What’s in a name? Spirits, water, stones, earth

Asking the Dakota to supply a unique name for Coldwater Spring, located near Fort Snelling, is a bit like asking the Catholic Church to supply the unique name for the front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul. For the Cathedral, the steps are important and derive their significance from their connection to the larger place, even though there may not be a name commemorating something or describing some unique aspect of those steps as apart from any other steps. Among the Dakota there are various names for the Coldwater area, some unique and some more generic. But the bigger question is what is the significance of such names, anyway?

In the case of Coldwater Spring, the National Park Service in St. Paul has seized on the significance of any possible name the Dakota might have for the spring apart from any other spring as determinative of cultural significance. But Park Service officials have yet to provide a cultural basis for assuming that having some kind of unique name should be overriding in this determination. 

The front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul, looking north, September 2008

The front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul, looking north, September 2008

Among Dakota and Ojibwe in Minnesota many names are generic, that is they refer to factors that the place shared with other places of the same type. Many of these Native names for places have survived in English names such as Mud, Portage, and Rice lakes. So, the real special significance of such places derives from the oral tradition or knowledge that Native people might supply for them, such as the fact that a particular lake had rice that ripened much earlier or later than that in other lakes. But the characteristics of the rice might not be recorded in the name. Names of rivers were sometimes given simply because the river flowed out of a certain lake and might not be descriptive of any other special characteristics of the river. 

European-Americans have generic names too. There are Pilot Knobs all over the country, some adjacent to rivers, others out on the plains. The names refer to some characteristic shape in such places that made them unmistakable from a long distance. Other generic names just describe the place or the fact of the generic thing being at a place with a unique name. Appomattox Courthouse was the name given to a courthouse which happened to be located at Appomattox. This is a place of some traditional significance for European-Americans, though the unique aspect of the name derives from a particular community of the Powhatan tribe. The significance of the courthouse in history and tradition is not recorded in the name, that is, Appomattox Courthouse is not called: “the-place-where-Lee-surrendered-to-Grant.”

Among Dakota and Ojibwe there are some names which seem to be unique to particular places. For example, the large central Minnesota lake called Mille Lacs (in French, “a thousand lakes”) was a place of great significance for Dakota, who called it Mde Wakan, that is Spirit or Mysterious Lake. The origins of the name are bound up in Dakota traditions and creation stories and like most such names have yet to be fully explained. The most eastern branch of the Dakota call themselves the Mdewakantonwan, “the people of spirit lake,” a name which is still used today, 200 years after the people moved away from the lake. 

Another unique place name among the Dakota is Taku Wakan Tipi, which might be translated as “the dwelling place of Taku Wakan.” European-Americans in the 19th century believed that this name referred to a hill called by the soldiers Morgan’s Hill or Morgan’s Mound, which is the present location of the VA Medical Center. However, while the English name does refer to a hill, there is nothing in the Dakota name that specifically describes the Dakota place as a hill. Lower down the Mississippi River in St. Paul is Wakan Tipi (dwelling place of the sacred), said to refer to Carver’s Cave, though it may be that it describes a larger area that includes the cave. Assuming that a place one cultural group identifies in a particular area has the same boundaries as the place identified by another cultural group in the same neighborhood is an error of interpretation, though it is an easy one to make.

The name Taku Wakan, as many recorded in the 19th century is a polite way of referring to a powerful being or set of beings named Unktehi. The Unktehi were beings connected to sacred ceremonies and to more than one creation story. Male Unktehi resided in water, in lakes or rivers or waterfuls, but are often identified as being in water that is present or underneath landforms, such as Taku Wakan Tipi. Such landforms often have elevated springs that come out of them. The springs are dwelling places for this powerful spirit, but also avenues through which the spirit travels, just as a human being might sit on their front steps on occasion, but spend more time inside their houses.

Among the earliest European-Americans to take seriously and record Dakota beliefs were, paradoxically, the missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond. While they were intent on changing and “civilizing” the Dakota, they also wanted to understand them in ways that later anthropologists sought to do. In various books and articles, the Ponds recorded a great deal of information about the Unkethis, their role in the Dakota medicine ceremony or Wakan Wacipi, and their presence in Taku Wakan Tipi. This information provides a basis for understanding Coldwater Spring and its relationship to the area of Taku Wakan Tipi.

Lincoln Spring, photographed in the 1860s may be present day Coldwater Spring, or the falls where the stream from Coldwater falls into the Mississippi River. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

Lincoln Spring, photographed in the 1860s, may be the spring known earlier and later as Coldwater Spring, or the falls where the stream from Coldwater falls into the Mississippi River. A man named George Lincoln lived at Coldwater Spring in the 1860s and 1870s. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

The Ponds noted that the Unktehi lived within Taku Wakan Tipi and traveled through underground passageways into the Minnesota River. The entire ground adjacent to the hill called Morgan’s Mound, including Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is full of water, fed by an elevated water table. Massive dewatering was necessary to build the tunnels for the new light-rail system under the airport. There may be Dakota who would define the dwelling place of Taku Wakan as including the airport.  As for Coldwater Spring, it happens to be closer to the hill European-Americans call Morgan’s Mound than are Fort Snelling or the airport. The spring flows out of a cleft in the rock below the hill. Long before the construction of Highway 55 which is now what separates the hill and the spring, the intervening area was described as a wetland.

Do I have to connect the dots for you? In fact some people already have. John Hotopp, Randall A. Withrow, and others working with the Berger Group in 1999 drew the connection between Coldwater Spring and the area called Taku Wakan Tipi. They were working for the Federal Highway Administration in relation to the construciton of Highway 55. Of course at that time the highway was not believed to have any effect on the spring, so it was an easy thing for a federal contractor to admit. Now ten years later, another federal agency, the National Park Service, working more directly in the area of the spring, has rejected the conclusions of Hotopp and Withrow, and of other later experts working for the federal government, about Coldwater Spring as a place of traditional cultural importance for the Dakota.

