Beloved Child by Diane Wilson

By Morgan O’Neal

Diane Wilson’s Beloved Child is more than a collection of stories. It is a sort of shape-shifting storytelling motivated by the author’s urgent response to the present predicament of Native peoples, specifically the Dakota people of South Dakota who were forcibly relocated after the bloody 1862 Dakota War and have since been searching for a lost identity. Wilson herself has been engaged in seeking her own personal identity in the wake of a childhood in which her Native heritage was repressed and overwhelmed by her father’s Swedish background.

The book is built around six interviews with Native people who are consciously involved in rebuilding their lives in the context of a past lost to the genocidal repression of cultural traditions, not a symbolic genocide and the appropriation of narratives and stories but the real horror of mass murder. “Far greater even than the loss of land or the relentless coercion to surrender cultural traditions, the deaths of over six hundred children by the spring of 1864 were an unbearable tragedy. Nearly 150 years after the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, Dakota people are still struggling with the effects of this unimaginable loss.”

Wilson’s previous book, Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, published by the Minnesota Historical Society, was an autobiographical account of rebuilding her own Native past as a Mdewakanton descendant whose mother was enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation. This book prepared her to articulate the same truth to others. Beloved Child is an exercise in healing and revealing; it is history, biography, psychology, and anthropology, and it succeeds on all fronts.

Wilson explores the work of several modern Dakota people who are continuing to raise what in the Dakota cultural tradition are respectfully called “beloved children.” Gabrielle Tateyuskanskan is an artist and poet; Clifford Canku is a spiritual leader and language teacher; Alameda Rocha is a boarding school survivor; Harley and Sue Eagle are Canadian activists; and Delores Brunelle is an Ojibwe counselor. Each of these humble but powerful people teaches children to believe in the “genius and brilliance” of Dakota culture as a way of surviving historical trauma. It should be required reading for parents and educators.

The title of the book is borrowed from Ella Cara Deloria’s work, Waterlily. Among the Dakota people, the Beloved Child ceremony marks the especially tender affection that parents feel toward a child whose life has been threatened by real events. In a modern world where far too many children live in quiet desperation because of their loss of identity as a result of colonization and the consequences of Residential Schools, not to mention ongoing problems of poverty and addiction which continue to claim the lives of so many Native children.

The idea of raising “beloved children” in the context of historical trauma motivates Wilson’s exploration of modern Native American culture. Each chapter is a different narrative and dialogue in response to the question of how Beloved Children can be raised today. The1862 Dakota War is nearing its 150th anniversary, and Wilson points out that the historic relocation of Native Americans into South Dakota and creation of modern monuments like Fort Snelling have an effect on Native American understanding of their own culture. The bi-annual Dakota Commemorative March commemorates the forced expulsion of Native Americans from Minnesota land. Wilson interviewed participants in the march to offer readers an understanding of how an event that happened nearly 150 years ago can still have a profound effect upon Native American identity today.

Wilson’s work has appeared in a number of American periodicals such as The American Indian Quarterly, The Reader, The View from the Loft, Wolf Head Quarterly, Minnesota Women’s Press, and Pioneer Press. She is a past editor of Minnesota Literature, past board chair of SASE: The Write Place, and founder and editor of The Artist’s Voice. Her book Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past won a 2006 Minnesota Book Award, and she is currently the Director of Operations for Dream of Wild Health in Hugo, Minnesota. Beloved Child is not just a very good book, it is a necessary book. The voices translated by Wilson in these stories and dialogues are strong voices not yet heard. This book is therapeutic in the real sense of psychological and emotional healing of historical trauma.