Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on the Wahpekute in my area of Minnesota August 4, 2022

Following the Wahpekuta Trail (albeit incorrectly spelled) at Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

IF I WAS TO CLIMB the hill behind my house through the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and woods, I would reach Wapacuta Park. But it’s easier to take the street and then the mowed hillside to this Faribault city park.

Years ago, this was the go-to spot for our family—for the kids to zoom down the towering slide and scale the massive rock in the summer and to slide down the sledding hill in the winter. Today it’s a place to occasionally take the grandkids to play on the updated playground.

My research shows this sign at Sakatah Lake State Park should be spelled differently, as Wahpehkute. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

But years ago, oh, so many years ago, this spot of land belonged to the Dakota. That I assume given its name—Wapacuta, even though incorrectly spelled. The correctly spelled Wahpekute are members of the Dakota Nation. My county of Rice is the homeland of these indigenous peoples. They are an integral part of Faribault history. Town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault traded with the Dakota who lived in the area.

A posted map of the park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

To the west, along Minnesota State Highway 60 between Faribault and Waterville, Sakatah Lake State Park also reflects the Dakota influence in its name. The native Dakota called the land thereon Sakatah or “singing hills” in their native language.

Native peoples sourced water directly from the Sakatah lakes, unlike here via a water pump. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail runs through the park for three miles. That trail spans 39 miles from Faribault to Mankato, another Dakota-sourced name correctly spelled Mahkato, meaning “greenish blue earth.” Mankato is the site of the largest mass execution in US history with 38 Dakota hung on December 26, 1862, after the US-Dakota War of 1862. It is a horrible atrocity in our state’s history and one which, to this day, remains unknown to too many Minnesotans.

Southern Minnesota lakes are typically polluted/green, not sky-tinted. Here the fishing pier at Sakatah State Park is inaccessible, not linked to land, due to excessive ice damage last winter. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

We are a state with many location names tracing back to the Dakota—Mankato, Wabasha, Wabasso, Sleepy Eye, Winona, Winnebago… Even the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota Mnisota, meaning “sky-tinted waters” and referencing the Minnesota River.

I saw several motorboats on the lake at Sakatah. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

On a mid-June visit to Sakatah Lake State Park, rural Waterville, I thought about the Dakota who lived on this land, including at a village on the point separating Upper Sakatah and Lower Sakatah Lakes. I imagined the Wahpekute gliding across the lakes in canoes, angling for fish in these waters.

Mushrooms cling to a tree in the woods. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.

The Sakatah campgrounds fill quickly, like many Minnesota state parks. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.

We have much to learn as we follow the trails of history. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo June 2022)

I have much to learn about the Wahpekute. But at least I hold basic knowledge of their early presence here, of their importance in the history of this place I call home.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

14 Responses to “Reflecting on the Wahpekute in my area of Minnesota”

  1. Beautiful area, Audrey. Thanks for sharing! ❤

  2. beth Says:

    what a beautiful place and imagining their live there seems natural –

  3. I’m going to have to check out that trail! Looks like just the kind that Mick and I love.

  4. Sandra Says:

    “tipis” sent me to google. Nice column. Renaming Lake Calhoun in Mpls is an interesting story. Faribault has done what it can to respect its origins. You live in an enviable spot with that hillside backyard. Tom Weaver, son of Dr. Weaver, brother of Jack, classmate of mine, has extensive knowledge of the Native American culture, speaks the tribal language of several. Frankly, I’m impressed and a bit envious. He travels MN, even the U.S., enjoying and advocating the culture. Has a blog at http://prairielakesjourneystwospirit.blogspot.com

  5. Valerie Says:

    I started reading The Seed Keeper. It is an interesting book, and creates a desire to learn more of the history the Native American culture.


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