FORT THOMPSON, S.D. — Dakota prayers, singing and the breath of horses in the winter air marked the day as more than 25 horseback riders met early Tuesday to begin this year’s Dakota 38 + 2 Memorial Ride to Mankato, Minn.

The winter ride began on the Dec. 10 in Lower Brule and will end on Dec. 26 in Mankato; it honors the Dakota who were executed in 1862 and ancestors who were exiled from Minnesota and brought to the west.

“This ride started from a vision,” said Peter Lengkeek, Crow Creek tribal member and a leader of the event. “What keeps these riders … and these horses going is reconciliation, healing, unity and remembering those 38 that died for us. They had us in their minds when they were on that gallows.”

After leaving Fort Thompson, the riders will make multiple stops during their journey in communities where residents have volunteered to provide food and shelter for the riders and their horses. Lengkeek said that having towns welcome them and give coffee and food keeps them going.

“That’s what keeps me on that horseback for those 350 miles,” Lengkeek said.  “It’s just so powerful, so beautiful, to see those people that once hated us now standing there with open arms. I see a little bit more every year, and that gives me hope that we can live on this earth together. We can walk hand in hand like the Creator intended us to.”

The riders will be in constant prayer as they travel each day, and Lengkeek noted that they’ll pass sacred burial sites along the way.

“This highway that we’re going down today, that we’re going to be on for the next few days, we know it as Highway 34, but it’s much more than that,” Lengkeek said while addressing the group. “It’s an ancient trail that our people traveled down. In some places, where that road turns and curves, you can see that ancient path.”

It’s not uncommon for the group to cover 40 or 45 miles before stopping, and by the end of the ride, Lengkeek said that there will be 200 or 300 riders total in Minnesota – riders who join the group as they travel across the state.

Their motto seems to be the more the merrier, since the ride is far from exclusive. Lengkeek said they’ve had participants from Europe, China and all across the U.S. join them on their mission of reconciliation.

Jim Hallum and a group of riders journeyed to Crow Creek from Santee, Neb., on Dec. 4 and arrived on Dec. 9 to join the ride. They were forced to ride right through a series of winter storms last weekend and had to switch riders often.

Hallum said that it’s their first time participating, and it meant a lot to finally make it this year.

“We had a lot of relatives that had hard times there, so it’s just something we feel like we owe to the women who endured so we could live,” Hallum said. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here today. They endured a lot. That’s what it means to me.”

Also present this year at the ceremony were students from the Crow Creek Tribal Schools. Lengkeek thanked the schools for being there, saying that they give the riders strength, courage and hope.

“This ride’s going to go on forever, and we’re going to come to you guys in the near future to carry this staff and make this ride for our relatives,” Lengkeek said to the students.

As he carried a staff made with sacred eagle feathers, he added:

“This staff has 38 plus two feathers on it. Each one represents one of our ancestors, whose lives were taken in Mankato Dec. 26, 1862,” Lengkeek said. “Most of us here come from them. Keep that in your mind; keep that in your hearts. It’s up to you to pass that on to your children, your children’s children, and their children. Think of the ones to come, so that we can make this a beautiful world for them.”

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