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Dakota 38: Documentary captures journey of healing old wounds

By Lailani Upham

Jim and Alberta Miller answer questions and listen to comments at the Polson Showboat on the film, Dakota 38. It won two awards at the FLIC and prompted deep conversation at the Q and A. (Leslie Camel) Jim and Alberta Miller answer questions and listen to comments at the Polson Showboat on the film, Dakota 38. It won two awards at the FLIC and prompted deep conversation at the Q and A. (Leslie Camel)

POLSON — Jim Miller, a Native spiritual leader and Vietnam veteran, found himself in a dream riding horseback across the great plains of South Dakota as way of healing and reconciliation.

The film, based on that dream, “Dakota 38,” won Best Documentary and the People’s Choice award at the Second Annual Flathead Lake International Cinemafest last month.

The film documentary has been winning awards across the Nation and across the globe. However, the winning is not seen as a prize, or anything to be gained in the film industry; in fact, the film is not for sale. It is a gift.

“Dakota 38” was created in line with Native healing practices and in honoring of the ceremony, the screening and distribution of the film is a gift, according to Miller.

“When you have dreams, you know when it comes from the Creator. You just know. As any recovered alcoholic, I made believe that I didn’t get it. I tried to put it out of my mind, yet it’s one of those dreams that bothers you night and day.” Miller said.

Alberta Iron Cloud Miller, Jim’s wife, recalled when her husband shared his dream with her, “I always know when it is a significant dream, he goes, ‘I’ve got to tell you this, I don’t know what it means.’ He started telling me he was directed to make these offerings around the horse and the horse would carry these offerings, and these offerings were for all the men that were hung in Mankato.”

Miller said although he and his wife were advisors on the set, the directors of the movie were the 38, plus two, that were hung three years later in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862.

Millers dream captures the spiritual burden of the 1862 war for the Dakota.

The atrocities of the war dominates the film, as many have witnessed and walked away with – however, not only the yoke is felt but the love, reconciliation and healing is present.

The 1862 conflict started over broken promises of food and other goods that the United States government made to the Dakota in exchange for land. The fighting included battles at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm.

When it was all over, hundreds of Dakota warriors were arrested and sentenced to death. They were charged mainly with killing civilians. The Dakota were evicted from Minnesota, sent to live on reservations in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Some ended up in Canada as well.

Miller’s dream came to life and riders from all over the plains and a far came to ride in the middle of fierce winter conditions from Crow Creek, South Dakota to Mankato, Minnesota, and a 330-mile trek.

The journey followed different places that Miller saw in his dream.

However, the film, produced by Smooth Feather production and by filmmaker Silas Hagerty is not meant to promote any organization or be affiliated with any political or religious group.

The ride and film was to simply encourage healing and reconciliation, Miller explained.

When Miller woke in his dream he found himself standing on the riverbank in Minnesota and saw 38 of his Dakota ancestors hanged. At the time of the dream, Miller said he knew nothing of the largest mass execution in United States history.

The execution was ordered by President Abraham Lincoln.

The dream came in 2005.

The ride was documented in 2008.

The film was released in 2012.

Miller says he didn’t calculate the timing of the process of how it all came together. The film was not launched after completion due to funding, but Miller says it happened when it was supposed to.

When it was released, it fell on the 150-year anniversary of the December 26, 1862 mass execution of 38 warriors.

The ride brings the viewer on a healing journey of the historical trauma of genetic depression that has been passed on from generation to generation. However, there is a power that is felt of reconciliation and healing that only love can do. According to Miller the ride is the opportunity to tell people along the way to spread love and the message of forgiveness – on both sides: the wasichu’s (white people) and the Native people.

Hagerty, a young Caucasian filmmaker, met Miller in 2005 at a sweat lodge on the coast of Maine, where they instantly began a friendship. Miller said the making of the film began there.

The was no money at the time of filming but Hagerty admitted he knew it was something he was supposed to do. After the two began sharing and talking, Miller told Hagerty the ride had to be filmed to be carried on to help the next generation.

Hagerty accepted.

In a 2012 interview with Hagerty by Richard Whittaker on Works and Conversations magazine, Hagerty shares his entire journey experience about how he was “led” to Jim and the making of the “ceremony.”

“I met Jim Miller in 2005 at a sweat lodge on the coast of Maine. That’s where I grew up. I’d lost a few friends in a short period of time and it really got me thinking about life and death. I ended up making a film about that in college. One of the subjects of that film was Erik Galuza and it was his father who invited me to the sweat lodge. Erik had taken his own life. We had some footage of him out on a horse ranch in Montana. It’s powerful footage because he’s full of life riding through these beautiful landscapes and within a year he’d taken his own life. I didn’t know Erik. He was a friend of a friend. So his father, Jeff, wanted to thank me because part of putting that film together was healing for him and his wife and family. And I met Jim Miller there.”

Galuza is not Native American; however, he had been introduced to Miller and was drawn toward Native ceremonies and spirituality Hagerty said.

It was after the sweat where Hagerty felt Miller singled him out and took him to the side and shared his dream.

“He had seen a film I’d made in college about death and dying. And after dinner he said, ‘I’m wondering if you could help me to make a film to connect to our youth.’ He was really clear that was where they really needed to focus with the healing. It was one of those things where chills go up your spine. I was just blown away by the whole story and I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about this hanging. And so that was the beginning of the journey of the film,” Hagerty said.

