Dakota Homecoming focuses on mending the past

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WINONA, Minn. – In Winona, no one wants to recreate the past 150 years. Those were times of turmoil, when the Treaty of 1862 was signed with the federal government. Battles between settlement-minded Minnesotans and the Dakota bands broke out regularly. Meanwhile, skirmishes amongst the Indians erupted over choosing to stay, fight or leave the area. This all played out along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River.

Looking back in this small southeast Minnesota town can be a tricky feat. But the town of Winona will kick off its sixth annual event, the Dakota Homecoming, June 5 – 6, and city officials hope it will buttress race relations between the Dakota peoples and its present-day inhabitants.

Every event at the two-day festival is meant to cement that which was torn apart by events that unfolded long ago. The homecoming features dance performances by Dakota peoples, youth outreaches, group camping, art exhibits and community meals. The two sides will gather in the newly built Unity Park and work to patch their common past.

Reconciliation by definition is to restore, but some historical officials said a public overture is a good start, but other components are necessary. Travis Zimmerman, Indian Affairs liaison for the Minnesota Historical Society, said the recipe should contain historical accuracy. Official versions are rife with revised history and most local residents know nothing of their area’s past, he said.

“The real American Indian story about events here in Minnesota has not been told. There’s a lot of healing that has to be externally, but there is also healing that has to be done internally for Indians.”

The path to reconciliation first began in 1987, when then Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich declared it the official year of reconciliation between non-Natives and Natives, Zimmerman said.

Both sides also agree that settlement began the splintered historical viewpoint. Dakota peoples migrated to the areas they now inhabit, including Iowa, Nebraska, upstate Minnesota and the Dakota states.

Nearly 150 years later, Winona city leaders reach out to Dakota leaders to invite the relocated Indians back to what was once their home territory. The bands invited include the Santee Sioux, Sisseton and Wahpeton bands, among others.

Winona City Manager Eric Sorensen said the city puts $18,000 in allocations to the event, and lends hours of city staff time. Coupled with private donations, it all goes toward making the event happen.

Trying to sum up the checkered history between the Dakotas and the non-Natives is a sizeable undertaking. Most around Winona are familiar with the Treaty of 1862 but not so common is “Otakuye Hdihunipi,” a Dakota form of “All relatives have come home.”

Sorensen said the city’s wish is to “continue to make Winona a place where Dakota people can be heard by white people sincerely, free of normal politics.

“Success is measured by how effectively we hear one another and how follow-up meetings go.”

Leonard Wabasha, cultural resources director for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is the seventh generation grandson of the original and noted Dakota chief, Wapahasa. Wabasha is how the name has changed spelling over the years, he said.

“There’s a deep and tragic history of the Dakota Indians and the people of Minnesota. Basically, there’s positives and negatives.”

Wabasha characterized the history of the Winona area as a muddied affair aided by government treaties, dishonest agents and swindled annuities to Indian recipients. Wabasha’s mother, Vernell Wabasha, married the sixth generation grandson of the original Dakota chief. She recalled a more recent state history that limited education and economic opportunities to its Native inhabitants.

“Back in the day we didn’t know there were scholarships to go to school. You could literally count on your hands the number of educated Indians.”

Zimmerman said healing in a historical sense can often come from speaking truthfully. At the Dakota Homecoming, one scheduled event seems to hinge on this theory, “The Truth Telling Circle.” The open event allows members of the Dakota people and Winona residents to face each other and bear grievances or offer apologies for past deeds. The event, while respectful, can often be complicated, officials said.

“It’s (truth circle) can be brutally honest,” said Cynthya Porter, a past Dakota homecoming attendee. “It’s unity between the people now and the people who used to live here.”

But the truth is coming out, a little at a time. Diveristy Foundation CEO Ed Lohnes Jr. said the Talking Circle is perhaps the most effective element used to bond the Natives to non-Natives and the past to the present. The first year of the homecoming, it was most impactful because state politicians were present.

“It is spiritually enlightening and emotional,” said Lohnes, a Spirit Creek member. “It’s set for an hour-and-a-half but it can go three to four hours. It’s not just the telling, it’s also the listening.”

By the end of this year’s event, another conciliatory moment will be captured. The feeling is good, in small doses.

“It’s a sad history for the Dakota people and it isn’t something you want to remember all the time,” Vernell Wabasha said.