Wokiksuya Remembrance at Coldwater Creek

"Help Protect Sacrd Sites" T-ShirtBy Cheryl Lewis Fields
More than 50 people gathered last week in double digit subzero temperatures to honor ancestors who suffered and died at Fort Snelling's concentration camp. Seventeen hundred Dakota people were held captive there following the Dakota Conflict of the late summer 1862; 1300 were exiled in the spring. This was the first commemoration in recent times to remember all those who were imprisoned at Fort Snelling. While there have been remembrances of the Dakota 38, "We need to remember all our hunkapi who spent that terrible winter here," affirms Bob Brown, Chair of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC). The commemoration was held at Fort Snelling State Park at the site where the stockade with its multitude of teepees had once stood below the fort at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the Mendota. Looking out over the frozen landscape, Brown wondered if the ancestors had fires to warm by and if the military even supplied them with firewood. While many saplings today grow in the area,150 years ago this area was largely grassland devoid of burnable deadwood.

"Seventeen hundred of our people were here, 1300 left. We know some of our people... so called 'Sibley's friendlies' ... remained here, but what about the rest?"

Brown challenges "The military kept very good records. We know there are mass graves here. Somewhere here they were buried." Brown felt it very important for the Mendota Mdewakanton oyate to begin the process of remembrance of the winter the ancestors spent at Fort Snelling and to honor the memory of those who died here. "This is the Mendota. We are the Mendota."

The Dakota Conflict and the resultant imprisonment and forced relocation to distant reservations in the spring of 1863 marked a definitive turning point in the history of the Dakota people and way of life. Feb. 2 was selected as the date of commemoration being right in the middle of the winter season. Today bundled in thinsulate and wool, shivering for an hour or two in wind chills of 20 something below one could hardly fathom how bitter that winter of 1862/63 must have been.

Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community Cultural Chair and Historian Jim Anderson explains that many older relatives, 75+ years of age, don't know what happened here, adding to the difficulty of piecing together the past He expressed the hope that someday perhaps the names of those who spent that winter here will be known.

A pipe quarried from Pipestone and artfully fashioned with the carvings of four oak leaves representing the Four Oak trees 'The ancestors" that the MMDC and supporters had fought to save was used for the first time since the Four Oaks were destroyed more than a year ago by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to make way for the much contested Hwy. 55 reroute.

Evidence supports claims that the Four Oaks had been planted by Native Americans to commemorate those who had perished at Fort Snelling. A week after destroying the trees on Dec. 11, 1999, the State of Minnesota argued in federal court, thinking they were defending their position - that the trees were not as old as some highway opponents had initially claimed, being only "137-years-old," which incidentally would have dated them to 1862/63.

"The Four Oaks were destroyed, but we didn't lose" states Anderson. "We have saved Coldwater Spring…and cuttings taken from the Four Oaks" before they were destroyed "are still growing"
Following counsel of Dakota elders, the pipe was buried in the center of where the Four Oaks stood. Bad things would come to whomever removed it. When the trees were destroyed, the pipe came into the possession, albeit illegally, of Minnesota State Highway Patrol Captain Kevin Kittridge. It was recently reclaimed and ritually purified~ now to be used to perhaps connect spiritually with the ancestors whose memories are being honored.

Dwight Stately from Red Lake, MN, hoped to make such a connection, wrapped against the frigid temperature in patchwork quilt made lovingly by an aunt and holding a feather gifted by a friend, both who had recently journeyed on following the ceremony here. Stalely would be heading to Duluth to have the bustle from which the feather came blessed. Wisps of sage lingered in the chill air.

The weather also didn't deter Jane MacDonald and Jan Dalsin of the Sisters of St Joseph's of Carondelet. Sister Jane was swift to reprimand Capt Kittridge last year when he delivered arrest warrants to highway opponents trying to protect the trees. Sister Dalsin, a retired school principal, has also frequently braved the weather during the past two years to oppose destruction of the area and often facilitates weekly meetings of the Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition, a community based group dedicated to preserving the area. Historically, the Sisters of St Joseph came to Minnesota to teach the people of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, a past reflective of the prevailing European attitude of that time which Sister Jan finds personally challenging today.

Also attending the ceremony were State Representatives Karen Clark (DFL Minneapolis) and Mark Gleason (DFL Richfield), both of whom have strongly supported the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community's efforts to protect and preserve the area, especially nearby Coldwater Spring which is currently in the process of being sold by the Department of Interior to Minnesota's Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). The MAC's intent for purchase was to partially pave over the site with a 7 acre parking lot.

Coldwater Spring is central to the Dakota creation story According to Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community Cultural Chair Anderson, "We believe this is the center of the universe...the center of our universe." The area has been declared a Sacred Site by the National Congress of American Indians, representing more than 300 tribes (Resolution # PSC-99- 127). The area is also the birthplace of the political state of Minnesota. Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition member Susu Jeffrey explains that Coldwater Spring has been in federal hands" since 1805 when it was "purchased for 60 barrels of whisky and $200... and this included all of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the cities of Richfield and Bloomington." Today the 27 acre Camp Coldwater property alone is worth $6 million. "Every time property changes hands, the price goes up," says Jeffrey opposing the sale.

Jeffrey Hamiel, MAC Executive Director, restated in a personal e-mail that MAC "wants to preserve Camp Coldwater" and that MAC's goal is to "not permit the development of the property that would interfere with the operation of the airport" However 'The airport is a transportation industry" states Susu Jeffrey and "the MAC is not the agency to protect this particular property." She cited jet fuel spills contamination from de-icing operations and a host of other issues demonstrating the airport's poor environmental stewardship. Coalition and MMDC members will be meeting this week with several state legislators to explore legislation that could transfer Camp Coldwater to a more appropriate State agency, publicly holding the land for preservation and historic interpretation.