Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In Montgomery: Historic photos of Native Americans by Edward Curtis January 31, 2020

Prints of Edward Curtis photos now exhibited at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center.

 

BENEATH PORTRAITS OF KOLACKY DAYS queens, early 1900s era sepia-tone photos stretch along walls and grace tables in the narrow room. Prints of images taken by a man considered one of America’s greatest photographers. Edward S. Curtis.

 

A permanent exhibit of Kolacky Days queen portraits hangs above the temporary exhibit of Edward Curtis photos of Native Americans.

 

A photo of Edward Curtis with info about this noted American photographer.

 

Visitors are welcome to sit and page through Edward Curtis books.

 

Despite his outstanding photographic reputation, Curtis was previously unknown to me. But no more. Recently I visited an exhibit of around 60 selected photos from his “The North American Indian” collection at the Arts and Heritage Center in Montgomery. His entire body of work encompasses 40,000 photos, many published in 20 volumes.

 

Historic Hilltop Hall houses the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center on the right and a floral and gift shop on the left.

 

To see these photos, termed part of the “most complete visual record of Native Americans west of the Mississippi,” right here in rural Minnesota is such a gift. A $4,000 grant from the Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation funded the exhibit in Montgomery, a community of some 3,000 just 20 miles northwest of Faribault.

 

Edward Curtis photographed Native Americans of the west over a 30-year period.

 

Displaying Curtis’ photos here brings the photographer full circle back to Le Sueur County. At the age of five, he moved here with his parents from his native Wisconsin, eventually settling in Cordova. Here he grew up to appreciate the outdoors as he canoed with his preacher father along the Cannon River. By age 17, Curtis was working at a photography studio in St. Paul. In 1887, he moved to Seattle.

 

A snippet of a 1906 comment about Edward Curtis by President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

That’s the backstory of a photographer who earned the praise and financial support of President Theodore Roosevelt, who called Curtis a “close observer.” That is evident in the documentary photos of the Native Americans Curtis came to know well and to, clearly, value and love.

 

“Wishham girl,” 1910

 

Text accompanies the “Wishham girl” photo.

 

A portion of the portrait of “Chief Joseph– Nez Perce”, 1903

 

His portraits of western Native Americans document not only a culture, but also history and personalities. As I studied the photos, I admired faces weathered by wind and sun, steady strength in profiles, joy and sadness in eyes. I admired, too, the artistry of woven baskets, handcrafted pottery, curved canoes, feathered headdresses and detailed beadwork.

 

An insightful and beautiful quote by Edward Curtis.

 

I expect if I was to revisit this exhibit, I’d notice details I missed. There’s just so much to see, to take in, to appreciate, to contemplate. A culture. A people. A way of life. A history. A connection to nature.

 

More photos from the exhibit.

 

I am grateful to long-ago photographers like Edward Sheriff Curtis for his efforts in connecting personally with his subjects, for caring and for documenting with his camera. His work is truly remarkable.

 

Info about Edward Curtis included in the show.

 

FYI: “The North American Indian” exhibit at the Montgomery Arts and Heritage Center continues until Saturday, February 29. The arts center is open from 2 – 5 pm Thursdays and Fridays and from 9 am – noon Saturdays and is located at 206 First Street North in downtown Montgomery, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating William Kent Krueger’s latest bestseller, This Tender Land January 24, 2020

I’VE LONG BEEN A FAN of Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series and stand-alone book, Ordinary Grace. But now I can add another title to that list. This Tender Land.

Ten days after I picked up the book from Buckham Memorial Library, where I’d been on a waiting list for months to get the 2019 release, I’d finished the novel. And I didn’t start reading it immediately as I had to first finish The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal.

In a nutshell, This Tender Land tells the story of orphaned brothers, Odie and Albert, who are sent to the Lincoln Indian Training School, although they are not Native Americans. Yes, such schools really existed long ago. The school is not so much a school as a prison with cruelty and abuse defining life there.

This fictional book, set primarily in southern Minnesota along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, weaves actual history into the storyline. Much of that history focuses on the mistreatment of native peoples during and following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 and how that carried through to subsequent generations. I’m familiar with that history having grown up in Redwood County, at the epicenter (along with Brown County) of that war. Krueger clearly did his research and then took that information and made it personal through characters, scenes and setting.

But this is much more than a historically-based book of fiction. This is a story about family and friends, about searching and discovery, about hope and despair, about love and loss, about cruelty and kindness, about redefining rich and poor, about anger and spirituality and forgiveness and finding one’s self. This book really makes you think as the story twists and turns and all those themes emerge.

At one point, after reading a line on page 288, I cried. When was the last time you cried while reading a book? I cried at 12-year-old Odie’s observation of women who’ve suffered and yet never given up hope, who’ve forgiven… It was a powerful sentence for me personally.

