Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

MORTON, Minnesota — Most of the snow is gone now as the first hints of spring emerge in southwestern Minnesota. Busy robins, budding bushes and hints of green in the grass bring the same sense of rebirth, hope and renewal they have every year.

But for one stretch of timbered bluffs and prairie above the Minnesota River with a deep and fractious history, this spring is a little different.

For the first time since 1862, the site of the first clashes of what became known as the Dakota War is back in Native care after the state of Minnesota last month returned it to the Lower Sioux Indian Community. It’s a move tribal citizens call a small but important step in a long, difficult and complicated road toward healing.

“It’s been a very slow process but with patience and communication and consultation between the agencies and the tribe, we're going to have a good day to celebrate," said Lower Sioux President Robert Lee Larsen.

Talks to repatriate the historic 120-acre site along the Minnesota River began back in 2004 and last month, after getting legislative approval in 2017, the Minnesota Historical Society turned over the property to the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

The tribe held a small ceremony on Feb. 12 to mark the handover and a larger celebration is planned after the COVID-19 threat subsides.

“This isn't a thing to own the land," Larsen said, "but to regain the relationship with that land and heal.”

A painful history

But healing won’t be easy.

In 1862, after being relegated to the Lower Sioux Reservation in southwestern Minnesota and enduring a decade of unmet treaty obligations, many Dakota in Minnesota took up arms. At the end of the ensuing six-week war, 38 Dakota men were marched to Mankato and executed in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Dakota elders, women and children were forcibly relocated from the reservation to Fort Snelling near Minneapolis.

The painful history tempers the urge to laud return of the land.

“We accept it gladly with a good heart,” said Lower Sioux citizen Pamela Halverson, who was her tribe’s historic preservation officer when the repatriation talks began 17 years ago. “It’s just, with the long history with that particular area, it makes it hard for both sides.”

Lower Sioux Indian Community citizen Pamela Halverson was her tribe’s historic preservation officer in 2004 when talks began to repatriate 120 acres from the state of Minnesota to the community.“The land has lots of stories behind it,” she said. “Lots of people died in this area for this site and this reservation.” The land was finally turned over Feb. 12, 2021. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

The historical society has been working with the tribe since 2007 in managing the site, which includes historic structures and a visitor center. Those collaborations continue today, after the land transfer.

“When you look at the history of the land and the history of the Treaty of 1851, in particular, that’s when you really come to see the magnitude of this decision,” said Dr. Kate Beane, a Flandreau Santee Sioux citizen who is director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. “The state, the Minnesota Historical Society and the tribe have come together to do what’s right.”

It may be right, but it's not yet complete, Halverson. While happy to see the return of the 120-acre parcel, she noted there are still large tracts remaining in the hands of the historical society.

“They should let the Lower Sioux have the entire site,” she said. “I would like to see a complete release of all the land.”

To that end the tribe is not without allies. Beane noted that state law prohibits the transfer of the state-owned visitor center buildings at this time because of issues involving bond indebtedness, but that the society envisions future transfers.

“The society is certainly committed to working with the tribe in supporting that transfer possibility in the future,” Beane said.

The state of Minnesota returned 120 acres of land to the Lower Sioux Indian Community on Feb. 12, 2021, but additional lands still remain under state control. (Map courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

Minnesota Historical Society Executive Director Kent Whitworth praised the land transfer.

“We are so looking forward to this next chapter in our relationship,” he said. “The tribe’s ownership of the land will benefit the public through a richer and more complete telling of the important history connected to this place.”

Giving thanks to the ancestors

Halverson visited the site a few days before the tribe took over to reflect on the historic nature of the transfer.

he land has lots of stories behind it,” she said. “Lots of people died in this area for this site and this reservation. A lot of our men were marched to Mankato to the largest mass hanging in U.S. history and a lot of our elders and women and children were marched to Fort Snelling to a prison camp from this area. So there were a lot of lives taken for this land. It makes my heart feel heavy.”

But she is glad the state has taken the first step.

“Having this place and the land to tell our stories and tell our history has been important to us and part of healing,” she said. “Telling our stories about who we are, not just in 1862, but who we really were and how beautiful we were and still are today.”

The Minnesota River lies covered under snow and ice at the bottom of the canyon on Feb. 10, 2021, just two days before the state of Minnesota repatriated 120 acres along the river to the Lower Sioux Indian Community. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Larsen, the tribal president, gave thanks to the ancestors in accepting the land.

“It’s because of them that we’re still here to celebrate and hopefully heal all of our people going forward from the trauma from 1862 to today,” he said. “And that going forward we can do this in a good way and repair ourselves and the land together.”

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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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