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Mending the wounds

As the site of the nation's largest mass execution, Mankato was largely avoided by Indians. But thanks to the annual powwow, the city has seen a spirit of reconciliation

Joe Tougas - Mankato Free Press Staff Writer

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2002

MANKATO - The main cultural celebration in Mankato is one that has managed to go beyond recognizing one group and instead has served as a significant healing force for those hit by a painful part of the city's history.

In the course of its 30 years, the Mah-Kato Powwow has managed to bridge a historical gap between Dakota Indians and the white settlers, two sides of the bloodiest Indian War in the United States. Because of the powwow, many Dakota will tell you, a town that had historically meant large-scale death and antagonism to many Dakota now makes a different impression.

"It's almost less intolerant than any other town around," said Glenn Wasicuna, a Dakota teacher in Prior Lake.

From a Dakota point of view, that's an astounding symbolic turnaround, given that the Dakota Conflict in 1862 ended with the simultaneous hanging of 38 Indians in Mankato, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

When Bud Lawrence met Amos Owen and struck up a friendship that would result in the Mah-Kato Powwow, more than a century had passed of Mankato being seen as hostile to all things Indian, a safe assumption, given the efforts taken to eradicate the Indian culture and spirituality across the country.

Dave Larson, a Dakota from Morton, grew up in an atmosphere where Indian children were basically instructed to forget their ethnic heritage and customs, including their religion. Shortly after the Dakota war, Dakota language was forbidden in schools. This continued into the late 1960s and early '70s.

"One of the most racist things you could do is take away someone's identity," said Larson, who grew up an angry fighting man.

An adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota, Larson has also taught classes at Minnesota State University and Gustavus Adolphus College. He holds himself out as a consultant for colleges in teaching Dakota history. The breakthrough between the gentle intellectual and the angry drinker came through warrior training from an uncle.

"I was fighting all the time. I thought that's what a warrior does," Larson said. He was in his 30s in 1979, drinking and angry. Today, he's learned to soothe the anger not with alcohol, but with forgiveness.

"Forgiveness doesn't mean what happened is OK," Larson said. "but it's not your responsibility to carry it on and carry the anger."

Since becoming a warrior in 1979, he said, he has not raised his hand to anyone. The powwow's ceremonial sweat lodges - purification ceremonies led by an elder - encourage the reconciliation and forgiveness.

"When we go to a sweat lodge, we ask the creator to take whatever anger we can't control and take it away from us," he said.

To Larson, the Mah-Kato Powwow was one of the few gatherings where the ceremony had an open-ended feel to it, rather than the typical theme-oriented gatherings about health issues or chemical dependency. By contrast, the Mankato powwow was a place to talk about anything - particularly the experience of being Indian in the 20th century.

"We didn't have any place to do that kind of thing together," Larson said. "Here, it's just about being Indian. We're finally finding each other."


The first powwow in Mankato took place in 1972, when more than 2,000 mostly Dakota Indians gathered for the vent. It continues to this day, bringing whites and Indians together in a a town that once symbolized division between the two.

While an impressive social event for the whites and the Dakota, spiritual components permeate the powwow as well. From the sweat lodges that offer purification ceremonies to the light-step, hard-step moves of the dancers - even the people talking on the microphones throughout the event spreading good words - all of them have a significant spiritual task, Larson said.

"Without your connection to God, to the supreme being, you've got nothing," he said.

And key to that connection is the preservation of the Dakota language, something that Glenn Wasicuna is helping through a series of classes in Prior Lake.

Growing up in what is now the Sioux Valley Reservation in Canada, Wasicuna as a teen-ager attended a residential school three hours away from his home. He had grown up in a home where his parents spoke Dakota fluently. And because the conditions of the reservation were poor, they were happy to abide by the government's education program that sent kids such as Wasicuna to residential schools.

"What they did, in effect, was take me away from my mom and dad and their teaching," he said. "Last of all, they took me away from my community."

At school, students were instructed to not speak Dakota. He recalls one instance of punishment for doing so: copying by hand an entire English dictionary page.