Does it bother the National Park Service that the Ponds referred to the underground passageways flowing into the Minnesota River when in fact Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground and flows into the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Minnesota River? Is that aspect of the wording of the description by the missionaries enough to suggest that the spring that flows from Morgan’s Mound has nothing to do with Taku Wakan Tipi and that Dakota people are blowing smoke when they state that Coldwater Spring is a place of traditional cultural significance for their people? These are questions for government agencies and for others who would like to argue with Dakota people about what Dakota beliefs mean. Such agencies and individuals may continue to insist that the area of Coldwater must have a Dakota name that spells things out a little more than the name Mni Sni, or Mni Owe Sni–a Dakota name for the spring which essentially translates as “cold water spring.” Why don’t the Dakota have a name for the spring or the spring area that refers to events or special characteristics of the place, say one that begins “the place where . . .”

Did I forget to mention that there is a special name for the Coldwater area that refers to events or special characteristics of the place? In addition to all the other documentation about the importance of the Coldwater Spring area for Dakota people in the 19th century, which I have discussed in the past, I recently came across the record of a unique name for Coldwater in Paul Durand’s book Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet: An Atlas of the Eastern Sioux. Durand (1994: 36) refers to a place called KA-HBO-KA TE, meaning “Where-the-Drifter-Was-Killed.” The Drifter was one of the Dakota chiefs who took up farming at the instigation of the Pond Brothers. He was shot in early April 1841 within fifty rods from the house where Samuel Pond was living at the time, the Baker House at Coldwater Spring. Samuel Pond heard shot and came to give the man aid. The Drifter lived a month and died while recovering from his wounds.

Why would the Dakota give this unique name to such a place, especially since there were other Dakota people killed by Ojibwe near Fort Snelling. The reason is that despite the warfare between the two groups, they had met peacefully at Coldwater Spring for several decades at least, as recorded in the records of the Indian agency. There were continuing peaceful relations between some of the Mdewakanton Dakota groups and the Mille Lacs and St. Croix Ojibwe, who were, in fact united by ties of kinship going back to the 17th century. But in the 1840s relations between all groups of Dakota and Ojibwe worsened. The death of The Drifter was clearly a marker, a sign that even in a place of neutrality, peaceful relations were hard to maintain. Things would get a lot worse in the years ahead.

So, what is in a name? Lots of things, spirits, water, earth, beliefs, history, and much more, but sometimes the actual words used in the names belie the complexity of rich, historic, and culturally important places.

Controversial anniversaries

This summer will be the 75th anniversary of the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike. Last December was the 10th anniversary of the raid on the protest occupation near Coldwater Spring, said by some to be the largest police action in Minnesota history. Next September will be the first anniversary of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul. August and September 2012 will be the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. Each of these anniversaries will be controversial in one way or another, but weighing the nature of the controversy created by such anniversaries produces some interesting results. Perhaps the most interesting question is: When is an event too controversial for commemoration by institutions that consider themselves or strive to be mainstream?

One of a series of posters created by the artist Alex Lilly inspired by what happened in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention in September 2008.

One of a series of posters created by the artist Alex Lilly inspired by what happened in St. Paul during the Republican National Convention in September 2008.

There are still people around who may think the truckers in Minneapolis got out of hand, and that they fomented violence. But the Minnesota Historical Society, which is usually shy about controversy, embraces the point of view of the truckers on its website:

This strike, also known as the Minneapolis Teamsters’ Strike and, alternately, sometimes called “a police riot,” was one of the most violent in the state’s history, and a major battle in Minnesota’s “civil war” of the 1930s between business and labor. A non-union city, Minneapolis business leaders had successfully kept unions at bay through an organization called the Citizens Alliance, but by 1934, unions were gaining strength as advocates of workers for improved wages and better working conditions. By early May 1934, one of the worst years of the Great Depression, General Drivers Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) had organized 3,000 transportation workers of the trucking industry into an industrial union. When employers refused to recognize the union, or its right to speak for all of its members, union leaders called a strike. Trucking operations in the city came to a halt.

When police and National Guard were called in to guard trucks, and the Citizens Alliance activated the local militia, strike leaders countered with “flying squads” of pickets. To inform the public of the strike’s aims, and to keep workers informed of developments, strike leaders published a daily newspaper. They sought farmers’ cooperation. Conflict escalated daily throughout May and reached a peak late in the month, at the city market, where strikers clashed with police, who were trying to open it for farm produce to be brought in. The police force was increased for the battle. Many women strike supporters joined the strikers and were severely beaten. Hundreds of strikers were arrested. In support of the truckers, 35,000 building trades workers went on strike. The battle raged on violently for two days. The strike ended on May 25, when the union was recognized and their demands settled. Its toll: 200 injured; 4 dead. The strike marked a turning point in state and national labor history and legislation. The strike opened the way for enactment of laws acknowledging and protecting workers’ rights.

In many ways this statement demonstrates the phrase that many Indian people repeat today, that “history is written by the winners.” The truckers won the trucker’s strike so their point of view is the one that has won out, even though you still meet a few people whose families were on the other side and who have a different point of view.

The 10th anniversary last December of the raid on the houses occupied by those opposing the construction of Highway 55 through Minnehaha Park and the Coldwater Spring Are was not marked officially by any agency. That raid involved a task force of 600 law enforcement people who shot tear gas into the occupied houses. This is how a report from that time described what happened:

The Minnehaha Free State/Liberated Zone in Minneapolis MN was raided Sunday morning at 4am by 600 State Troopers in what MN Governor Arnie Carlson has called the largest law enforcement operation in MN history. Police fired tear gas into all 7 seven houses occupied by a coalition of Big Woods Earth First! the American Indian Movement (AIM)and the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. 33 people were arrested, 20 of them from lockdowns. (included an activist in a Santa suit locked into the chimney of one of the homes) Many of the protesters where tortured with pepper spray and pain compliance holds. One protester who was locked by the neck to a tripod had his life put in serious danger when the police overturned the tripod without taking any precautions to protect him. The extent of his injuries remains unknown. Media were blocked from the site by a wall of riot police and there are extensive reports of police brutality.

It is hard to imagine that there will ever be anything on these events on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society, because the Society embraced at the time, and still embraces, the point of view that these events never happened or that if they happened they should be ignored. It is hard to find a mainstream message useful to the Society in these events and so it is better not to mention them. Instead the history of these events is left for those who took part in them, or who were there at the time, to describe. Several books cover some of the events including Mary Losure’s Our Way or the Highway. A more complete account is found in the book compiled by Elli King,  Listen: The Story of the People at Taku Wakan Tipi and the Reroute of Highway 55, or the Minnehaha Free State, published in 2006 (which oddly the Historical Society does not have in its library). A new movie produced by Oak Folk Films called  Stop the ReRoute: Taking a Stand on Sacred Land based on footage taken at the time and interviews done since then is having its premiere on March 28. Eventually perhaps a so-called mainstream consensus may develop that this police action was a travesty, a mistake, and an abomination, but until then do not expect the Minnesota Historical Society to help out in recording or disseminating the history of that event. 

By contrast, a mainstream historical consensus has yet to develop about the RNC in St. Paul. Many who were at present at the police action along Highway 55 in December 1998 believe that they experienced the practice for what occurred in St. Paul less than ten years later. Memories of the RNC are very, very fresh. Trials are still taking place. Mayor Chris Coleman, a Democrat, who was mayor during the RNC, is running for re-election. Opinions are still bitterly divided. Supporters of the mayor say that people should move on and leave behind these historical controversies. Others demand some acknowledgement by the mayor and his supporters that grave mistakes were made by people who are still in positions of authority in St. Paul and in Ramsey County. Staff at the Minnesota Historcal Society have collected artifacts and ephemera from the RNC. But how long will it take before the Minnesota Historical Society or other such institutions will be able to have a page about the RNC on its website? It may depend on who is perceived as having won the battle of history.

In some ways opinions are even more bitterly divided about 1862 than about any of the other events. The events of 1862 are still controversial, or perhaps the controversy about them is much newer than their history. In fact there was once a consensus about what happened and what it meant, a consensus that was bolstered and revived in 1958, the centennial year of Minnesota. The year 1962 saw a commemoration of the “Sioux Uprising of 1862,” an anniversary that demonstrated the continuing power of the consensus, but also showed evidence that the consensus was falling apart, especially among people who saw its ethnocentrism and racism. As a child in the early 1960s I remember reading an article in the Minnesota Historical Society’s children’s magazine Gopher Historian, by Leo J. Ambrose, which compared the dispossesion of Indian people from their lands to what it would be like for Americans living in 1962 America to be invaded by Martians who dispossessed from their land and moved them from place to place after a series of abrogated treaties. Ambrose stated:

Finally we would feel, in desperation, that we could no longer endure such treatment. We would feel that it were better to die trying to throw off our oppressors than to continue such a life. We might be ready to cry out with Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty or give me death!” 

Ambrose, who was a far-seeing state official with an interest in the history of the Civil War concluded by stating that the story he told was just a fantasy, but that American Indians were treated worse than the fantasy he described.

By 1987, the 125th anniversary of 1862, the mainstream white consensus about what had happened in 1862 had fallen apart completely. It was supposed to be the “year of reconciliation,” but the reconciliation did not occur. A consensus could not be reached even on what to call the events of 1862. It was plain that you could not call it the Sioux Uprising any more, after all the Indians in question wanted to be known by their own name for themselves, the Dakota. So what would it be, the Dakota Conflict? The U.S.-Dakota Conflict? The Dakota War? Among some Dakota people there was less of an interest in what you called the events. Instead, there was a desire for the wider society to acknowledge what had actually happened to their people in 1862. This was viewed as a necessary first step in the process of reconciliation. This suddenly made 1862 controversial again.

The execution of the 38 Dakota at Mankato in December 1862

The execution of the 38 Dakota at Mankato in December 1862

At the Minnesota Historical Society there was a desire at first to engage with Dakota people about 1862, but many factors undermined that. A few of the more vocal Dakota people–particularly Chris Mato Nunpa–made life hard for the director of the Society, putting her between a rock and a hard place, the hard place being the opinions of the legislature which drive so many decisions about what history to commemorate and what history to ignore. As a result, the director of the MHS was instructed by her board not to speak to him anymore (although since the board of the historical society is appointed by the director, it is hard to know who instructed whom to do what).

To avoid speaking with Mato Nunpa the Society created a Indian-advisory committee, so that she would not have to speak to Mato Nunpa but could still be seen as being responsive to the opinions of Indian people. Needless to say Mato Nunpa was not on this committee. But the committee has not solved the Historical Society’s Indian problem, primarily because–here’s a shocker–no one speaks for all Indians, any more than there is anyone who speaks for Norwegians or Italians. Even if the Society were to make the committee representative only of tribal governments–which would be a very odd thing for a non-governmental entity like the Historical Society to insist on doing–there is still a diversity of opinion within and apart from those tribal governments. In any case, the Historical Society emphasizes that this committee is advisory, that it does not have veto power over the insitution, which means that the Society sets itself up for discontent anytime it does not follow the wishes of the committee.

We are now less than three years from the 150th anniversary of 1862. How will institutions that see themselves as mainstream deal with the anniversary? If the 150th anniversary of Minnesota Statehood in 2008 is any guide, the Historical Society will try to tap dance around the more controversial aspects of the event, trying not to offend the previous consensus–what Angela Waziyatawin has called the “master narrative”– about what happened but also to try to avoid offending Indian people. It is a very difficult, perhaps impossible task. Here’s how 1862 is described in a very short description on the MHS website:

In 1862, Minnesota was still a young state, part of a frontier inhabited by more than one million Indians. Times were hard and Indian families hungry. When the U.S. government broke its promises, some of the Dakota Indians went to war against the white settlers. Many Dakota did not join in, choosing to aid and protect settlers instead. The fighting lasted six weeks and many people on both sides were killed or fled Minnesota. Former Minnesota governor Henry Sibley led an expedition of soldiers and Dakota scouts against the Dakota warriors. The war ended on December 26, 1862, when thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Afterwards the government forced most of the remaining Dakota to leave Minnesota. For white Minnesotans, their experience of blood and terror negated all promises they had made to the Dakota. Stories and history books told about the great “Minnesota Massacre,” but for many years the Indian side of the story was ignored.

Whites had their time of  blood and terror, the Indians were were subjected to the largest mass-hanging in American history, then exiled from their land. Everyone has opinions. What is the Indian side of the story? There is no elaboration here, but the page gives helpful sources for learning those points of view, through books like Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862, edited by Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth (1988) and the papers of Bishop Henry B. Whipple who was one of the few defenders of Dakota people in 1862 or later.

The Minnesota Historical Society has continued to try to engage by fits and starts. It tried to turn over the Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site to the Lower Sioux Community. But there was opposition in the white community, which stalled the effort. A recent hopeful sign is the recent announcement that the Historical Society will operate the site jointly with the Lower Sioux tribe for a few years:

The Minnesota Historical Society and the Lower Sioux Indian Community have announced a management agreement under which the two entities will work together to present the site’s history to the public. The Lower Sioux Indian Community will be responsible for day-to-day management of the site. The Society will retain ownership of and responsibility for the site’s capital needs and will provide technical assistance. The transfer will take effect April 1, 2009. Hours, fees and programs scheduled for the summer 2009 season remain unchanged at this time. 

The Lower Sioux Agency is an important historic site with a crucial story that needs to be preserved and told. The U.S. government administrative center for the Dakota in the mid-19th century, it was the scene of the first attack in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The goal of its interpretive program is “to accurately and sensitively portray the powerful and complicated history of the site as well as its historical context,” according to Heather Koop, head of the Society’s southern district historic sites. This management agreement represents an opportunity to expand the use of the site by operating the facility as a year-round cultural center, as well as a seasonal historic site open to the public as it is now. The arrangement also will allow the site’s interpretation to broaden, encompassing expanded aspects of the area’s history, including present-day Dakota culture.

The biggest problem that the Historical Society and other such agencies will have in the next few years will not likely be Angela Waziyatawin, but rather the fact that there are white communities where the previous mainstream white consensus about 1862 lives on, which will prevent the institution from responding reasonably to the criticisms of Dakota people. Reconciling these points of view and the opinions of the Minnesota legislature will tie the Historical Society in knots for the next few years. It should be a very interesting and challenging time for the history of history in Minnesota.

Honoring Wiyaka Sinte Win/ Tail Feather Woman and her vision

Wiyaka Sinte Win or Tail Feather Woman, a Dakota woman who had a vision about the construction of a great drum, designed “to bring unity and healing” among peoples, is to be honored this year by Dakota people. Sometime after 1862, Tail Feather Woman, who is usually described as being Santee, or simply Dakota, was living in a particular village when it was attacked by “blue coats”–American soldiers. She took refuge in a swamp, hiding there for days, sometimes under the water so as not to be seen, breathing through a hollow reed. During that time she prayed for deliverance and she received a vision about the construction of a drum the beat of which had a transformative power that would lead the blue coats to lay down their arms.

Tail Feather Woman’s vision led to the construction of many drums in the late 19th century, made by Dakota people then passed on along with the vision and its teachings to Ojibwe communities in Minnesota, who later gave drums to other tribes farther east, such as the Menominee. Today these drums continue to be used in ceremonies and in celebrations. A number of Ojibwe communities today tell the story of “when the Sioux brought the drum.” An 1878  newspaper, as I tell in my book We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People, told of a gathering of people at Pine City, where one such drum was given. Although the article implied that those gathered were massing for an attack on white communities, it also recounted Tail Feather Woman’s vision in detail, making plain that her teachings were designed to bring people together in a time of hostility and distrust.

A Dakota woman held captive at the Fort Snelling concentration camp during the witner of 1862-63. The events of that time led to several decades of conflict between Dakota peoples and the U.S. government, during which time the experience and vision of Tail Feather Woman took place.

A Dakota woman held captive at the Fort Snelling concentration camp during the winter of 1862-63. The tragic events of that time led to several decades of conflict between Dakota peoples and the U.S. government, during which time the experience and vision of Tail Feather Woman took place. This photograph is in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, which has many photographs of Dakota people taken at the Fort Snelling concentration camp.

In recent years Tail Feather Woman’s vision has been less well known among Dakota people than among the Ojibwe. In some cases Dakota people have heard her story from Ojibwe people. In a recent email announcing the intention to honor Tail Feather Woman, Paula Horne-Mullen:

While attending Red School House [in St. Paul] in the late 70’s and belonging to the Three Fires Drum Group, we – as Young People from various tribes, were invited to a Big Drum Ceremony at a Long House at Round Lake in Wisconsin. The People at the ceremony were made up of mostly Anishinabe Elders, all fluent, with a Huge Drum in the Center.  The long house had a light coming from the hole in the roof, which was shining and moved with sun movement on the Drum.  This particular Big Drum was Huge, with four staffs in the four directions, hanging from the staffs were painted hands in different colors representing the direction. The ceremony consisted of various songs, as the light moved in a certain area across the drum, which seemed to indicate a certain song to be song.  This ceremony is very private, a healing ceremony, with Societies that exist today with the mentioned Nations.  

