January 2012


by Jon Lurie for Twin Cities (MN) Metro Magazine (originally published in 2010)
credits: Photos by David Bowman

Wyatt 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.

Thomas 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.”

Turning 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.”

For 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 Nebraska—established in 1866 by Dakotas fleeing Crow Creek for more favorable living conditions—also 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.

Compared 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 15–34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. Suicide rates for American Indian youth between the ages of 10–15 are four times higher than those for all other races combined in this age group.

Poverty 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.

Thomas 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.”

Thomas is one voice in a growing chorus of indigenous cultural leaders who agree that the reclamation of traditional lands—including prime real estate in the Twin Cities area—is 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 succeed—that the very future of the Dakota Nation hinges upon it.

“When I go home to Santee,” Thomas says, “I will tell the relatives that everything we seek for healing—the herbs, the medicines and the stones—are 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.”

Holy 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) Creek—was 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.

Franklin 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. Malnutrition. Diabetes.

You’ll 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 agencies—DIW, OIC, MAIC, NACC, WIA, IHB, AIM—to solve the issues that accompanied the loss of indigenous lands to foreign invaders some 150 years ago.

Dr. 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 Center—a free workout facility—and 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 with that.'”

Throughout her schooling—at Iowa University and later at the Mayo Clinic—Caros “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 country.'”

Twenty-seven 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, genocide—the 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.”

It’s 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.”

Valerie 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.

“Money 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 chronic depression.”

This 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 carrier—the keeper of a family’s most sacred object—from 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.”

A 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.”

At 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.”

During 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 contact.

LaPointe 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 successful.”

Healthy Nations seeks to recreate through these journeys the conditions that were present when Dakota people—perhaps the most sophisticated canoe culture on the continent—lived 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 camp—preparing meals, leading discussions and prayers and passing on stories around the campfire at night.

An 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.”

LaPointe 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 Earth.”

LaPointe 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 Crow—the leader of Dakota forces during the 1862 war—who 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.

After 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.

For 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 1858—one 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 conduct.

“It 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.”

Waziyatawin 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. Paul—a 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. Paul.

The 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:

“Before 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.”

Since 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.”

The 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.

Critics 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.

Chris 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.

“I 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.

Stainbrook, 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.

“People 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.’

“Non-Indians 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.”

When 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 ceremonies.”

If 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 development—grazing land—can take 15 to 20 years.”

But, 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 land—and 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 words—you really understand them. Indian people will remain disconnected if we don’t do this. We’ve got to build that bridge again.”

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