Thomas stood on the shore of Ogechie Lake, gazing down its distinctive
hooked shoreline, lost in thought. He had never seen this lake
before. He traveled to Mille Lacs County from Nebraska, where
he lives on a reservation along the Missouri River as a member
of the Santee Dakota Tribe. But Minnesota, and this lake in particular,
was, to him, home.
was on a mission to scout his tribe's ancestral lands, an expedition
that covered a wide swath of Minnesota. It was a small but important
first step in reintroducing the Santee Dakota to their original
homeland. "The lands and waters here are very sacred to us," he
said. "They have a meaning that no one else will understand. And
in those meanings are the teachings that the creator has given Dakota
people as a birthright."
to face the saddle-shaped burial mounds rising from the trees in
the distance, Thomas identified the clearing between the shoreline
and the woods as the village site of his direct forebear, Chief
Wapahasa. "This is
where we first lived before we were exiled."
centuries the Dakota Nation lived in this village and a handful
of others along Wakpa Wakan (Holy River), the waterway that runs
from Lake Mille Lacs (Mde Wakan, Spirit Lake) to the Mississippi
River. In 1745, they were driven into the Minnesota and Mississippi
river valleys by Anishinabe tribes invading from the east with French
firearms. Then, in 1863, the Dakota were forcibly removed again
after a bloody five-week conflict known in textbooks as the Dakota
Uprising, a tragic chapter of Dakota history from which the nation
has yet to recover. Today the descendants of the expelled tribes
live primarily on two reservations: the Nebraska location and the
Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Buffalo County, home to
Crow Creek, is the poorest county in the United States, with a per
capita income of $5,213. Unemployment stands at 57 percent and many
homes lack plumbing and kitchen facilities. The Santee Dakota Reservation
in northeastern Nebraskaestablished in 1866 by Dakotas fleeing
Crow Creek for more favorable living conditionsalso ranks
among the most impoverished communities in the United States. The
Dakota who live on tribal lands in Minnesota are largely descended
from "friendlies"a small group of Dakota families who, following
the U.S.-Dakota war, were deemed non-threatening and allowed to
return. They established four tiny reservations that represent an
infinitesimal fraction of their former Minnesota empire.
to any other ethnic group in Minnesota, Dakota people experience
shorter life spans, higher rates of infant mortality, higher incidences
of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and poorer general health.
They also grapple with skyrocketing suicides. The suicide rate among
American Indians in Minnesota is two to three times higher than
any other ethnic group. Among American Indians in Minnesota ages
1534, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. Suicide
rates for American Indian youth between the ages of 1015 are
four times higher than those for all other races combined in this
and poor health are not the typical state of affairs for the Dakota.
Prior to exile, they thrived in Minnesota, having developed a way
of life based on a sophisticated understanding of the rich natural
world around them. They were canoe builders, farmers, healers, hunters
and gatherers whose prosperity allowed them to develop a complex
and enduring spiritual worldview, and a comfortable lifestyle that
carried them through the long, harsh Minnesota winters.
believes that the only way for the Dakota to regain their former
status as a prosperous, powerful and healthy nation is for his people
to embrace their traditional culture. To that end he works with
tribal elders on the Santee Reservation crafting a Dakota immersion
curriculum with the hope that young tribal members will once again
grow up speaking their native tongue. Because the language evolved
along the lakes and rivers of Minnesota, Thomas says, it's crucial
to revitalization efforts that Dakota youth reestablish strong ties
to their ancestral home. "Our language is almost gone," he says.
"It is fading away. Our ceremonies are being slashed, generation
to generation. Some ceremonies are completely lost."
is one voice in a growing chorus of indigenous cultural leaders
who agree that the reclamation of traditional landsincluding
prime real estate in the Twin Cities areais crucial to solving
the Dakota crisis. Places like Lake Calhoun, Uptown, Loring Park,
Nicollet Island, Minnehaha Creek, Lake Minnetonka, Harriet Island,
Grey Cloud Island, Mendota and the picturesque and pricy Minnesota,
Mississippi and St. Croix river valleys. There are innumerable forces
working against the reclamation of Dakota Lands, but tribal leaders
like Thomas say they must succeedthat the very future of the
Dakota Nation hinges upon it.