The ceremony came from Tail Feather Woman.  There are many versions of her story, but the basic story is what I would like to share from the Anishinabe Elders who had an interpreter to relay the origination of the ceremony. I was asked to stand and dance through some of their songs with the Elderly woman on each side; they wanted to honor a Dakota representative and told me the story as follows: 

Tail Feather Woman was by her camp gathering food, when the Blue Coats invaded her village, there are some versions that say she told the Anishinabe that her four sons died in the invasion, some do not mention this, in any case, she ran for her life from the Blue Coats who were on horse back.  She dove in the lake and thought quickly enough to grab a reed to breath through and began to hide under the water for a long period of time, some say over night, some say for four days, in which case, it was very long for hours on end…  While under the water, she prayed and was visited by the Creator, who gave her a vision of the Big Drum.  It is said she told that the pounding of the drum is to bring healing for the People and bring them together in unity.  The Big Drum ceremony that is carried on with the Anishinabe, say it is a great Healing ceremony for their People. After the Blue Coats camped and waited for her to come up. Tail Feather Woman arose from the water by the calling of the spirit and the crying of her family, where upon she was able to walk through the camp of the blue coat soldiers, unseen. Tail Feather Woman was invisible to them, she walked through their camp and was able to take some of their food and walked across the plains to find her family. Exhausted and ill, she looked for her family, until she found them, they nursed her back to health and she told of her experience and vision. As directed by the Creator she headed east in gratitude with her family she passed on the vision, along with the songs and protocols for the ceremony to the Anishinabe.  This ceremony still exists today with many Societies.  She later died while living with the Anishinabe Nations. 

So we remember Tail Feather Woman, a unique name, as it is the part of the eagle that is used for any of our ceremonial rites, you need that eagle tail feather to participate in most of our seven sacred rites, a powerful name.  She was one of our Nation’s women that survived a tremendous feat, through strength and endurance, earning a powerful vision of healing.  We should not allow her memory to die with her own people or rather; this story should be reborn to her People that she lived in honor of our people.  Her memory lives on with the Anishinabe Nation; there is even a Tail Feather Woman’s Society.  It is said that throughout History there are great Leaders that are men, but seldom do we remember a woman.  All women are sacred and remembered as a whole for what they gave as the ‘back bone’ for the People, but her remarkable feat deserves this honor; she had to be a very strong woman to have survived under water that long and be sincere enough in prayers to be gifted a great vision of healing that is being done to this day.  We need to remember her and honor her.

On March 12 a gathering was held to organize an event on July 15 to honor Tail Feather Woman. Plans included inviting “the Big Drum Societies of the Anishinabe Nation with possibly the Muskogee and Menominee Nation who carry on the Big Drum Ceremony and bring attention to the life of Tail Feather Woman with our own People. We will ask them to share their stories and songs of Tail Feather Woman.” One plan calls for creating a “memorial monument” at the north end of Pickerel Lake in South Dakota. According to Horne-Mullen: ” The monument would memorialize the story of her feat and to bring awareness of the lake, recognizing it as a Sacred Site, a place where the great vision occurred.  Our People and our future generations need to know who she was.” 

Another plan is to build a drum to honor Tail Feather Woman’s legacy. Horne-Mullen wrote: “The Big Drum can only move in the eastern direction, so the thoughts are we would gift a Big Drum in her honor. . . . We will consult some Elders of the proper protocol of creating a Big Drum. . . . I once heard from a Tribe in the South, that we as humans should carry on our life in honor of our family and People, we should never suffer the 3rd death.  The first is when our spirit leaves our body, the second is when our body goes in the ground, the third death (that one should never suffer); is to suffer the death in the memory of your family and relatives.”

Horne-Mullen concluded saying: “This endeavor belongs to all Dakota Oyate, ‘everyone’ should be included in this feat, with a hand in making this happen, what her vision taught, to bring Unity and Healing. Pidamaye for taking time to read this, Paula Horne.”

For further questions, ideas or contributions to this effort, email Paula Horne-Mullen at  [email protected]


Dakota voices at the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines open house

Here are some audio recordings of the Dakota people who spoke at the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines open house on February 23, 2009. They were recorded by Bruce McKenzie. These include more complete versions of some of the video recordings put on online earlier. Also some of these audio recordings are an improvement over the sound on the video  recordings. Click on the player to begin hearing the recording.

Scott DeMuth. Part of this was included in the video posted earlier.


Phoebe Iron Necklace


Dennis Gill


Ernie Peters, introduced by his brother Sheldon Wolfchild


Gabrielle Strong


Sheldon Wolfchild, Part 1


Sheldon Wolfchild Part 2


Sheldon Wolfchild Part 3

The official laundered version of what happened at the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines open house

There are many versions of what happened at the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines open house on February 23. One of them is the official version which is the one that the National Park Service would like everyone to adopt and which they have spoon fed to a few reporters who may not have gone to the event. This official version is represented in the March 11, 2009 (St. Paul) Villager. This report by Kevin Driscoll says that people were milling about having an “electric” time talking with each other and talking with Park Service representatives, when “a group of activisits dominated the open house to argue that the land should be returned to the American Indians.” The article then goes on to quote liberally from Park Service representatives, but no one else. The who, what, how, or why of the protest is completely ignored.

The basic, obvious, unreported fact about the protests at the open house was that these were Dakota people asking that the lands be given back to the Dakota, from which people permission to build a fort was obtained in the Treaty of 1805. Instead, the article quotes John Anfinson saying that “there was no one particular tribe represented.” This is a complete untruth, although be fair, some in the government do not perceive the existence of Indian people unless they are tribal officials.

At the Bureau of Mines open house, Paul Labovitz of MNRRA and Angela Waziyatawin listen while Steve Johnson of MNRRA gestures and explains something. Waziyatawin was one of those speaking that evening on behalf of Dakota ownership of the Bureau of Mines property.

At the February 23, 2009, Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines open house, Paul Labovitz of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) and Angela Waziyatawin listen while Steve Johnson of MNRRA gestures and explains something. Waziyatawin was one of those speaking that evening on behalf of Dakota ownership of the Bureau of Mines property.

