Dakota Nation Unity Rides and the Importance of Being “Heart In”

“The šúŋka wakáŋ, the horses - they make people happy. They are good for healing.”

Helena Mazawasicuna tells me about the sacred role of the horse in Dakota culture.

“Horses give people hope and strength. They carry our prayers and emotions. They know when they are needed.”

Helena is a resident of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation (SVDN) and an operator at the Sioux Valley Petro-Canada located on the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation near Griswold, Manitoba. Last year, Helena spoke with me about the meaning of Orange Shirt Day and how non-Indigenous Canadians can take steps towards Indigenous awareness and reconciliation. I am grateful that Helena is back to share information about two recent Unity Rides, organized by members of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.

“We will do Dakota Nation Unity Rides for various causes: MS, Kidney Donor Awareness, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), the 60s Scoop. Because horses are sacred, a lot of (Indigenous) people want their funerals to be pulled by horses.”

The Sioux Valley Petro-Canada and Dakota Nation Unity Riders organized two Unity Rides in memory of the Indigenous children found at residential school sites in Kamloops, BC and Brandon, MB and to honour the survivors of Residential Schools. Helena is one of the riders.

“To be on the horse carrying the prayer is so powerful. You go with the vision and flow. You are one with the horse.”

Once the Unity Riders arrive at their destination, they share a meal with the spirits of the children.

“Whatever we’re eating, we share it. For kids, we put candy on top of their bowls – all kids like candy. They eat first. Then after we pray, our group will eat. When you feed their spirits, you can feel it. Our children want to be heard from the other side. They want to be reunited with their families.”

On the Petro-Canada Instagram account, we feature several photos and videos, including Helena’s, from the two Unity Rides.

The recent and ongoing discoveries of the bodies of children in unmarked graves at Residential Schools across the country bring up old wounds. But Melissa Tacan – also a member of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation – is hopeful that people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are more open to talking and to telling the truth.

“(Growing up) I always felt like this was something I shouldn’t ask about. But now, it’s all coming out. My grandmother has started talking about it for the first time… Maybe all the kids will finally be found. Be recognized. Get closure. People will actually care.”

Melissa, a manager at the SVDN Petro-Canada, also spoke with me last year about Orange Shirt Day. I’m grateful that she is sharing her thoughts and hopes about what the outcomes will be from the discoveries at Residential Schools.

“Our families want to know what happened to their children, their brothers, their sisters. There is a lot of history (about the treatment of Indigenous people) that hasn’t been told. We need to speak and to be heard about what happened… People seem to be more receptive now. In the past, this hasn’t been important enough. But now is the time for all of us to be ‘heart in’.”

Melissa’s phrase calling for all of us to be “heart in” really struck a cord with me. And it aligned with something Helena said as well, “If you’re going to care, you need to recognize that there is a lot (to uncover).”

Like many Canadians, I was ignorant of the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples by our government and our religious institutions, particularly what the Indian Act authorized. If you’re looking for one book that clearly and succinctly explains how the Indian Act has impacted (and continues to impact) Indigenous peoples in Canada, check out 21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph - founder of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., and member of the Gwawaenuk Tribe, located in the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast region of British Columbia, Canada. The book is based on an article he wrote for CBC with the same name.

As always, I am thankful that Helena and Melissa shared their stories with me and allow me to share those stories with our readers. I encourage you to check out the photos and videos featured on our Instagram – the healing power of the horses, the šúŋka wakáŋ, really does come through.

~Kate T. (she/her)

Related stories.