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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then, as I followed the Wahpekuta Trail, I wondered about hunting and berry picking and perhaps mushroom gathering in the denseness of woods.
And, instead of campers in these trees, I imagined tipis.
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