Pike Island ought to be the perfect place for a novice cross-country skier like me. Bounded by the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the island is flat–no hills, no moguls, no sharp twisty turns. This desolate wooded island is also close to home, just a seven-minute car ride from the center of Saint Paul. Only the occasional planes overhead remind you that urban life is just around the corner.
The closeness to the city may explain the park’s amenities. There’s a lodge with heat and a drinking fountain, an after-hours port-a-potty that smells like fallen snow, and parking just a few feet from the trailhead. Yet I am afraid to ski on Pike Island. I am afraid because the island is haunted. Haunted by the unrelenting echoes of women and children who suffered here one long-ago winter.
In the fall after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, hundreds of Dakota women and children were force-marched for seven days to Fort Snelling from their reservation in western Minnesota. That winter, over fifteen hundred Dakota were detained on Pike Island below the fort. Under military patrol and with only thin blankets, the prisoners watched this wooded island fill with snow.
Dozens never lived to see the snow melt or spring arrive. Those who did survive the long winter endured starvation, rape, and disease. Hardest of all was the heartbreak of not knowing whether their husbands, their fathers, and their sons, shackled in chains in prisoner-of-war camps further south, were still alive. Exile was the reward for survival. When the ice melted on the rivers, the Pike Island survivors were loaded onto boats and moved out of the state, out of their homeland.
Makoce, pronounced mah-koh-chay, means homeland in the Dakota language. The makoce of the Dakota is the land surrounding the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. It is the land we call the Twin Cities today. In 1863, over fifteen hundred Dakota women, children, and elders were held in a concentration camp at the heart of their makoce. From this frigid base of horror they were exiled.
After the Dakota were gone, non-Natives like my own ancestors took the rest of their land and built the schools where we educate our young. We built the farms and the companies that feed our people. We strengthened a government that serves and protects. We even designated leisure lands like Pike Island, where we can cross-country ski on a winter’s afternoon. We’ve built so much over the makoce of Minnesota’s first people that it’s easy to forget that this is the Dakota homeland. It’s easy to forget that after 150 years, we’re visitors in another people’s ancient holy land.
When I pole ahead in grooved tracks designed for pleasure and thread my way alongside the frozen rivers of beauty, I feel the eyes of the Dakota women and children who endured that long-ago winter. They are watching me. When I watch the deer rummage through the snow for buried roots and when I watch the woods fill up with snow, I hear their cries reverberate like a sharp whistle through the barren river oaks.
Part of me wants to turn away from this chilling echo. I can’t. Each time I visit the island for a winter ski, their uneasy song sounds louder than the last visit. The women ask me to stop, to listen, and to witness their pain with the tenderness of a mother swaddling a child who may not make it through the winter. When I unstrap the bindings on my boots and reload the skis and poles into the back of my car, I’m not weightless and free. Their raw grief lingers, awaiting release, like river water under the icy surface. The women plead to me, “Remember our story in the snow as if your life depends on it.”
It does. For until we remove the bindings on the Dakota people who have returned home and heal the tragedy that lingers in our land and rivers, the past may continue to haunt us all.