If newspapers are dying it one of the reasons is because they no longer serve the interests of the communities in which they operate. This insulting story is a perfect example. It is insulting not just because it ignores the protesters, but because it insults the truth and the right of its readers to know that truth. How does it serve the interests of the community to report only what government agencies have to say, without reference to dissenters? Anyone who has read these pages has a much better idea of what happened at the event than from reading the Villager article.

Certainly there were good discussions going on prior to the speeches by Angela Waziyatawin, Sheldon Wolfchild, and others. And there were people in other groups at the meeting who resented what happened and wanted the small group discussions to continue. There were also a lot of differences of opinion about what should happen to Coldwater Spring. But those discussions continued after the speeches, including an extended conversation between Waziyatawin and Paul Labovitz and Steve Johnson of the National Park Service. This does not accord with the statement of one Park Service quoted as saying : “There was no dialogue. They didn’t want to listen.” The photo above of Waziyatawin listening to Steve Johnson of the Park Service suggests otherwise.

You cannot find a better example of how public dissent is stifled in Minnesota than this article. People sure have a lot of opinions don’t they? How about a discussion of the various opinions represented at meetings like this, taking seriously all points of view, giving them a full airing? Isn’t this what “gathering comment” is all about? In conversation with Park Service representatives prior to the event I urged them to have an actual public meeting where the audience could hear the Park Service representatives speak, then allow the audience to speak back to them. This would allow everyone to hear the opinions of all those who spoke. I was told that an open house was planned because at a public meeting some group or person might dominate. Also one of the officials stated that he did not want to speak at the meeting because “If I go to a meeting and I do all the talking I don’t learn anything.”

In retrospect, the strategy backfired, but at least Park Service officials did a lot of learning that night, although apparently they do not remember much of what they learned.

Heid Erdrich, knocking over monuments

One of the definitions of the word “monument” is “a stone shaft or other object set in the earth to mark a boundary.” This is not exactly what Heid E. Erdrich had in mind in her brilliant new book of poems, National Monuments (MSU Press), though she leaps across boundaries, knocking over markers. The book is about the nature of the monument as metaphor and endangered sacred space, and “the places indigenous people would consider their national monuments,” and the human body as monument, and a few other things, which all make perfect sense to readers as we follow her developing thoughts, one leaping to the next.

The first and title poem in the book describes a once familiar scene in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, a scene still familiar from old postcards—an Ojibwe graveyard filled with rough bark houses, covering graves marked with doodemic clan markers: “Doodem signs, national markers/ the body makes by being born/ that speak your only, only name.” Houses like these were meant “to moss and rot and fail,” not to be kept up with a new roof and a new coat of paint or to survive as a monument of appropriation, meaningful in odd ways beyond the communities where they were created.

Hand-colored postcard of an unidentifed Ojibwe burial ground somewhere, in the early 1900s

Hand-colored postcard of an unidentifed Ojibwe burial ground somewhere, in the early 1900s

Erdrich shows the nature of monuments both to the people who create them and to those who have no knowledge of how or why they were made. The geographer J. B. Jackson points out that in American society a traditional monument is civic in nature, meant to remind people of important things: “That is to say it exists to put people in mind of some obligation which they have incurred, a great public figure, a great public event.” People knew of those events and people and traditions kept their meanings alive for generations. Increasingly, he notes, American monuments have taken the form of attempts to reproduce or restore “the original landscape,” in a golden time beyond history. For a society used to appropriating the culture of others, Native Americans and their sacred sites, their monuments, serve this purpose well, providing new ones for people whose own civic monuments have lost their meanings.

These beautiful places are sacred for obvious reasons. As Erdrich writes, the graceful shape of Mahto Paha, or Bear Butte, in South Dakota draws many, after all, “who wouldn’t put their church here?”—even the riders on hawgs, “bound for a bikers paradise,” who drown out “sacred words pines speak with wind.” The hill, an animal form, does “offer retreat” to all, “To gather and praise at Mahto Paha/ cool in the shadow of her curled form/  tucked right under her yawning paw.” Perhaps, she suggests, Mahto Paha has the power to transcend or survive appropriation. 

Mahto Paha/ Bear Butte, as photographed by Linda Brown in 2002

Mahto Paha/ Bear Butte, as photographed by Linda Brown in 2002

In “Black and White Monument, Photo Circa 1977,” Erdrich offers a black and white photograph as a kind of monument, a reminder of what was or is important, an instant of time recorded in 1977. The poem is a truly thick description of the time and place where the photo was taken, even though everything that was important was not in it: “Everything that ever happened/ lies outside the white border/ of this photo taken in the late 1970s.” It is a photo of two girls—including, it seems, the author—holding babies, in front of a distant field. The field she says, was “the real subject of the photo”:

The light on that land, beyond beautiful, went into me so young
It became the color of all learning, all rest to be hoped for,
the face of heaven. Everything.

Just as important as the land beyond the girls, is what is beyond the edge of the photograph, a cabin, a clothesline, people sitting in lawn chairs, a pump. And even more, all things that happened that day, the events never photographed. “Why do we bear the cruelty of photos—the way they suggest anything/ can stop, any moment can be saved?” The poem itself gives the answer, the nature of the photograph as a monument, a reminder, a piece of a living context and memory, what has always seemed to me the starting point of stories.

But without any kind of living context, what purpose does a photograph serve, or a monument, or anything pulled out of the ground from a burial site? People need Erdrich’s “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects”—a parody of NAGPRA rules and a sharp, very funny poem that asks questions about objects removed from contexts in museums or more generally found objects that were once important to people and still vibrate with a certain intensity:

If objects were worn as funerary ornament,
admire them verbally from time to time.
Brass bells should be called shiny
rather than pretty. Shell ear spools
should be remarked upon as handsome,
but beads of all kinds can be told,
simply, that they are lookin’ good.