When a book can move me like that, I feel a deep respect for the author, for his talent, for his writing. There’s a reason William Kent Krueger’s books are bestsellers and in demand at libraries. He writes with depth and authenticity in ways that resonate.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Visiting down-home Indian Island Winery August 30, 2011

This building complex houses one of southern Minnesota's newest wineries.

IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW, you likely would think, from a distance, that the sprawling pole shed along Waseca/Blue Earth County Road 37 several miles south of Smith Mills is just another farm building planted among acres and acres of soybean and corn fields.

But you would be wrong. This is home to Indian Island Winery, among southern Minnesota’s newest wineries.

Minnesota artist Jim Hansel created the artwork, "Native Lands," for Indian Island Winery. Considered one of America's premier wildlife, nature and landscape artists, Hansel is legally blind.

Sunday afternoon my husband and I drove west from our Faribault home to check out the winery with the intriguing name, drawn from the Native Americans who once used this land—at one time nearly surrounded by water—as their summer hunting camp.

Inside the winery, you’ll see the artifacts, found on this property, to back up the historical context of this place. And, no, this site was not a Native American burial grounds.

Indian artifacts found on-site and displayed inside the winery.

Tour the winery and/or the vineyard and the Winter family will fill you in on the grape-growing and harvesting and wine-making process. We opted in on the winery tour, out on the vineyard tour given I wanted to photograph the vineyard and didn’t want to hold up a whole trolley full of tourists.

Instead, Tom Winter, who is a partner in the business along with his parents, Ray and Lisa, his wife Angela, and his sister Angie, invited us to follow the trolley out to the grape fields and explore on our own.

Visitors experience the country as they ride past soybean fields on the way to the vineyard.

That no qualms invitation warmed me up to the Winter family right then and there. And, if I was to choose a phrase defining our visit to Indian Island, that would be “down-home, country friendly.”

From Tom’s broad smile, to his and Angela’s adorable 7-month-old son to the charming college student tending the wine-tasting bar to the bucolic setting, everything about Indian Island speaks  “Welcome, we’re happy to have you here in this place we love.”

And clearly the Winters love this land, and each other, as they reside on various building sites within view of the winery and vineyards. “Close, but not too close,” Tom laughs, adding that a cousin also lives nearby.

Indian Island's vineyard covers 13 acres. Here's a view between rows of plants.

Clusters of grapes hang heavy on vines awaiting the harvest.

Grape leaves arc above the rows.

I don't know grape types, but my husband and I found many varieties in the vineyard.

Masses of grapes and individual grapes made for some lovely photos.

The thing we noticed about the vineyard grapes is that they don't look at all like the types of larger grapes sold in grocery store produce departments.

Tom Winter warned us about the LP-fueled cannon before we headed for the vineyard. The cannon "fires" periodically to scare away the birds. Likewise, a loudspeaker system intertwined among the grapes broadcasts the voices of squawking birds, all to keep real birds away from the fruit.

During the winery tour, Tom says several times, “My sister’s the winemaker.” Even though Angie Winter makes the wine, this family works together, from Angela keeping the books to Tom pinch-hitting as a tour guide when he isn’t working in other facets of the winery to… Earlier this year, the Winters were named Waseca County’s Farm Family of the Year.

Visitors learn about the press, filter, crusher and other equipment in the wine-making room.

A box full of corks in the wine-making section of the business.

Together, after only a few years in the wine business, the Winters have accumulated a long list of awards—the most recent the coveted Minnesota Governor’s Cup (aka gold medal) in the 2011 International Cold Climate Wine Competition for their Frontenac Rosé.

The Winters’ wine beat out 250 other entries to take the top honors, Ray Winter says.

Winner of the 2011 Governor's Cup, Frontenac Rose.

Inside the machine shed style building, which looks nothing like a storage place for farm machinery, you can (for $5 and you get to keep an Indian Island wine glass) sample four pre-selected wines and three others at the wine bar. You’ll find Maiden Blush, this year’s bestseller, and wines with names like Dreamcatcher, Prairie Wind and St. Pepin.

You can sample wines (17 are on the current wine-tasting list) and/or enjoy a meal inside or outside the winery.

One of the many winery offerings: St. Croix, a semi-dry red table wine.

Grab a bottle of wine from the vast selection at Indian Island Winery.

If all goes well with this year’s crop, Indian Island plans to offer wines made from only Minnesota-grown grapes. Most grapes will come from the family’s own vineyards with some also coming from local contractors.

For now, Indian Island makes only grape wine. I have yet to sample any, although my husband and I picked up bottles of Maiden Blush and Frontenac Rosé.

The bartender suggested we return: “Come back in the evening, have a glass of wine and watch the sun set.”

