History as told By Jim Anderson-
Text of the chapter, from Sacred Lands of Indian America,
Harry N. Abrams, Inc, Publishers
THE GOD OF WATERS
The sacred spring pours out of a gash in dark limestone bedrock. A hidden, private place, it is a delicate rent in the earth, offering seventy gallons a minute, a hundred thousand gallons a day, of pure and healing water. Its sound carries across the pond into which it falls. By climbing the few feet down into it, you can stand on slippery dark rock and let the water run cold over your hands. Drink from it and it tastes cold and pure on your tongue.
Through intense summer heat and deep Minnesota winters, where minus thirty-
five degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon, the spring water remains forty-seven
The spring is the dwelling place of Unktehi, God of theWaters. It is Unktehi's passageway into the world, part of the Dakota (Sioux) creation story, a sacred place for thousands of years. A quarter of a mile away, thes pring's water enters the Mississippi not far above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.
The confluence is the place where the Seven Fires (divisions) of the
Dakota arrived on earth, descending from the belt of Orion. For the Mendota
Mdewakantan, a Dakota people who have always lived in this place, this
is where life began. Here, ma Maka, the mother earth, gave birth to the
ancestral grandmother and grandfather.
This land, where western prairie meets eastern woodland, is sacred. The
Reverend Gary Cavender, an Episcopal priest and a traditional spiritual
leader from the Shakopee Dakota Community, says, "We came here as
human beings, so that is our Eden."
Immediately to the north of the spring, on the last stretch of bur oak
savanna along the Mississippi anywhere from its headwaters to the Gulf
of Mexico, four sacred oak trees once grew. Oaks and spring, Minnehaha
Falls and much else of natural beauty form Minnehaha Park, the largest
green space in the Twin Cities. The Mendota, other Dakotas, and many other
Native Americans and whites fought sixteen months to save the trees, scheduled
to fall prey to a plan to reroute Highway 55, with the old route turned
over to the development of light rail transit. The new route would shave
three minutes off the drive time from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall
of America, in the process cutting a four-lane swath across an edge of
Minnehaha Park enroute to the Twin Cities International Airport, about
a mile away.
Spiritual leaders testified to the sacred nature of the oaks. In an October
1998 testimony, Gary Cavender said, "Among other reasons, the four
oaks are sacred because of their age. Indians treat our elders with the
greatest of respect because of their wisdom. Similarly, the oak trees
are our wise elders.They are our kin."
Harry Charger, a Lakota Sun Dance leader from South Dakota, performed
a sacred pipe ceremony at the four oaks. "It is a place where many,
many cycles have been completed and are still to be completed," he
wrote to the U.S. District Court in1998. "Although this is not to
be taken as a threat, "he continued, "when sites of this nature
are disturbed or disrespected, there are always the consequences. All
things, good or bad, have a way of coming back around."
In August 1998 protestors set up Camp Two Pines near the oak trees, establishing
a communal village called the Minnehaha Free State. They vowed to stay
until the road development was stopped and the property returned to the
Dakota Nation, whose land it always was.
At 4:30 AM on a bitter December morning in 1998, an army of more than
six hundred policemen wielding guns and pepper spray brutally destroyed
Camp Two Pines and bulldozed houses along the edge of the park that had
been condemned to makeway for the road. They tore down tipis and burned
the lodge where the sacred fire burned, as well as a ceremonial tipi and
other objects. (The state of Minnesota later reimbursed the owner of the
ceremonial tipi.) More than thirty protesters were arrested. Some were
injured. Protesters-- both
While the trees were still standing, Harry Charger told the Mendota the
trees would be lost, but the Mendota would not be defeated because they
would be educating people and the sacred spring would bepreserved. Now
the Mendota, and many others, turned their energy and prayers to saving
the spring, Unktehi's passageway, from the grasp of the Metropolitan Airport
The spring is on land owned by the U.S.Department of the Interior-- in
all, twenty-eight fenced acres that, until 1997, held a research facility
for Interior's Bureau of Mines. When the facility was closed, the land
was handed over to the Bureau of Land Management. At that point, the Minnesota
congressional delegation decided they could get a good deal for the state
if the land was sold-- for $6 million-- to the MAC, with the money staying
in Minnesota. The MAC would get the fly over zone it desired, plus space
for a seven-acre parking lot for employees and equipment.
The problem with selling the land to the MAC according to Bob Brown,
chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanron Dakota Community, is that it then becomes
subject to potential development. "It doesn't have to go to the MAC,"
he says. Under consideration is a fifty-year conservation easement on
the land, administered by the National Park Service. While this would safeguard
the spring for the time being, what happens at the end of fifty years?