And all of this happens in the first eleven pages of this wonderful book! There is a lot more here. I haven’t even mentioned the series of poems about Kennewick Man, the ancient person’s bones found in Kennewick, Washington, said to date to 9,300 years ago: “Kennewick Man Tells All,” “Kennewick Man Swims Laps,” “Kennewick Man Attempts Cyber-date.” How is it that this ancient First American belongs to all of us? Erdrich gives Kennewick Man an identity to undermine his appropriation, something that seldom happens to the prehistoric peoples dug up and studied for their contribution to prehistoric understanding. Erdrich’s advice, prompted by the sale of tufts of a Pharaoh’s hair on the Internet and their return to the Egypt (after resting in France and being stolen there thirty years ago):

Love your body every moment
It is only yours a while, then no longer
sovereign, if of interest to science,
or souvenir seekers, or other, as yet
unspecified future uses.

Perhaps we all may end up somebody’s monument at some point (our skulls sitting on someone’s dashboard as happened to some of the remains unearthed on Minnesota’s  Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob),  so the best you can expect is to treat yourself and others well while you’re alive and after you’re gone, to turn to ashes, which are no one’s monument. In the book’s last lines, the author’s friend, a “brilliant playwright/ with attendant torment,” sums it up. “But, really, scatter my ashes, baby—/from said playwright, about says it,/ for after words.”

A new house built of stone: New information on a Coldwater landmark

New information has been found about the stone house of the fur trader Benjamin F. Baker,  located above Coldwater Spring from the 1830s to the 1850s. The house, which was the site of many firsts in Minnesota history, was destroyed by fire in March 1860. The new information shows that the house was built as early as 1836, prior to the Henry H. Sibley house in Mendota, which makes the Baker House the first recorded private residence made of stone in Minnesota. It later housed other traders, merchants, missionaries, a hotel, and the first public school in the region of Minnesota (in 1837-38).

The site of the Baker House is on a hill just to the west of Coldwater Spring on the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities campus property. It is likely that it was located near the current site of the long metal building known as Building 11. Missionary Samuel Pond stated that the Baker House was the “first stone house erected in Minnesota except those belonging to the Government.” On the other hand, Henry H. Sibley, in his later years,  stated that his own house in Mendota was “the first and oldest private residence, in all of Minnesota, and Dakota,” though he may have meant that it was the first such residence still standing.

At the bottom of the image, the Baker house is shown on the bluff above Coldwater Spring, in a detail from the October 1837 map of the Fort Snelling area done by Lt. E. K. Smith

At the bottom of the image, the Baker house is shown on the bluff above Coldwater Spring (where Baker had his trading post), in a detail from the October 1837 map of the Fort Snelling area done by Lt. E. K. Smith

The new information about the Baker house comes from notes taken by the French geographer and mapmaker Joseph Nicollet, who, on  October 10, 1836 visited Coldwater Spring at mid-day to take some barometric readings, first near Benjamin F. Baker’s trading post, above the spring and the stream that flowed from it. Then he climbed up to the “summit of the hill on which is the new house (built of stone) of Mr. Baker.” On the same occasion Nicollet noted other information on the spring and the area around it. He noted that the “the beautiful spring [la belle Fontaine] at Mr. Baker’s, has a temerature of 46 [degrees], while that of the air was 56 [degrees] today at 2.” He also noted the formation of the ground above the spring, stating that “the deposit of sand which forms the summit of this hill and which rests on the limestone formation which begins at the level of the spring [fontaine] of Mr. Baker is 18 feet thick, the first layer made of limestone mixed with shells, the second without shells. The whole rest of the height from the level of the stream is filled with sand.”

One of the failures of the archaeological survey done on the Bureau of Mines property in 2000 was that it provided no new information about the location of the Baker House. The later historical study done for the Park Service around the same time discussed the later history of the house, but there is a great deal more information available about the house’s history and important events that occurred there. In the weeks ahead we will put more of this information online.

Note: The date of the destruction of the Baker House was supplied by Bruce McKenzie, who has been doing a great deal of new research on the later history of the house.

A crude drawing by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro showing Coldwater Spring and the Baker House as it looked in 1852 when it had become a hotel owned by Kenneth McKenzie

A crude drawing by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro showing Coldwater Spring and the Baker House as it looked in 1853 when it had become a hotel owned by Kenneth McKenzie and operated as the St. Louis House

Short-term federal ownership of Coldwater Spring is a good short-term outcome

Continued federal ownership of the Coldwater Spring/Bureau of Mines property–on a short-term basis–is a reasonable outcome of the current Department of Interior environmental review process, one that many who disagree on other issues may agree upon, even though they will not agree publicly. The sticking points are about what happens afterwards.

As noted earlier, an online petition requesting the transfer of the property from the federal government to the Dakota people, specifies that the “an environmental restoration of the site by the Federal government” should take place “before the transfer to Dakota communities,” since “the Federal government via the Bureau of Mines is responsible for the current state of the land surrounding the spring,” meaning that ” it is their responsibility to restore the site to its original, pristine condition at Federal expense.” The petition goes on to state that “a full restoration of the site means the restoration of Dakota rights and title to the land. Coldwater Spring must be returned to the people of the Dakota Nation, who are the rightful care takers and protectors of that land.”

Clearly the petition does suggest a period of continued federal ownership during which the work of cleaning up the property would be done. This is a goal that many others who have different long-term solutions have supported in the past. During this period of federal ownership, according to varying scenarios, cleanup of the property would take place, along with restoration of the property’s vegetation, further study of the plant resources, cultural resources, archaeological resources, and its cultural heritage.  (In fact, this further study, particularly archaeological study, must be done prior to full restoration, so that the restoration takes into account all that is learned.) There does not appear to be any tribal entity that wants to bear the cost of this process, nor should it be any tribe’s responsibility.