I go home to Santee," Thomas says, "I will tell the relatives that
everything we seek for healingthe herbs, the medicines and
the stonesare still there in Minnesota, and we must return
to them. I will tell them to remember that all of Minnesota is Dakota
land. Even though they took it from us, one day we will have it
back. One day it will be ours again, when the time is right."
Indian land is all around us in the Twin Cities. From the backyards
of Bloomington to the white cliffs of St. Paul, Dakota bones lie
beneath burial mounds. The names of the places where we live bear
Dakota names: Chief Wapahasa, gave us "Wabasha." "Minneapolis" is
a hybrid of the Dakota word for "water," mni, and the Greek word
for "city." Wakpa Cistina (Little River)now called Minnehaha
(Waterfall) Creekwas once a jealously guarded trail that led
Dakota people from the Mississippi River to villages, wild rice
beds and ceremonial grounds on the secret inland sea, Mde Mni Ia
Tanka (The Water They Speak of as Large, Lake Minnetonka). Near
I-494 and Post Road, where the growl of jet airplanes blasting off
the international tarmac now makes bones tremble, one can still
make out Taku Wakan Tipi (Dwelling Place of the Gods), the small
earthen prominence known during pioneer times as Morgan's Hill,
believed to be home of Unktehi, god of the waters and underworld.
The area is now home to a SuperAmerica.
Avenue in Minneapolis follows an ancient footpath that, for centuries,
connected Dakota villages on Mde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake, today
called Lake Calhoun) and Cedar Lake to Haha Wakpa (Waterfall River,
the Mississippi). Today this ancient trail is home to the largest
urban concentration of American Indians in the United States. If
you look beneath the overpasses and behind the decorative roadside
landscaping, you'll find evidence of the illnesses created by the
displacement of the Dakota people. Homelessness. Chronic alcoholism.
also find, within the storefronts and office buildings lining the
street, indigenous community members and professionals working for
an alphabet soup of tribal organizations and non-profit agenciesDIW,
OIC, MAIC, NACC, WIA, IHB, AIMto solve the issues that accompanied
the loss of indigenous lands to foreign invaders some 150 years
Lydia Caros, a pediatrician, is one of the professionals along Franklin
Avenue fighting these trends. For 26 years she has worked with American
Indian mothers in the Phillips neighborhood. Formerly a member of
the Indian Health Board Clinic's medical team, Caros left seven
years ago to help start the Native American Community Clinic, a
facility that allows her and other doctors to be creative in their
treatment of a particularly unhealthy segment of the population.
(The NACC runs the Running Wolf Fitness Centera free workout
facilityand offers nutrition classes and diabetes-friendly
breakfasts, providing healthful foods to those for whom proper eating
is a matter of life and limb). Caros says her patients remain at
the bottom rung of most health indicators because they're overwhelmed
with the challenges of adjusting to a lifestyle alien to the values
of their culture. "If people have terrible living conditions, if
they're in an abusive relationship, if they're not sure how they're
going to handle their kids who are also struggling, if they don't
have transportation, they don't know where the next money's coming
from to get food, then whether they've had a pap smear or an eye
exam is not very important to them," she says. "My patients tell
me, I have so much going on that I just can't be bothered
her schoolingat Iowa University and later at the Mayo ClinicCaros
"always intended to move to the third world." She was attracted
by the public health challenges in faraway countries. But a chance
meeting with Cesar Chavez at a Rochester, Minn., event altered her
trajectory from oversees to the inner city of Minneapolis. "We got
to talking and I told him that I was going to the third world,"
she says. "And I'll never forget the look on his face. He looked
at me very seriously and said, There's third world in this
years later, Caros is reinventing Native American health care. The
federal Indian Health Service has adopted some of the NACC's ideas
as best practices in Native communities. And yet, Caros says, despite
the efforts of its staff, the clinic has taken only baby steps in
changing health habits community-wide. Caros blames the usual suspects
for this: poverty, lack of access to health care and racism. The
clinic employs socials workers to help individuals deal with each
of these. But to deal with the "core issue that pervades everything,"
what Caros calls "that historical piece"the trauma of dislocation
and, in truth, genocidethe NACC opened a second facility last
July: a mental health clinic. "That historic piece has never been
dealt with, but it affects who they are, their relationships, and
who they'll become."
difficult for Caros to convince her patients to seek emotional therapy.