That sounds like a plan to me, to this former southern Minnesota prairie farm girl who appreciates nothing more than the sun slipping below the horizon in a serene setting like that at Indian Island Winery.

I can picture myself sitting on the patio at Indian Island, sipping wine and watching the sun set.

FYI: Indian Island Winery is among places featured in the “Minnesota River Sips of History” wine, beer and history trail tour. Click here for more information on this tour that will take you to places like August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, Fieldstone Vineyards in Redwood Falls, the historic R.D. Hubbard House in Mankato, Gilfillan Estates between Morgan and Redwood Falls, and more. The sites are hosting special events the weekend of October 21 – 23.

Indian Island is among about 30 wineries in Minnesota and is located southeast of Mankato. The business aims to use only Minnesota grapes, most grown on-site.

FYI: Click here to learn more about artist Jim Hansel who created the signature artwork that graces Indian Island wine labels.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A historic bank and White Buffalo Calf Woman June 23, 2011

SET ME IN FRONT of an architecturally-stunning historic building and I’m in history heaven.

Just look at the lines, the colors, the window leading, the carvings…of the Old First National Bank of Mankato building, now a Verizon Wireless Center reception hall.

I didn’t step inside the former bank, didn’t even try a door. I was content last Saturday afternoon to view the exterior with its Prairie School style architecture.

“It’s like that bank in Owatonna,” my husband said as we gawked at the building built of brick, Mankato limestone and terra cotta along Civic Center Plaza in downtown Mankato.

He was, of course, referring to Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s “jewel box,” National Farmer’s Bank in Owatonna, a brick building with terra cotta accents, splendid for its stained glass windows, arches and other architectural details.

The Mankato building features Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired stained glass and detailed ornamentation along the roof line.

And now it also showcases a bronze sculpture of White Buffalo Calf Woman by South Dakota artists Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby as part of Mankato’s City Art Walking Sculpture Tour.

 

If you peer at the woman’s face, examine her beaded moccasins and the trim on her buckskin dress and pouch, you’ll notice how the colors mimic those of the historic bank building. Whether this Native American sculpture’s placement was planned or accidental, I don’t know, but it fits seamlessly with the historical vibe of the locale, enhancing the whole art viewing experience.

The city of Mankato, apparently named after a varied translation of the Dakota word Mahkato, meaning “blue earth,” owns a place in Minnesota and national history for the mass hanging of 38 Dakota here on December 26, 1862. Three hundred warriors were accused of killing civilians and soldiers and of other crimes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict. After a public outcry, President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. Certainly, Mankato is not proud of this moment in history. But efforts have been made to honor the Dakota at monuments in the city.

And now sculptures like White Buffalo Calf Woman also help heal and educate the public about the Native American culture. According to information on the sculpture placard, this prophetess is the only religious icon accepted by all Native American tribes. She “brings a message of healing, hope and peace among the races to all the people.”

More than just art, I also got a history lesson along a Mankato city street on a Saturday afternoon in June.

PLEASE VIEW MY JUNE 20 post for more photos and information about the Walking Sculpture Tour. Additional images will be forthcoming.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Can reconciliation ever exist over the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862? July 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:58 AM
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A marker honors soldiers and citizens at the Birch Coulee Monument near Morton. White men and Native Americans fought in the battle at Birch Coulee on September 2 and 3 during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

IF EVER A WAR suffered an identity crisis, it would be the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. I’m not stating that lightly or in any manner that would indicate disrespect to anyone.

But, in all honesty, I sometimes don’t know how to label the battle between the Dakota people and the white people. I’ve struggled for years with that issue, most recently while writing an essay “Strong Words on Strong Stone at Birch Coulee,” published in Hidden History of the Minnesota River Valley by Elizabeth Johanneck.

The Loyal Indian Monument at Birch Coulee Monument honors Native Americans and features strong, uppercased words like HUMANITY, PATRIOTISM, FIDELITY and COURAGE.

Back in the 1970s, when I wrote a high school term paper on this conflict, I tagged my research as “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” the accepted designation then. Prior to that, the word “massacre,” which seems entirely too biased and accusatory, denoted this event in Minnesota history. The conflict has also been termed as an “outbreak,” to me a tag more fitting of a disease.

The name evolved next to “The Dakota War of 1862” (still used by many) and then to the prevailing current-day usage, “U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.”

Apparently, though, that label isn’t set in stone. Recently, while touring the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault, Director Susan Garwood and I discussed the title while standing next to a recently-restored Civil War battle flag carried by Co. C Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

Today the word “rebellion” has even been tossed about in defining the conflict, Garwood says.

Right or wrong, I find it interesting that, 148 years after this “war” or “conflict” (or whatever word you choose to define it), the discussion continues. To me, the identity seems to switch with new insights, changing attitudes and/or political correctness.