Multiply his experience by a generation, and the spoken language of the Dakota diminishes. But today, he teaches the language to a small group of Dakota men who gather for lessons in Shakopee. They come from Nebraska, Granite Falls, Morton, and Sisseton, S.D. Among the students is Leonard Wabasha, future hereditary chief of the Mdewakanton.

"When I started this program, there were 30 fluent speakers," he said. "That was a year ago. Today it's 26."

Learning the language was important enough to Wabasha that he quit his 20-year job at Honeywell to be part of the small program. The language in its purest form is a religious language, he said, and to master it is to partake closer in Dakota spirituality.

"I want to pray," Wabasha said. "I want to have more than a family picture and pieces of paper to leave my daughter," he said. "Basically, I want to be me."


Bud Lawrence and Amos Owen met in 1958 when Lawrence was fishing near Owen's home at Prairie Island. Lawrence, a Kasson native, had moved to Mankato a few years earlier and worked for Rochester Dairy. Owen was a cement mason.

Their friendship over the years was marked by family outings and occasional talks of Indian history, something that had always interested Lawrence. (That interest may have come, he said, because he was often assumed to be Indian with his dark hair and skin. He's Norwegian.)


In 1969, Bud Lawrence (center) made a 90-mile walk to honor his longtime friend Amos Owen, who would eventually help organize the Mahkato Powwow. With Lawrence on the 1969 trek were Jim Buckley (right) and Merrill Claridge.

When Owen was elected tribal chairman of the Prairie Island Mdewakanton community in 1965, Lawrence decided to honor his friend by walking from Mankato to Red Wing, joined by a Winnebago student from MSU, Barry Blackhawk. Lawrence made the trek again in 1969, joined by Jim Buckley, director of the YMCA.

During a jog in 1972, Lawrence and Buckley were talking about ideas for an annual event that could focus on area culture. Thinking about his friend in Prairie Island, Lawrence tossed out the idea of having the Y's Men sponsor a genuine Dakota powwow in Mankato, with the whole town invited. He knew he could count on Owen to help coordinate such an event - the two men have talked over the years about putting such an event together.

With approval from the club and help from then City Manager Bill Bassett, the idea went ahead.

In the fall of 1972, the first Mah-Kato Powwow was held at Franklin Rogers Park in Mankato. An estimated 2,000 Dakota, along with other tribes, came from North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

The concerns of some residents about noise at night turned out to be legit, but not for the reasons they feared.

"They [Dakota] were so happy to be here, they sang and danced all night," Lawrence laughed.

That powwow was originally conceived as a onetime event, and no powwow was held in 1973. But the success among the Dakota was too strong to abandon. The Mankato Chamber of Commerce and the women's service club Zonta and Bassett all joined forces to set up a powwow at Sibley Park in 1974, and the annual event took place there until 1980, when the city offered the Dakota a special section of a new park, which the Dakota named Land of Memories. The event continues there each year is one of the only known powwows not held on a reservation.

And over the years, its influence has extended the boundaries of the park and into the city through events such as the annual Dec. 26 ceremony and relay run (the hangings occurred Dec. 26); the establishment of Reconciliation Park on Riverfront Drive; the erection of two statues by sculptor Tom Miller (Winter Warrior and the Buffalo statue); and the Mankato school district's education program at the powwow. Gov. Rudy Perpich declared 1987 the 125th anniversary of the Dakota War as "The Year of Reconciliation."

In 1990, Owen, who had become spiritual leader to the area's Dakota, died at age 73. Lawrence served as pallbearer at his friend's funeral.

Now 71, Lawrence looks back on how that friendship over fishing in 1958 launched an accomplishment that has touched thousands and mended old antagonisms.

"My motivation was on bringing a culture back here that had been missing all these years," Lawrence said. As for Owen's motivation, Lawrence brings his hands together, interlocking his fingers.

"Amos was always: 'Bridge the gap, and bring people together in peace.'"

Photo by John Cross - Mankato Free Press
Mankatoan Bud Lawrence is credited with helping form the Mahkato Powow 30 years ago. He has been involved each year with the celebration of Indian culture and spirituality.