She says American Indians are no quicker to accept an "invisible
problem" than any other segment of the population. She tells her
patients, "If you had an accident and broke your leg you would never
walk around with it hoping it would get better. You would get help.
It's the same thing with emotional health; you can't just walk around
with it hurt and expect to do well."
Larson works just down the Ancient Traders Market parking lot from
NACC. For the past eight years, she's been in the trenches of the
health disparities battle, working for the state as Urban American
Indian Health Coordinator for the Office of Minority and Multicultural
Health. Larson says the Dakota people, due to the brutality of their
historic treatment, are afflicted with a sort of collective post-traumatic
stress disorder that "all the casino money in the world" can't cure.
can't pay for what years of oppression by the federal government
have done to the people," Larson says. "When driven from your homeland,
and your way of life that you held sacred, that your parents and
grandparents and all your people that came before held sacred, when
you are an exile in your own land, it changes you spiritually and
mentally. So much so that you end up with an affliction akin to
knowledge is not just theoretical to Larson; it is also personal.
Four years ago a young Dakota man, whom she had watched grow since
birth, threw himself in front of a truck on a Leech Lake Reservation
highway. "This was a 19-year-old who was very steeped in his traditions.
He had been pipe carrierthe keeper of a family's most sacred
objectfrom the time he was four. He had a girlfriend, and
they had a baby together. But he was so depressed that he jumped
in front of a truck. We see this kind of thing all the time. They
usually call these incidents accidental, but we know what is really
happening. These are suicides."
member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (Anishinabe) who has been
married into a Dakota family for nearly a decade, Larson says Dakota
people are up against a mountain of complex challenges unique to
them as a tribal nation. The only solution, she says, is a return
to traditional ways of being, which can only occur by reclaiming
the land upon which the people once thrived. "We need young people
to return to the river valleys of Minnesota, and have elders out
there with them who can call the plants and animals by their names,
and to tell the old creation stories again. We need to help young
people feel the magic of what it means to be a Dakota. Their disconnection
from their own homeland is what's causing all the problems, and
it's keeping them from being the Great Dakota Nation that they once
were, and could be again."
the intersection of Franklin and Bloomington, just east of Larson's
office, sits the Minneapolis American Indian Center, and within
it, LeMoine LaPointe, director of the Twin Cities Healthy Nations
Program, who has been quietly at work for the past three years helping
Dakota people do exactly what Larson is calling for: reclaiming
their lands, waterways, health and culture through what LaPointe
calls "indigenous health expeditions."
the six month "warm season," Healthy Nations leads Native people
on canoe journeys that retrace the routes once traveled by their
ancestors. Dakota participants are primarily led along the Minnesota,
Mississippi and St. Croix rivers in southern Minnesota, waterways
that outline the boundaries of Dakota homeland at the time of European
says the canoe is a powerful tool for rebuilding individuals, families
and communities. "In order for the canoe to be worthy to navigate
these waters, there has to be balance. To achieve that balance we
have to invoke a healthy mind, body and spirit. The occupants of
these canoes are required to have these qualities. This experience
is a microcosm of our own communities. So if we're engaged in a
multi-day canoe expedition, we're also engaged in the process of
community building in order to make the results of that experience
Nations seeks to recreate through these journeys the conditions
that were present when Dakota peopleperhaps the most sophisticated
canoe culture on the continentlived along the river valleys,
harvesting plants and animals and engaging in a sustainable lifestyle.