Garwood also shared that more and more, historians are leaning toward viewing this conflict between the Dakota and the white people as part of the Civil War. After all, Minnesota soldiers, like the Sixth Regiment, fought against the Confederacy and defended the settlers against the Dakota. I suppose in many ways this makes sense since the wars between the North and the South and between the Dakota and the white men occurred simultaneously and were intertwined in defining the history of Minnesota and of this country.

Two Minnesota sites, Fort Ridgely and the location of the Battle of Wood Lake, are among nationally-designated Civil War battlefields. Both have been ranked by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission of the National Park Service as “needing additional protection.” A Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association is working to preserve the battleground that marked the end of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

Dakota beadwork displayed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Faribault.

I expect that differences in opinion will always exist regarding the “correct” terminology and historical connections for the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 just as differences exist among people.

I grew up within 15 miles of the Battle of Wood Lake on land that lies between the Upper Sioux Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community, so I am well aware of the differing perspectives and, yes, even prejudices and discontentment, that lingered when I left the area 36 years ago and which continue today.

Now as the 150th anniversary of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota Conflict approaches in 2012, I wonder, even worry, that deeply-rooted bad feelings, misunderstandings, bitterness and misconceptions will roil to the surface.

I hope that respect, rather than disrespect, define this remembrance.

Already, some efforts are underway to assure that the 150th commemoration includes reconciliation. According to an article in the New Ulm Journal, German polka dancers and Lower Sioux Community chanters, drummers and dancers performed earlier this week at a joint concert in New Ulm, site of several major clashes during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

A 150th Anniversary Steering Committee of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 has formed and launched a Web site, http://BrownCountyDakotaWarCommemoration.com. Currently, a contest is underway for a logo that represents the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The winning design will be used to promote commemorative activities planned for August 2012.

Although nothing has been finalized, committee member Kim Janke tells me her group is planning battle site tours; marker dedications; symposiums; a banquet; dedication of a Brown County Museum exhibit on the War of 1862, “representing the pioneers, Native Americans and what happened during the war;” and more.

All of this gives me hope that someday, perhaps soon, all of us, no matter our differences regarding the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, can stand together, reconciled, in an unbroken circle of peace.

Dakota beaded moccasins exhibited at the Rice County Historical Society Museum.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Earth Day wisdom from a Cherokee elder April 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:34 AM
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My niece, Beth, one half of an Earth Day Cleaning Crew in a West Virginia neighborhood.

WHEN THE CLERK at Target handed me a free cloth Earth Day shopping bag last Sunday, I felt like a hypocrite. I had just purchased two rolls of paper towels and a package of paper plates, which she promptly tucked inside the reusable bag.

So, today, I am going to tell you about my 6-year-old niece Beth, who, in my mind, redeemed me from the error of my ways. I’m hoping her actions will assuage my guilt about purchasing those throw-away products, and inspire you.

Sweet little Beth and her mom, Rena, take Earth Day seriously. On April 22, the 40th anniversary of this event that raises environmental awareness, the pair crafted a recyclable art project, took their recyclables to the recycling bin, walked through their West Virginia neighborhood picking up trash and saw the Earth Day movie Oceans, with husband/father Tom.

Beth's recycled Earth Day 2010 art project, including her pledge to care for Mother Earth.

Whew! Rena, who home-schools first-grader Beth, inspires me with her energy and creativity. My niece inspires me with her endless enthusiasm. The mother-daughter team planned follow-ups to their Earth Day activities by putting up a birdhouse, which Beth painted, and mounting a bat house in their pasture.

“Beth is especially excited about the bat house because she loves to sit on the deck on the summer evenings to watch the bats come out to feed,” Rena says. “We are hoping to attract up to 30 little brown bats in this house for their winter hibernation.”

Honestly, I cannot share the duo’s enthusiasm for attracting bats. I wonder if they’ve ever had bats inside their home. I have.

When I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if I could post this story and the photos of Beth, she told me a bit more about her interest in Earth Day: “I think our respect for the earth comes with our family genes, because my granddad was a Cherokee…and grew up near the reservation in Oklahoma. He respected Mother Earth as most Native Americans do.”

She goes on to tell me that her grandfather moved to California during the Dust Bowl and started farming there. Desiring a way to fertilize without harming the earth, he founded Gypsum Fertilizing Company, grinding gypsum rock and other natural elements into a powder to be dusted over crops.

Hearing this story from Rena touched me in a way I can’t explain. I’ve always known of the deep respect Native Americans have for Mother Earth. I’ve always known, too, of their deep cultural respect for elders and the wisdom they possess.

But to personally witness this come full circle—the wisdom of a Cherokee elder passed to the fourth generation—gives me reason to celebrate.

© Text copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photos courtesy of my sister-in-law, Rena