First published in February 2010
“In our creation story of where we first began as people on this earth, that place was sacred long before anybody from Europe arrived and saw the place. . . . We hold our lands sacred, but these lands are more sacred because of the history, because of the myth and what we are pleading for is some understanding. . . . This is more than an argument over a plot of land. It is a debate of two cultures and the understanding of the sacredness and what is sacred.” Eleven years ago on February 26, 1999, Dakota spiritual leader and Episcopal minister Rev. Gary Cavender spoke these words in a moving speech at a press conference relating to opposition to the construction of Highway 55 through the Coldwater Spring area near Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Despite the clarity of his words, the knowledge they contain has been questioned time and time again by those seeking to undermine Dakota claims to the area. Rev. Cavender died in April 2009. His words are worth hearing again.
Text of Rev Gary Cavender’s Speech at Representative Karen Clark’s Press Conference February 26, 1999 -Camp Coldwater
We are coming here to talk about sacred land, and especially the sacredness of that place. In our creation story of where we first began as people on this earth, that place was sacred long before anybody from Europe arrived and saw the place. Because of the topography of the land and because of the coming together of two great rivers (Minnesota and Mississippi) it is called “Md ote” or the throat of the waters, and they named a town after it–Mendota–although it is pronounced altogether different.
In our Creation myth we the Dakota, the Seven Fires of the Dakota, came from the belt of Orion–the seven planets of the belt of Orion, the seven stars–and arrived at the convolution of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and so in some respects it is our Eden, and the land around there is sacred as well. There is that sacred spring that is in negotiation, that sacred spring is the dwelling place of Unktehi, the God of the Waters, and in that spring there is an underground river that goes into the big river, and that is his passageway to get out into the world. To block the sacred passageway would be courting with drought and things of that nature that have to do with water, because after all, this is the God of the water. So when you hear a thunderstorm and it starts to rain, that is the underwater God having battle with the Sky God and the reason for that battle is so that the rain may come down and replenish the earth, and the Sky God is fighting–throwing down thunderbolts to fertilize the land. That is a scientific fact, and so it is not without reason that this land should be sacred to us, and so the Underwater God lives there. We came there as human beings and so that is our Eden, and the irony of it all is that in 1862-1863 that was almost the end of us as people, because that was the Ft. Snelling concentration camp. It may have been a full circle for us–the beginning and the ending, which is sacred in and of itself, but the land is sacred. The high bluffs where we went to track provisions, the throat of convolution of the 2 rivers where we got our start and almost where we got our ending. There are bodies there, there is a sacred cemetery there. Maybe all of it is gone but it is still sacred.
We hold our lands sacred, but these lands are more sacred because of the history, because of the myth and what we are pleading for is some understanding. To understand our sense of sacredness of the land. To use our image as the ultimate environmentalists–we may not be, but we have a connection to the land that perhaps you don’t understand and so this is more than an argument over a plot of land. It is a debate of two cultures and the understanding of the sacredness and what is sacred. We can’t say that the land has nothing on it and disregard the sacredness and go ahead and build on it. Wasicun seem to have the ability to prioritize, and when it comes to progress, spirituality or sacredness takes a back seat to progress. We don’t have that understanding, it is not in us, even though we’ve been in your culture for at least 200 years now and we’ve only been citizens of our own land since 1925. So how can we expect you to understand those things when you didn’t even recognize us as human beings until the 20th Century. But what we’re asking for is the beginning of understanding. Use this sacred place as a neutral ground to start a journey of understanding each other and leave it alone. Our people’s beginning spirits are there and our people’s ending spirits are there. All of the Gods are there. The Wakan Tanka is there. The Wakan Tanka is everywhere and so for us it’s only a ltittle patch of land we’re asking for. The economy isn’t going to collapse. There is an alternative way to solve the problem, but for us it is a great, great sacrifice and we’ve sacrificed so much for so long. All we’re asking for is a little understanding and perhaps respecting what we hold sacred!