To this end, their canoe groups include three generations, with
younger people pulling more weight on the rivers and elders taking
leadership roles in camppreparing meals, leading discussions
and prayers and passing on stories around the campfire at night.
accomplished experiential-learning practitioner, LaPointe says putting
Native people in touch with the natural elements is the quickest
and most effective means of regaining a connection with the land
and the Dakota way of life. "I think, in its most simplistic and
practical application," he says, "this approach shows participants
that we, as a people, are all in the same boat."
believes that the Dakota people have lost nothing that cannot be
reclaimed as long as their feet still walk upon the land. "The essence
of our culture," he says, "is our connection with our mother the
was raised on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, in
a tiny reservation community called Little Crow's Camp, named after
a wife of Chief Little Crowthe leader of Dakota forces during
the 1862 warwho fled Minnesota during the hostilities seeking
refuge with her Lakota relations. Although Rosebud sits in the middle
of vast grasslands, LaPointe says growing up he heard many stories
about his people's roots in a land to the east that was full of
lakes and rivers. Many of these stories addressed his people's history
in the valley of Wakpa Mni Sota (Minnesota River), along which the
Dakota waged a war in 1862 against the United States, burning white
settlements like New Ulm and Upper Sioux Agency to the ground. It
was a desperate measure for the Dakota, who were starving even as
government stores of food on their reservation overflowed.
five weeks of combat, the surviving Dakota were rounded up and held
in Fort Snelling before being shipped out of the state. The government
imprisoned the Dakota men in a federal penitentiary in Iowa and
later hanged 38 of them in Mankato. It remains that largest mass
hanging in American history. The reverberations of that disastrous
chapter in Dakota history can still be felt. For some Dakota people,
the war seems like it was yesterday.
others, like Waziyatawin, the war continues. On August 16, 2008,
Waziyatawin (whose name means North Woman; until recently she went
by her English name, Angela Cavender-Wilson) entered Upper Sioux
Agency State Park during a reenactment of pioneer life circa 1858one
of dozens of special events held around the state last year to commemorate
Minnesota's 150th birthday. She was handcuffed, dragged through
the grounds by police officers, locked in squad car and whisked
away to Yellow Medicine County Jail in Granite Falls. The 40-year-old
Dakota author and educator was booked on the charge of disorderly
was repulsive to me as a Dakota person," says Waziyatawin's daughter,
18-year-old University of Minnesota student Autumn Cavender-Wilson,
who was also arrested. "They had the Minnesota First Regiment dressed-up
in Civil War period costume. That's what the soldiers wore when
they attacked our women and children, marched our people to Fort
Snelling and hanged 38 of our men."
is a member of the Upper Sioux Dakota Nation, whose community rests
along Yellow Medicine Creek on the Minnesota River, 240 river miles
upstream from St. Paula postage stamp of a reservation that
sits adjacent to Upper Sioux Agency State Park. A Cornell graduate
and professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University
and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Waziyatawin
traces her family's presence at Yellow Medicine Creek to 1851, when
her great-great grandfather, Chief Mazomani, a peacemaker during
the 1862 war, moved his village from what is now Jordan, Minn. Mazomani
is buried on a bluff high atop the river valley, just yards from
where Waziyatawin was arrested. This was old hat for the outspoken
warrior-academic, though: She has led similar protests at Fort Snelling,
Coldwater Springs in Minneapolis and along the route of the 1862
forced march of Dakota women and children from Lower Sioux to St.
only way to redress the crimes of genocide the Dakota Nation has
endured, Waziyatawin says, is through land reparations. In her latest
book, What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in
Dakota Homeland (Living Justice Press, 2008), she calls for the
return of millions of acres to the Dakota Nation, an argument met
with criticism from both sides of the mainstream/Dakota divide.
Land reparations are unreasonable, they say, a pot better left unstirred.
To which Waziyatawin responds:
readers dismiss this option out of hand, let me point out that land
reparations need not involve divesting white people of their private
land holdings. In the state of Minnesota, for example, about 22
percent of the land area is identified as public land.' This
includes federal agency lands, state agency lands, tax-forfeited
lands, and metro commissioned lands, totaling 11,836,375 acres.