What happens after that period of study and restoration is where the disagreements start. Those who want the transfer of the property to the Dakota may reasonably insist that a process begin early on to determine what Dakota groups would be willing or able to receive the property. During the period of short-term federal ownership intensive consultation with Dakota groups should also take place, so that nothing is done to the property that conflicted with the beliefs of Dakota people. Finally, if the process of transfer to Dakota communities does not take place in the near term, a commitment should be made in law that if any later transfer of the property out of federal hands takes  place that Dakota communities will have priority. The details of this entire process of restoring the land to the Dakota should be part of any final EIS from the Department of Interior or it should be something demanded by the public afterwards. However, even it the details of such a process are not found in the final EIS, having the federal government keep the property for a time will allow the time for the Dakota people to unite behind a detailed proposal. If the propery were given away by the federal government to another entity, there would be less opportunity for the Dakota to come up with their own plan.

These are reasonable solutions to the current process for studying what should happen to the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property. These are not the solutions that anyone is calling for, which means that it is a good compromise for all. In particular this is not the way the National Park Service has viewed the current process. The Park Service wants to limit the issues and the discussion to the cleanup and restoration process. This is why many people who have been involved in the Coldwater Spring issues for a long time have a problem with the current Bureau of Mines comment period.

The Park Service has put the cart before the horse yet again. (We could tell you stories about its having done so in the past.)  Having announced the decision in December about keeping the Coldwater property in federal hands and cleaning it up, the Park Service had its open house on February 23 to get comment on how to accomplish the cleanup. The current 30-day comment period is to allow further comment on that question. But many of those who want to comment have real reservations about continued federal ownership. By commenting they appear to be accepting the initial premise. Why should they submit comment on something when they don’t agree with the preferred outcome proposed by the Department of Interior? 

The answer is that everyone wants the property to be cleaned up in some way. Some might suggest that a few buildings should remain standing for re-use. The Park Service does not appear to want that, but that is something that could be part of the comments submitted. Others may want a lot of different things in terms of the cleanup process. These are all important points to make in submitting comments. But it is also important that those who want to further the prospect of Dakota ownership of the property not only continue to insist that this transfer must take place at some point in the future, but also offer a detailed and constructive plan for this to be implemented.  In the current comment period details about the restoration of the land to the Dakota are as important about the details of restoration of Coldwater’s plant populations.

Here are the details from the Park Service about how to submit comments:

The [Feb. 23]  meeting opened a 30 day comment period which ends March 25, 2009. While comments were received at the open house, additional comments are welcome by e-mail, fax (651-290-3214), or by mail either letter or comment card and mailing to:

Bureau of Mines/Coldwater Project
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
111 Kellogg Boulevard East, Suite 105
St. Paul, MN 55101

Public Comments are now online relating to the 2006 Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines draft EIS

In case anyone has not yet noticed, there is a massive pdf document now online containing summaries of all the “substantive” comments received by the National Park Service/Department of Interior relating to the draft Environmental Impact Statement released in the summer of 2006 concerning the fate of the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities Campus property.

The comment period for the draft EIS continued until late November 2006. At its conclusion, officials in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) promised to put the public comments online. Over the months since then repeated questions about that were answered with statements to the effect that they were waiting for approval from higher-ups in the Interior Department. As stated here before, local officials were more than willing to let you go into their office in St. Paul and have you look at the documents but were apparently never able to put them online.

Over two years later, sometime in February or early March 2009, the massive comment summary was put online. It is possible that the report was available somewhere on the MNRRA website prior to then, but there was no link to it at its current location on February 17, 2009, according to a cached Google version of the page printed out on February 23, the day of the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines open house.

The Adobe Acrobat document is dated January 8, 2007, which was less than two months after the conclusion of the draft EIS comment period. It does not reproduce the actual submissions from members of the public. Rather, it summarizes them in very particular categories each of which is given a numbered code. The report contains 180 pages including summaries of comments from 619 individuals or groups.  It is clear that these summaries were compiled for the use of the Park Service. After each comment there is space for a response, but the responses are not there. Undoubtedly there will be responses from the National Park Service or the Interior Department when the final version of the EIS is released later this year. By law there must be a response to each “substantive comment.”

As stated in this document, “substantive comments” are defined as comments that question the accuracy of the information in the EIS, the adequacy of the EIS, or provide evidence of a need to revise the proposal. Comments from each individual are not given in full but are taken apart and summarized in relation to each coded category established by the Park Service, or the contractor who did the work. The names of the individuals making the comments are included at the end of each comment, unless the person asked to remain anonymous. The file is searchable, so it is possible to track the comments made by each commenter.

Here’s a link to the Adobe Acrobat file containing the report.

Reclaiming Minnesota–Mini Sota Makoce, the Dakota homeland

One hundred and forty six years after most of the Dakota were exiled from Minnesota, reclaiming Minnesota–Mini Sota Makoce, the Dakota homeland–is a goal of many Dakota people, even those who disagree on particular goals and tactics. Some are doing it with money, buying back the land one parcel at a time. Others, who do not have the money are using their bodies and their voices, risking and suffering arrest. Still others are working more quietly, using research, education, negotiation, and engagement to recover and re-establish the presence of Dakota in this region. All them are making an important contribution to the process. Successful movements to achieve change require all these complementary skills.

For any people dispossessed of their lands or exiled from their homeland, it takes the talents of many to reclaim what was taken from them or return to what they left behind, even though all who are involved may not appreciate that they are separate, complementary pieces of a larger struggle. It is a process that proceeds in fits and starts, concentrating sometimes on one place or another. At the moment a great deal of attention is being paid to the area of Bdote around the mouth of the Minnesota River, and specifically the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property. The only unfortunate aspect of this current struggle to reclaim this area is that it may lead people to believe that this is the only place the Dakota care about. But in the months and years ahead, Dakota people, and those who support their efforts, will engage over many places in Minnesota, seeking to educate, to confront, and to reclaim. We hope to keep track of all the developments as they take place.