Bicyclist promotes Dakota land restoration
WORTHINGTON -- John Stoesz's passion for social justice and his Minnesota roots have led him to undertake a two-month bike tour of southern Minnesota to raise awareness about restoring Minnesota land for Dakota people..
Stoesz planned a route that will take him to 40 counties and county seats in southern Minnesota. He kicked off the trip by visiting Windom, Jackson, Worthington, Luverne and Pipestone this week.
"I enjoy doing this and at the same time want to promote awareness," he said. "Hopefully, those interested will want to learn more about the effort."
Stoesz, a resident of Newton, Kan., is undertaking the trip to promote Oyate Nipi Kte, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the recovery of traditional Dakota knowledge, developing initiatives for sustainable living based on Dakota environmental ethics, facilitating the understanding of the harmful effects of colonization, and empowering individuals and communities to resist colonization and strengthen Dakota nationhood.
As growing tensions between the Dakota people and European settlers continued to rise, war broke out in Minnesota in 1862. Countless Dakota people were subsequently killed, placed in concentration camps or moved to reservations primarily in South Dakota.
Many Dakota people consider Minnesota to be their homeland. Yet, after relocation, Dakota people reside on only about .01 percent of their ancestral homeland according to the Oyate Nipi Kte website.
Stoesz served as the executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States for eight years and was drawn to the work of Oyate Nipi Kte after his experience with MCC's Indigenous Vision Center. He talked with his mother, a Mountain Lake resident, about restoring Dakota land about a year ago.
"Her reaction was, 'They deserve it, but it isn't going to happen,'" he said. "But it is happening. Money is being raised to purchase land, and for the Dakota people to recover their language and the ways of the Dakota people."
Stoesz is a descendant of German Mennonites who immigrated to southwest Minnesota in 1874 and were the first Caucasian settlers in Watonwan County. Although his ancestors arrived after the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, Stoesz still feels responsible for the hardships the Dakota experienced.
"(My ancestors) had nothing to do with the Dakota War, but they benefited from the land," he said.
Stoesz is often asked why a Caucasian person would undertake this bike ride.
"To me, it seems clear that white people had everything to do with the forced removal of the Dakota people from the state," he said. "White people can do something now to share the land. To me, that seems reasonable. Many of us still benefit from the land, so how do we reconcile that?"
Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War, and Stoesz and his wife, Marcia, attended multiple ceremonies commemorating the event.
"Last year there were ceremonies and words," he said. "This year is a time for acting and doing something."
Stoesz said the reactions of the Dakota people he has talked to has been positive. A group came to Mountain Lake to send Stoesz off -- something he didn't expect but was pleased to see.
"One of them said, 'Because you're a white person, there are things you can do for us ... like talk to other white people about this effort," Stoesz remembered.
In speaking with other Caucasians, Stoesz noted they tend to have one of three reactions.
"They either want to ignore it, they want to argue, or there are those who are interested and want to learn more," Stoesz said. "It's the third group that I care about. I don't know how large it is, but it's a significant group."
For more information about the efforts of Oyate Nipi Kte, visit their website at http://oyatenipikte.org.