamer and Vietnam veteran Jim Miller had a dream of a spiritual horse ride to the banks of the Minnesota River in Mankato. This ride to the Dakota homelands from which they had been banished held reconciliation and healing at its core. It entered the material world in 2005 when Miller assembled a band of riders to carry out the 330 mile trip from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota. The 16-day journey has run from Dec. 10-26.


The Wokiksuye ride, which had culminated at its final stop at the Dakota 38 hanging grounds for nearly two decades, continued through 2022 when organizers announced it would be the final year for the original band of riders. The elders have left the door open for the next generation to continue the ride, but when I heard that last December’s sojourn may be the last, I felt I had no choice but to document it. So, On Dec. 9, I drove to Lower Brule with my cameras with the intention of mostly continuously documenting the ride and its participants with not much in the way of a plan for the photos’ ultimate distribution. Maya by blood (my last name Ek means star in Yucatec Maya), I felt some kinship with the riders and in some respect felt participating in the ride would illuminate facets of my native self of which I was not yet aware. So, my involvement was unquestionably personal as much as it was about being a raw documentary effort.



Isaiah Keeble (center) carries the ceremonial Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye ride staff as riders enter Land of Memories Park just outside Mankato, Minn., December 25, 2022. Photo by Casey Ek

Since the ride wrapped up just a couple months ago as of my writing this, I’ve been sitting on the images and have, with guidance from Wilfred Keeble, a staff carrier for the ride, been slowly honing my collection to be displayed in print. In many ways, I am still internalized the highs and lows of my experience, but I can say that it is clear that the ride, while contextualized by history, is about the present and the future. Prayer. Healing. Growth. Fortitude. These are words that rattled in my brain while watching multiple generations of Dakota, including pre-teens and youth, brave blizzards and the uncertainty that comes with them in the name of reconciliation.


As on outsider, I thought of other words while witnessing the ride as well: protest; resistance; and education. America’s Indigenous peoples continue fighting for basic rights, a fact that was impossible to ignore when elders on the ride told stories of hardship, and the ride called resounding attention to those modern hardships. But, as I linger on the images I’ve captured and the stories therein, another word comes to mind: triumph.


So, I invite you to come along with me as I explore more images from the 2022 Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye horse ride, a story of forgiveness, strength and animal kinship.



Gallery 333 Image Descriptions

This section of this post is meant to accompany images scheduled for display at Gallery 333 Feb. 2023 Click on each image for full captions. Read more about this collection.


”The Chase”


A young wrangler chases down a herd of horses prior to Dakota 38+2 riders taking off toward Redwood Falls, Minn., Dec. 21, 2022. Photo by Casey Ek

“Kape”



A Dakota 38+2 rider, named Kape, stands atop his horse in Madison, South Dakota Dec. 14, 2022. It hit me that Kape, about my age of 28, would have been around the same age as the Dakota 38, so I felt compelled to attempt to showcase some of his bravado through this portrait. “How long can you hold that,” I asked him. “Days,” he responded. Photo by Casey Ek

”Three Kings”



Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye riders proceed toward Pipestone, Minn, Dec. 18, 2022. Pipestone lies just over the border from South Dakota to Minnesota. It was pointed out to me that the passage into Minnesota, a place from which the Dakota had been banished, was a somber, yet celebratory occasion on the yearly rides. So, I wanted to capture the defiance and triumph of that act. I believe this photo leans into irony to do so. Photo by Casey Ek


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