Hagerty said the story not only struck a huge chord in him but he felt the powerful presence in Miller.

“I think part of that presence is his connection to a lot of intense struggles in his life. He talks about that in the film—his time in Viet Nam and his time in Leavenworth (Prison). He’s told me that in the past, ‘I used to wear a pair of cowboy boots that were a couple of sizes too small so that I could feel the pain.’ He was in a pretty rough state after going to Viet Nam and after going to prison.”

Hagerty adds, “That one image of him putting on those boots that are too small has always stuck with me. To see from that state to now, where whenever he introduces himself to any group of people, he always tells everybody that he loves them. And he really means it! It’s a powerful energy he’s been able to align himself with—probably largely due to his journey and how intense it’s been.” In the film one of the warriors, Medicine Bottle’s great-great grandson, Mickey Peters speaks on the sacredness of the horse and the rider and why it is important in the healing ceremony.

“This horse has the six directions that we use in our ceremonies. The two front legs represent the west and the north; the two back legs represent the east and the south. The head points up, the ears point up, represents up above the tail points downward toward mother earth. When you put those six things together it creates a sacred center,” he said.

He says, “It’s a sacredness you can only have with these six directions. And you can pray while your on your horse, you can think of a lot of things. Some people can remember things that ancestors went through. It’s the horse leading the way because of its healing power.”

Miller says in the film, “We can’t blame the wasichus anymore. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs. We’re killing our own people. That’s what this ride is about, is healing.”

According to the film crew, Dakota 38 is the story of their journey- the blizzards they endure, the Native and Non-Native communities that house and fed them along the way, and the dark history they are beginning to wipe away.

“First of all, working to create this film has been challenging, to say the least. I’m not a Native American. I don’t have any direct ancestral connections to those traditions. So I really had to learn a lot and really listen a lot. From the beginning, we worked in a very collaborative way with a production team made up of both Native and non-Native folks. There was some resistance at the beginning to my being there. Someone even said, ‘We’ve had enough white people make movies about us and we don’t want you here.’ My response was, ‘Well, Jim is the one who asked me to be here. You should talk to Jim.’ So it hasn’t been an easy journey—and still isn’t, in some points. But there’s one part in the film where Jim says, ‘Nobody here is higher or better than anybody. We’re all equal.’ Every time I hear that it kind of chokes me up. We were all working together in the humblest way possible.”

Hagerty said he spent a lot time in the editing process trying to figure out how to start the movie.

“I spent a big chunk of the editing time in the woods in Maine. It was powerful being that close to nature. And there was one day where I basically sat on top of this mountain for a long time looking for direction around how to start the film. And after a long time sitting there, the message that came was that the horse should be the first thing that should be seen,” he said in his Works and Conversations interview.

“Right at the beginning of the ride, the first day, we stopped to see these horses. This horse came right up to the lens and you see it blowing a breath on the lens. It’s really welcoming you into this ceremony, this ride. That’s the power of the horse. They really have a healing component to them.” “That first morning we wanted to get a shot of everyone riding along the river in Lower Brule, South Dakota. So I hiked up onto this ridgeline. It was overcast and the light wasn’t all that great. But I set up the camera and zoomed in to frame a shot of the riders down below coming into the frame from the left. So I’m zoomed in and I’m waiting. I see the riders out of the corner of my eye and they’re about to ride into the frame. And right then, all of the sudden, the sun just broke through the clouds with this beautiful light! It turned this flat, gray image I had on the camera into something really beautiful.”

Hagerty said it was if a director said more light was needed here and boom the sun came out at that time on the riders. “The craziest thing is, all of the sudden a group of other horses comes into the frame running wild. Who are these guys?! Where did they come from? Now these horses are running right alongside of the riders. And then, all of the sudden, this huge flock of birds appears and swoops over and dives back down. I’m just sitting there thinking, Holy Smoke! This is intense! It was like an orchestrated event. It was so amazing. Every time I see this shot in the film, I can’t believe how beautiful it looks. And I don’t even know how that all worked.”

He said that set in motion so many things that happened in the film that just can’t be explained. “Every step of the way we’ve been following these ceremonial ways. It’s an offering. Everyone donated their time, and we’re giving this film away. So we worked to do our best and then just watched for the signs to show us where this was supposed to go.”

According to Hagerty the film crew did not know if it was going to be a full-length movie. “I didn’t know the plan, and it was cold as hell. I was just there filming everything and doing my best, hanging out of the window of this Pontiac we got from a friend and filming these horses and these different ceremonies. Every time I had a question, I’d ask Jim, ‘What should we do here?’ And his response was always, ‘Well, first of all buddy, I want you to know I love you.’” Hagerty said he told him that with a laugh. “Then he’d say, ‘You know what to do.’”

“That’s always what he said which, at the time, didn’t feel all that helpful. But there’s something really powerful about it.”

Peters said, when you place a man or woman on a horse you give it that seventh direction which is the center of all things. It represents that everything is related and in balance. When it is all put together you are able to create power as you move forward.

The ride has evolved into a One Nation One Voice Prayer Ride of 3,600 miles for 2014, where a procession of people that will be led by horse from the mouth of the Columbia River from the Nez Perce Nation to Washington D.C. to deliver a message to President Obama and the U.S. Congress on behalf of all indigenous peoples to protect the water, air, and natural law for the future generations.

For more information or to get a copy of Dakota 38, visit It can also be viewed in its entirety in high-definition on Youtube.

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