Posted by: hansgustafson | February 1, 2013

Encountering the Painful Past in the Present: A “Cloudy Water” Spirituality of Remembering the US-Dakota War of 1862

Pike Island

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. war which resulted in the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato (MN) on December 26,1862.

It remains the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. It resulted in the interment of over 1600 Dakota (mostly women, children, and elderly men) at a concentration camp on Pike Island, which lies at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Many of those held eventually died due to disease, hunger, and poor living conditions.

I have a seasonal ritual of trying to remember events and practices of the places that I call home. This includes revisiting places that I consider personally sacred, since they hosted memorable and formative events of my past (e.g., a particular lake, childhood neighborhood, where I met my wife, etc.). This revisiting constitutes spiritual experience. Included are the powerful (and terrifying) places that are connected to pain and suffering, both personal and historical.

Recently I visited a few of the naturally beautiful places (such as Pike Island) along the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the heart of Minneapolis/St. Paul. I drive over these rivers twice a day on my way to work, and usually without much thought about the place beyond its natural beauty – which (re)presents the divine in a unique yet ordinary way.

My experience can be very different from that of others, especially the local Native peoples. After listening to the stories of others (which here includes those of the Native communities), their memories become grafted into my own. They tell stories about this place (which remains at the center of their creation stories), and how they hear the cries of their passed ancestors who were marched into the concentration camp.

These stories, which from their mouths are new to my ears, contribute to my experience of this place going forward. To be sure, the place remains no less sacred nor is it somehow spiritually depraved.  However, now my experience of this place includes the very real pain which remains spiritually present from the historical past.

The Dakota word Minnesota intends something like “smokey water,” or “cloudy water,” or “milky water.” It does not mean “sky-blue waters” as perhaps Hamm’s Brewery has suggested. Experiencing and reflecting on the pains and joys of a given place serves as my attempt at articulating a “cloudy or muddy water spirituality.” It is not always pretty; it is often messy and muddied.

Taking seriously the glorious and terrifying presence of God in all things can often be painful, but no less sacred nor spiritual.  In recognizing the past in the present, and by grafting the stories of others into our own, we encounter, in particular places, both the divine and the people that have tread there now and before.

This pansacramental spirituality of striving to find the reality of the divine in all things need not be an overly romantic view. Rather, it serves as an attempt (albeit it often naïve and inadequate) to foster an everyday practice that takes seriously the diverse presence of the sacred in the mundane (profane).

This includes the downright troubling, the reality of pain and suffering in the world, and God’s presence therein. The goal of this spiritual practice (which I am admittedly not very good at) is the daily recognition of being present in places of encounter, while remaining equally aware of their histories (both painful and promising).

Variations of this article were first published as Everyday Spirituality: Cloudy Water on Theoblogy on 7/31/2012, on on 10/1/2012, and in the Jay Phillips Center Jan 2013 Newsletter.

Image courtesy of


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