That means Minnesotans and the federal government could return nearly
12 million acres of land to Dakota people tomorrow without touching
a single acre of privately held land."
her book was released late last year, Waziyatawin says she's been
approached many times by readers who call her demands extreme. "They
ask me, What's your fallback position? What do you really
want?' And I tell them the position described in the book is the
compromise. It means we're giving up three-quarters of our homeland
within the borders of the state of Minnesota today, and that is
a tall price to pay."
author also demands all repatriated land be returned in pristine
condition, so that Dakota people can use them as a base for subsistence
hunting and gathering, as they once did. She points out that all
four Dakota reservations within the state of Minnesota are unusable
for subsistence. Three of them (Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux and Shakopee)
are along the Minnesota River, which has been classified as one
of the five most polluted waterways in the United States. The fourth,
Prairie Island, is home to an Xcel Energy nuclear power plant and
its attendant radioactive waste.
also take Waziyatawin to task because, at first blush, it seems
she's thriving under the current state of affairs. She is a university
professor, she owns a home on the bluffs of the Minnesota River
and has managed to send her children to college. Despite appearances,
Waziyatawin says she hasn't escaped the brutal inheritance of Dakota
history. "There isn't a Dakota family that's not been touched by
issues of violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, chemical dependency,
poor health, early mortality and just hundreds of examples of racism,"
she says. "My family is no exception. These social ills are what
it means on a personal level to carry the legacy of genocide, ethnic
cleansing and colonization.
Stainbrook isn't surprised by the criticism aimed at Waziyatawin's
ideas. He's seen first hand the dubious reactions of many non-Indians
when Native people express their deep desire for land.
really doubt whether the government's very likely to respond to
her demands," says Stainbrook, who serves as executive director
of the Minnesota-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation, where he negotiates
land deals for tribes across the United States. In the past seven
years, ILTF has aided in the return of roughly 3,000 acres of land
to American Indian tribes. They're currently involved in negotiations
for some five million more.
himself Lakota (the western relatives of the Dakota), advocates
land repatriation occurring through the system rather than against
it. But, he says, Waziyatawin's ideas have merit in that "they move
the mindset forward.
need reminders that this land was occupied by indigenous nations
when they got here. There were negotiations between the tribes and
the United States, but in many cases the United States has not lived
up to them. It's as if I said to my mortgage company, I forgot
to pay you, and I don't really care.'
don't get this tie to the land that Indian people talk about. For
us, land is central to identity. Was some of it lost a long time
ago? Yeah, you bet. The constitution was written a long time ago,
but they still refer to it today, and they should. Does the fact
it was written long ago make it any less valid? No."
it comes to land repatriation, important achievements come one small
parcel at a time. Stainbrook points to a recent deal that the ILTF
helped negotiate for the Lower Sioux Dakota Tribe. "It's only 160
acres, which doesn't sound like a big deal. But they've just added
10 percent to their tribal land base. They'll be able to add housing
for their people, and use the rest of the property for powwows and
federal treaties and executive orders pertaining to Indian land
were properly enforced today, Stainbrook says, "about one quarter
of all Minnesota lands south of Interstate 94 would be under Dakota
ownership." It would be much easier if American Indian people could
demand their land back and expect the government to comply; the
process of repatriating land to the tribes, however, is complicated
and inevitably drawn out. "It's a little sobering because I've begun
to realize that it will never happen in a hurry. To finish a deal
on a tiny patch out in the middle of the plains that has no hope
for developmentgrazing landcan take 15 to 20 years."
Stainbrook says, for Native people to be whole again, there's no
substitute for reclamation. Land equals hope. "We've been so disenfranchised
for so long, our only prayer is to get youth to understand the most
basic connection we have, and that's to the land. It's elders talking
to youth, it's helping them look at landand not just on the
map, but going out and talking about the plants, the animals, to
get an understanding that when they sing their songs, the songs
involve these elements. You don't just sing the wordsyou really
understand them. Indian people will remain disconnected if we don't
do this. We've got to build that bridge again."