Minnesota is a beautiful place, one rich in history and culture. The origin of our state name comes from the Dakota words Mni Sota or “Land where the waters reflect the skies.” Growing up in Minnesota we learned very little in school about place names and even less about their origin stories. The word Mni means water and Ni itself means lifeforce. Collectively this signifies that for the Dakota people water is their lifeforce and it is to be protected at all costs. Indeed, water is crucial for the survival of all creatures.
Words are powerful. When used to support and lift each other up words can inspire a whole generation. Conversely words can be spoken in anger and in the extreme, sadly, evoking hatred. Every so often one is afforded the opportunity to learn new words and absorb their meanings such that the experience alters their worldview. One such word for me is Bdote, Dakota word for “where waters gather” or where rivers meet as in the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. To the Dakota people, Bdote is a sacred place and central to their origin story. It is the center of their universe.
On Oct. 25, I had the good fortune of taking part in a workshop and field trip to three Dakota cultural sites along with other educators, medical professionals, civic leaders from around the Twin Cities and the state. The event “Learning from Place – Bdote” was organized by the Minnesota Humanities Center and led by three extraordinary Dakota educators, Ramona Kitto Stately, Ethan Neerdaels, and Reuben Kitto Stately. Over the course of several hours, we traveled to Indian Mounds Park, Ft. Snelling State Park and Pilot Knob.
There is something tactile in learning about history and sense of place while physically connecting to the land. To hear the stories firsthand from direct descendants of the Dakota who lived here before any Europeans arrived was both revealing and intensely moving. In many ways I’m still processing everything I learned and experienced that day. As it was suggested after witnessing a traditional Dakota encouragement song, our lives will never be the same. Knowing what we now know, we cannot go back without having been profoundly altered.
Working with organizations in West Central Minnesota involved in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion we want to acknowledge that our homes, businesses, and communities sit on the traditional land of the Dakota Nation, and we pay our respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. We also acknowledge Indigenous peoples where you are and around the world as the traditional custodians of the sacred and ancient art of storytelling.
Over the past four years I’ve made it a point to inform myself about the history of this place I call home. At times it has been a painful endeavor yet illuminating and enlightening on many different levels. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know. Researching translations for a photography exhibition as part of a Willmar Artist on Mainstreet grant, it became evident that Dakota language was endangered. Very few first language speakers are alive today and those individuals are elderly. There are efforts to capture and preserve the language and culture which are one and the same. It has been said that everything we need to know about Minnesota is contained and codified in the Dakota language. Originally Dakota was an oral tradition and only in the last 187 years has there been written translations as part of an effort of 19th Century missionaries to convert Dakota people to Christianity.
While reading numerous accounts of events that took place here in Minnesota, I’ve become aware of some ugly truths and things we Minnesotans are uncomfortable discussing- that genocide was committed here over decades, millions of acres of land was appropriated, treaties and agreements with sovereign nations were broken, Ft. Snelling was the site of a concentration camp of women, children, and elderly Dakota people where hundreds of people died of cold, starvation and disease. In Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, the largest mass execution (38 Dakota men) in the United States occurred. Up until very recently, boarding schools still existed where indigenous children were taken from their families and were forbidden to speak their native language or to practice their spiritual traditions.
While we cannot undo deeds of the past, what we can do is to be aware of injustice in all its forms and work to be allies of our indigenous neighbors as well as other nondominant communities. There is much wisdom in indigenous traditions and the more I seek to understand, the more sense it makes to pay attention to their lifeways. I’m also very mindful not to tread on cultural appropriation. These are their stories and it’s a gift to share their insights. Our stories are interwoven while at the same time they remain unique. Consider that we have much to learn from each other if we are truly open minded.
Rather than focusing on trauma that indigenous people have endured, a path forward would be to help change the narrative from native peoples being extinct, historical figures or sports mascots to a focus on the current vibrant culture and people of today that are thriving. We are Still Here Minnesota (washmn.org) is one such organization helping to shift the narrative highlighting the facts that the 11 First Nations in Minnesota are top contributors to employment in our state, the second largest contributor to tourism and feature prominent educators, lawmakers, medical professionals, artists and any number of other civic leaders.
Listening to these compelling stories told about the Dakota worldview has affected me on a visceral level. My big takeaway from this Learning from Place: Bdote workshop was one of hope. That through increasing awareness and connection to sense of place we may begin to heal here in Minnesota, yet it will take all of us working to treat each other with respect and understanding. A tall order you might ask? Of course, but one worth undertaking.
For more information on these and other cultural enrichment programs connect with the Minnesota Humanities Center www.mnhum.org and www.bdotememorymap.org.
John Kellen grew up in Willmar and attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.