Building the Road by Walking: The Dakota War Remembered

Camp Release Dakota War DialogueAt CURE, we have a saying that also sums up our approach to our work:  “we will build the road by walking.”  Simply put, this means that whatever the issue, whatever the problem, we believe that we have the ability to figure it out and the process begins with engagement – by taking first steps – together, with people you don’t know (and perhaps don’t even like)  who  want to address the same problem and get to a new and better place.

The walkOur recent experience in helping to organize the Camp Release Dakota War Dialogue and Memorial Walk held on September 23, 2012 in Montevideo is an example of this approach in action.

We began with a seemingly intractable problem – how to properly acknowledge and observe the 150th anniversary of the final chapter of the U.S. Dakota Conflict of 1862?  There were many divergent opinions and strong feelings.  There was conflict between some people who wanted to emphasize the military aspects of the war (i.e. bringing in the civil war cannon and focusing on “the facts” about who did what, when and where — etc, etc) and those who wanted to address the broken relationships between the Dakota people and the White “Settler Society.”
We didn’t know what to do, but we wanted to do something and we did not want to make relationships worse in the process.  Finally, after some discussion, we hit upon the idea of organizing a memorial walk from town out to the Camp Release site (where those with the cannon were planning a separate event) followed by a person-to-person dialogue.  We did not know where all this would lead, but we knew that if we started working together to plan, publicize and carry out the event, something good might happen.

When you “build the road by walking” you have to be committed to collaboration and be open to the idea that it is more important to be together than it is to be right.  You have to give up insisting that things be done in a certain way.

The beginning of the memorial walk

We knew going into this event, that it would be hard to gain the trust of the Dakota people.  We had just met with Upper Sioux Community leaders who had told us – ‘Listen – it is you white people that are interested in observing and commemorating the events of this war – we Dakota are not so interested.  It is painful for us to re-live those events – this is not something to celebrate — it is a reminder of when we were exiled from our homeland, of how our families and our culture were decimated.  This is not something that anyone wants to hear, no matter how true it is.’

We also knew that the old way of observing historic events – bringing in a panel of experts, having people talk at or download on an audience – might not get us where we wanted to go.   We were afraid people would use energy getting into arguments about different interpretations of events.   We sought to create an event where people could get to the heart of the matter and talk about the larger issues of conflict, justice, racism and the difficulties of cross cultural communication that were played out at Camp Release and that we still grapple with today.

at the Chippewa County Historical VillageFinally, we knew that regardless of whether or not we would be successful in getting the Dakota people to contribute to the planning process or to participate in the event, that we needed to do this anyway.  We needed to do this for ourselves – to help sort out our own feelings and perspectives on the issues surrounding this historic place.  So together, representatives of the Chippewa County Historical Society, the Lac qui Parle County Historical Society and CURE decided to go forward with the event and to build the road by walking.

We collaborated by imagining the event and in designing of the poster that would communicate what we wanted to do.  We collaborated on developing the press release; we collaborated on promoting the event and inviting our circles to come together.  We got together and discussed and debated what powerful questions we could put out there for the group to consider that would make the event meaningful and memorable.

We were able to do all these things, thanks to training we received from the InCommons Art of Hosting (AoH) process and with a small grant from the Bush Foundation that was made available to those who had gone through the AoH process who wanted to sponsor “courageous conversations.”

We knew from AoH that powerful small group conversations in a relaxed setting in a comfortable space were the key to getting the outcomes we desired.  We followed the principles of designing a successful World Café event with food, red checkered table cloths and circle discussions where everyone had a chance to contribute in a safe and warm setting.

In the end, 60 people showed up for the walk – it was a great turnout considering that the Vikings were playing against San Francisco that afternoon!  The weather was warm and the mood was upbeat.  The lone Dakota Representative who showed up for the walk — Reggie LaBatte – led the group as we walked 1.2 miles to Camp Release.

Camp Release site, Montevideo, MN

Along the way, I talked to Reggie about his own journey toward healing, how it was the power of his native Religion that was helping him to lead a balanced life, how he felt called to participate in the event to honor his ancestors.  We made a good connection that we will be able to build on in the years ahead.

Camp Release site, Montevideo, MN When we arrived at the site, the Civil War cannon was there, as were the historic experts.  We milled around on our own and talked quietly in groups – we had a fire pit set up where we burned pieces of paper on which we had written our hopes for Camp Release.  Three Ojibwa children tied prayer bundles on a tree.  Reggie sat down with his eagle feather in quiet reflection.  Many people gathered around the cannon and talked to members of the New Ulm Battery who were preparing for a cannon shooting demonstration.

It was awkward, it was disjointed – but it was real – here we were all together – all perspectives just being for a moment in the late September sun.  Some people stayed to listen to speeches and the cannon shooting demonstration (including Reggie), but most of us walked back to the Montevideo Community Center to begin our dialogue over food and drink.


What happened next was powerful and unexpected.  As we used the World Café process and worked our way through a series of questions – some themes and ideas and collective “aha” moments started to emerge such as:

“That Walk was Great!  We should do this Every Year” and

“We need to work together to make sure that this history is taught in our local schools – we need to influence the curriculum” and

“We should consider how we could go about advancing the idea of changing the name of our Alexander Ramsey Elementary School as a way to raise awareness” and

“We can hold out a vision for Camp Release someday becoming a place known for promoting cross cultural understanding” 

Dialogue notesWhat was even more amazing was what happened out back at the Camp Release site.  Reggie was invited to speak!  His heartfelt story about his healing journey, his spirituality and his ancestors won over the crowd of civil war re-enactors.  The wife of state Senator Dean Urdahl  (the moderator for the historic speeches part of the event) was so moved she went up and gave Reggie a big hug!    Those present called for the formation of a Friends of Camp Release group where more exchanges like what had just happened could happen again.  Who would have thunk it?  Here the civil war re-enactors and the dialogue proponents had come to the same conclusion!

One thing we learned at AoH was the importance of creating space where tension between opposing factions can be held without trying to resolve things prematurely.  What happened with the Dakota War Memorial Walk and Dialogue was a great example of this.  It was tense, it had the potential to blow up, it was awkward but in the end we held it together and let what was seeking to happen come forth.


As a result we now have a new vision and a commonly agreed upon direction for us to continue walking towards together.

As we broke camp, we left our e-mail addresses and phone numbers with each other.  CURE will enter them into a data base and we will work with the Chippewa County Historical Society and the Lac qui Parle Historical Society, the civil war re-enactors,  Reggie LaBatte and others to walk down the road together towards these ideas – bringing in new people along the way – keeping it fun – leading with curiosity – suspending judgment – doing things together.


This is how we create a future we all desire.