A high, chain link fence surrounds the abandoned Bureau of Mines buildings. Access to the site is granted only during week day day light hours from7 AM to 3 PM. In spite of the hardship this places on working people who wish to come to the spring, a gathering is held here every Monday. Parking a quarter mile away, people walk across land ripped apart by the road construction to reach green grass near the spring to pray. An interpretive sign near the spring calls it the birthplace of Minnesota.The sign does not mention the Dakota.
At the beginning of one Monday gathering not long ago, Jim Anderson, cultural
chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanron Dakota Community; said, "Today
we're here again, and it's one more day the spring is running." A
blanket was placed on the ground and sage burned. Those gathered were
smudged with sweet grass. Jim began his prayer."Thanks to the Creator
for the water and the day and you guys." He passed the pipe around.
A uniformed security guard arrived before three and stood at the edge
of the prayer circle (without joining in) to make sure the ceremony did not overstay its time.
During a February 1999 press conference held by Minnesota state representative
Karen Clark, Gary Cavender said, "To block the sacred passageway would
be courting drought and things that have to do with water, because after
all, this is the God of theWaters. When you hear a thunderstorm and it
starts to rain, that is the underwater God having battle with the Sky God
so that the rain may come down replenish the earth, and the Sky God is
throwing down thunderbolts to fertilize the land."
The Mendota, who are currently engaged in a struggle to win federal recognition, have had a hard time for a century and a half. In 1851 they and other Dakota tribes ceded twenty million acres to the federal government. Money and supplies promised in return never materialized. In 1862 a white trader whom they approached for food told a group of starving Dakota to eat grass. The next morning the trader was found with his throat cut, his mouth full of grass and his warehouses empty. The people who had killed the trader asked Little Crow, a great Dakota leader, to fight with them. Little Crow had visited Washington, D.C., and knew how the government worked.
Further, he saw his role as that of peacemaker between Indians and whites. When he told the Indians he would fight with them but that they could not win, someone called him a coward. "I'm not a coward," Little Crow said. "I'll die with you, but we're going to lose everything we have here."
The ensuing conflict resulted in the deaths of about six hundred soldiers
and settlers, precipitated the removal of those Dakota who did not flee
to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and caused three hundred Indian
men to be condemned to hang. President Lincoln stayed execution for most
ofthem, but thirty-eight were hung at Mankato, the biggest mass execution
in the history of the United States. Fort Snelling sat on a bluff above
the confluence of the rivers. The camp was placed on the flats below,
where many died of disease and starvation and the cold.
During the uprising, Mendota and other Dakota farmers who were friendly
with white settlers saved more than three hundred women and children.
In return, Henry Sibley, regional manager of the American Fur Company,
wrote to the government on behalf of the Mendota, prompting the 1863 Congress
to grant the people eighty acres and $50 a piece to start over. The money
was not sent. Nor did the people get the land. Instead, they were told to
go to the reservations. Outraged, Sibley, a large landowner in the area,
took the Mendota to a small lake in the region. Until his death in 1891,
he continued trying to get for them the land and money appropriated by
Congress. After his death, his family simply kicked them off the land.
Meanwhile, the Dakota who had either fled or been shipped out of the region
began returning home. The government now appropriated land for them in Shakopee,
Prairie Island, Granite Falls, and Morton, Minnesota. There were plans
for land in Mendota, too, but because whites in the area did not want Indians
that close to Minneapolis and St. Paul, no land was ever provided there.
"They ended up more or less just assimilating us," Jim Anderson
says. In assimilation, the Mendota in essence lost everything. It was as
Little Crow predicted.
Landless, their fight for what is sacred is doubly hard. Lacking federal
recognition as a tribe, they cannot fight for the trees or the spring on
the basis of Indian religious rights but must instead base their case on
violations of their civil rights, a less powerful vehicle. Without federal
recognition, there is no chance the government will give the Mendota the
federal land on which the old Bureau of Mines buildings sit. Jim Anderson
hopes the area will be made into a park that will allow the Mendota (and everyone else) access
to the sacred spring. He would like to see at least one of the buildings
turned over to the tribe to be used as a cultural center, a place where young
people can learn their own history.
For the Mendota, the struggle to save the oak trees and the sacred spring
is a struggle to exist as a people. to regain their history, their future. About
half a mile from the sacred spring, on the west side of Minnehaha Creek
in high grass above Minnehaha Falls, there is a statue, a giant bronze mask
held up on two poles. It is Little Crow. Through the open sockets of his
eyes, you can seethe sky. It is the mask of a man in great pain for his
people, this world. There is no marker there to identify the mask. This work by
an Indian artist was put there by Indian people, for Indian people, so
they will remember. ~