Former MCC Central States Executive Director John Stoesz of Newton, Kan., is advocating for Dakota land justice as he rides his recumbent trike 2,000 miles across southern Minnesota during September and October.
MCC Photo/Silas Crews

Former MCC Central States Executive Director John Stoesz of Newton, Kan., is advocating for Dakota land justice as he rides his recumbent trike 2,000 miles across southern Minnesota during September and October.

GLENCOE, Minn – As John Stoesz pedals his recumbent trike down County Road 22 in southern Minnesota, he faces two realities – the dedication of today’s farmers to the land and the conspicuous absence of Dakota people on their ancestral land.

He passes row after row of perfectly straight lines of corn, hugging each side of the road, slowly drying down for picking. More than 150 years ago, buffalo would have roamed here, drinking from the “sky-tinted water” – the meaning of Minnesota as named by the Dakota.

The richness of the black soil that will soon yield a profitable harvest of tall corn and bountiful soybeans stands in contrast to the forceful evacuation of the Dakota people from the land in 1862.

The former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States is calling attention to the injustices perpetrated on the Dakota people and the subsequent advantages to white settlers and their descendants as he bicycles 2,000 miles through former Dakota land.

Stoesz strategically planned his September and October trip through 40 counties, where he coordinates interviews with newspaper reporters and chats with people along the way. Halfway through the trip, he had already conducted 18 interviews in 20 towns, including his hometown of Mountain Lake, Minn.

“Many of us continue to benefit from the land that was settled by our European ancestors,” Stoesz wrote in emails to newspaper editors. “As we know, this land was taken from Dakota people, almost all of whom were killed or forcibly removed from the state.”

The forced exodus of the Dakota people and subsequent bounty paid for Dakota scalps took place during and after the U.S.-Dakota war of 1862. About 800 white settlers and an unknown number of Dakota were killed in the war. Many more Dakota people, including women and children, died in captivity and on the forced march out of the state.

Just 12 years after the war, Stoesz’s great-grandfather, a Mennonite immigrant farmer from the Ukraine, received land through the railroad like many other immigrants at that time. Stoesz’s grandfather later owned 320 acres, also former Dakota land, near his father.

Last year, Stoesz’s family decided to sell their grandfather’s farm, forcing him to decide what to do with profit of land taken from the Dakota.

Stoesz knew about the injustices through his work with MCC Central States’ Indigenous Vision Center, which aims to address systemic injustices by building relationships between Indigenous people and others, and among Indigenous people.

Through an Indigenous Vision Center educational exercise, Loss of Turtle Island (see related article), Stoesz learned about the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal proclamations that gave European Christian explorers the freedom to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all … pagans whatsoever.”

Portions of that proclamation became part of U.S. law and influenced the belief that the western states were destined to be “discovered.” Many white people today continue to feel a sense of entitlement toward the land, said Stoesz, who now lives in Newton, Kan.

“Through the land, I think I have benefited from an oppressive system. It’s not that my ancestors were directly involved in the oppression in the worst violent ways, but they certainly benefitted from it and I benefit from it,” he said.

As Stoesz considered what to do with his inheritance, he was drawn to the Biblical example of Zacchaeus, who gave half his money to the poor.

“I think Zacchaeus recognized that he benefitted from an oppressive system, the tax collection system. He realized that to join the Jesus movement and to become part of the community modeling the kingdom of God, he needed to make a change,” Stoesz said.

Through the counsel of the Indigenous Vision Center, Stoesz connected with Oyate Nipi Kte (The People Shall Live), a Minnesota-based organization focusing its work on the recovery of Dakota traditional knowledge and culture. Stoesz decided to give half of his profit for Indigenous land justice, including a contribution toward the purchase of land for Oyate Nipi Kte.

Oyate Nipi Kte founder Waziyatawin said, “It has been extraordinarily important for me to see a beneficiary of Dakota land loss take this step because it helps restore my sense of hope in the possibility of justice for our people. He has modeled a way to help make amends because he has focused on the issue of land recovery. We hope that others will be inspired to contribute to reparative justice projects.”

The bicycle tour is an example of a practical action people can take when they learn about Native American issues through the Indigenous Vision Center, said Erica Littlewolf, program coordinator. “The Indigenous Vision Center wants people to make these connections in ways that are meaningful for them, within their context and on the land they are familiar with.”

As Stoesz talks to people about his recumbent trike and his trip along the way at local cafes or hotels, he receives one of three reactions to his cause.

“One, they simply want to ignore the issue; two, they argue with me; three, they are interested in the topic. I’m interested in connecting with the people in category three because the goal is to raise awareness,” Stoesz said during an interview with The McLeod County Chronicle, Glencoe, Minn.

“My argument here is for reparative justice because justice was not done and I continue to benefit from the injustice. Reparations should be made,” challenged Stoesz.

Tina Schrag is communications coordinator for MCC Central States; Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.