ecember 26 is Boxing day on the calendar, but for the indigenous community of north america, december 26 is a day of deep mourning and sadness.
on that day in 1862, 38 dakota men were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest single mass execution in u.S. history.
The hangings were the result of conflict between the dakota people and settlers.
according to Mark charles, Washington correspondent for native news online: in the fall of 1862, after the united States failed to meet its treaty obligations with the dakota people, several dakota warriors raided an american settlement, killed five settlers and stole some food. This began a period of armed conflict between some of the dakota people, the settlers, and the u.S. Military. after more than a month, several hundred of the dakota warriors surrendered and the rest fled north to what is now canada. Those who surrendered were quickly tried in military tribunals, and 303 of them were condemned to death.”
With the men tried by military commission, the executions had to be formally ordered by President abraham lincoln. Three hundred and three deaths seemed too genocidal for President lincoln so he modified the criteria of what charges warranted a death sentence. Eventually 39 dakota men were sentenced to die. on december 26, 1862, by order of President lincoln, and with nearly 4,000 white american settlers looking on, the largest mass execution in the history of the united States took place.
i raise this, not just because of the injustice which was done but because in the united church hymn book, Voices united, there is a hymn #308 titled “Many and great, o god, are your Works”. it was written by Joseph renville, a fur trader and Bible translator at lac que Parle in Minnesota.
The words of the last verse are this testimony.
grant unto us communion with you, o star-abiding one.
come unto us and dwell with us,
with you are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end, eternal life with you. What is not mentioned in any of the performance notes in Voicesunited nor in any of the background notes i have found anywhere, is why this hymn matters.
according to the teaching of dakota Elders, “...there was one song that we sing in church, that they sang at the hanging when they were going to get hung in 1862. We still sing that song. it goes: “Many and great, oh god, are your works, maker of heaven and earth.” and it talks about all things good: “Thanks for giving us this day,” and it’s beautiful. it’s about now that they’re going to be going to see their maker - i guess they were holding hands when they were singing this - and that was their last song. But they were happy to be going and to take care of those left behind.”
and that’s why this hymn matters.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister