Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs sings a Dakota morninng song at the Dakota graveyard on Pilot’s Knob
Thirty-nine people, mostly from southern Minnesota, but four of us from Bemidji, traveled to the Twin Cities May 10 for a spiritual tour of three sites sacred to the Dakota people. The trip was a prelude to and preparation for the United Methodist Church’s Act of Repentance for injustices to Native Americans by the majority society. The leader was Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, a Presbyterian minister at Church of All Nations and a member of the Mohican Nation. Bob Klanderud, a Dakota educator, was also expected to take part, but his mother had just died and he couldn’t make it.
Our first stop was Mini Owe Sini (Coldwater Spring). This is a natural spring tucked in Minnesota’s frist national park just east of Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. In the past, the site was owned by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which erected several buildings and closed the area to the public, including the Dakota people who had for generations fetched water from the spring for sacred ceremonies.
A Dakota creation story holds that before the beginning of time, people lived in the Underworld and all their needs were supplied to them with no effort on their part. Then the Trickster told the people of the beauty of the world above and convinced one family to venture out of the Underworld. The Trickster spoke the truth about the beauty of the world, but didn’t mention how hard people have to work here to make a living. The entry to the world by the first Dakota family was through the spring, which is part of Bedote, the center of the traditional Dakota territory.
The spring, which produces between 100,000 and 144,000 gallons of water per day, became the water supply for Fort Snelling
Our next stop was Wokiksuye K’a Woyuonihan at Fort Snelling to put down tobacco and pray at the site of what is now referred to as the concentration camp where 1,700 women, children and old men were kept in a fenced area. After the six-week Dakota-U.S. war in August and September, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged and hundreds of others were imprisoned in federal penitentiaries in Davenport, Iowa, and Leavenworth, Kansas. No one knows exactly how many people died as a result of the war, but the estimate is 400 settlers, 200 soldiers and 200 Dakota men.
When the men were apprehended and imprisoned or hanged, the women, children and old men camped in western Minnesota under a bluff. The settlers’ hatred of the Dakota was so great, that they would perch atop the bluff and shoot randomly into the tepees below. The U.S. government, with the idea of protecting these people, marched them 150 miles to Fort Snelling in November 1862. They were confined to a guarded camp where 300 died during the ensuing winter and about the same number died later of the effects of living in the camp.The next year they were deported by steamboat up the Missouri River to Crow Creek, Dakota Territory. That removal was the order of Gov. Alexander Ramsey who decreed that no Dakotas could reside in Minnesota.
Every other year, Dakota women reenact the march to Fort Snelling setting up stakes every mile with names of those who died during the confinement at Fort Snelling.
The last stop was at Oheyawahi, translated something like “the place where many people visit,” known to the majority culture as Pilot’s Knob above the Mississippi River. River pilots used the hill as a landmark as they approached the city. Gen. Seth Eastman, commander of Fort Snelling starting in 1830 and a recorder of Native American life, wrote of seeing all the “Dakota dead” on Pilot Knob. The Dakota laid their dead on scaffolds for a year before burying the remains. Pilot Knob was, therefore, a large cemetery of unmarked graves.
To obtain fill for building the highway system around Minneapolis, about 25 feet of earth was removed from Pilot’s Knob. The digging unearthed Dakota remains, which were stored in a shed on the site. In 2009, a development company received permits to build condos on Pilot’s Knob. Protests from citizens groups, along with the tanking economy, squelched to project. Pilot Knob’s 23 acres are now protected in a public trust.
Those making these Sacred Journeys were not tourists, but people sincere in learning both history and the emotions attached to various sites by Dakota people.