Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections from Redwood & Rice counties on NATIVE LIVES MATTER May 2, 2022

Part of a temporary public art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day Celebration. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

IN THE GEOGRAPHICAL BACKGROUND of my childhood, I knew of the “Indian Reservations” to the northwest near Granite Falls and then to the east near Morton. My hometown of Vesta sits between the two, no longer referred to as “reservations” but as the Upper Sioux Indian Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

A Dakota man and Alexander Faribault are depicted trading furs in this sculpture at Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Ivan Whillock created the sculpture which graces the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain in my community of Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

Today I live 120 miles to the east in Faribault, next to Wapacuta Park. Rice County is the homeland of the Wahpekute (not Wapacuta), a tribal band of the Dakota.

The Earth Day art carried two messages: NATIVE LIVES MATTER and CLIMATE JUSTICE. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

A temporary public art installation at the recent Earth Day Celebration in neighboring Northfield prompted me to reflect on Indigenous people in southern Minnesota. Growing up in Redwood County, my knowledge of area Native Americans focused primarily on “The Sioux Uprising.” History teachers then used that term, rather than the current-day “US-Dakota War of 1862,” which should tell you a thing or ten about how biased that perspective back in the 1970s. How thankful I am that my awareness and understanding have grown and that attitudes are shifting to better reflect all sides of history.

The message grows, blossoms in the Earth Day art. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

The NATIVE LIVES MATTER message bannering the art installation at Northfield’s Earth Day event reinforces a Land Acknowledgment Statement adopted by the City of Northfield in November 2020. That reads as follows:

We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and other Bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land throughout the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.

NATIVE LIVES MATTER fits the spirit of the Land Acknowledgment Statement. Those three words caused me to pause, to think, to consider what I’d been taught all those decades ago and how my thinking has shifted as I’ve aged, opened my mind and learned.

Dakota beadwork displayed and photographed at the Rice County Historical Society Museum, Faribault, in 2010. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2010)

The Rice County Historical Society, which exhibits a collection of Native American artifacts in its Faribault museum, shares a statement similar to the City of Northfield’s on its website:

We acknowledge that the land that is now Rice County, MN, was their (Dakota) homeland and for many tribal members today, it is still their home.

In all of this, I feel a sense of gratitude regarding increasing public recognition of the land history and contributions of Indigenous People in Minnesota. In my home area of Redwood County, nearly 1,000 individuals from the Mdewakanton Band of Dakota call the Lower Sioux Indian Community home. To the east in Yellow Medicine County near Granite Falls, nearly 500 individuals from the Dakota Oyate call the Upper Sioux Indian Community home.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

I hope educators in my home area are today teaching students about the local Dakota and even bringing elders into classrooms. I graduated, after all, from Wabasso High School, the name Wabasso coming from a Native word meaning “white rabbit.” I would then go on to attend college in Mankato, site of the largest mass execution in the US with 38 Dakota killed in a public hanging on December 26, 1862.

I would be remiss if I did not share that, during the US-Dakota Conflict of 1862, family members on my mom’s side fled their rural Courtland farm for safety in St. Peter. They later put in a claim to the US government for crop loss.

Details on a sign outside the Cathedral of our Merciful Savior in Faribault. Bishop Henry Whipple, who served here, advocated for the rights of Native Americans and had a strong friendship with them. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2020)

Now, 160 years after that event in my ancestors’ history, I continue growing my knowledge, widening my understanding of Minnesota history and of the Indigenous people who first called this land home.

A graphic of Minnesota is painted on the back of the art installation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo April 2022)

FYI: Please click here to read previous posts I’ve written on the US-Dakota War (also called Conflict) of 1862.

Also, I suggest you read an article on the Minnesota Public Radio website about efforts to change the Minnesota State flag. The flag depicts, among other details, a Native American in the background riding off into the sunset while a settler focuses the foreground, hands on a plow, rifle nearby. I agree that change is needed. But, as too often happens, the issue has become politically-charged.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling