By Tim Krohn - Mankato Free Press Staff Writer
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2000
- Leonard Wabasha had an abundance of tradition and history surrounding
him as he grew up, but the richness and importance of it didn't settle
in early on.
His father, hereditary chief Ernest Wabasha, and his mother, Vernell,
told him the history of his famous ancestor, Chief Wabasha, who opposed
the conflict with the U.S. soldiers but who nonetheless fought alongside
his Dakota people.
Wabasha, 40, was exposed to the Dakota language and traditions by
his parents, who now live at the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton. He knew
well the history of the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato in 1862
and the abuses suffered by the Indians afterward.
But as he lived in the Twin Cities, working at Honeywell, the meaning
of the past remained elusive.
"It's really hard to be an urban Indian and learn your culture,"
But in the early 1990s, as he read a newspaper account of how the
bodies of the 38 executed Indians were stolen from their graves and used
for medical experiments, the immensity of his people's history and his
place in it hit him full on.
"I just started crying. It's the only time I've cried. I didn't
know why. My parents said, 'It's because you've become involved and are
learning now,'" Wabasha recalls.
This week, Wabasha helps preside over the 28th annual "Mahkato
Traditional Wacipi," or powwow, held at Land of Memories park Friday
The Wacipi began in 1972, through Dakota spiritual leader Amos Owen
and Mankatoans Bud Lawrence and Jim Buckley. Lawrence continues to be
closely involved in organizing the event.
Some 3,000 people are expected at what is believed to be the biggest
off-reservation powwow in the country. It features traditional costumes
and dancing and other events.
One of the highlights at this year's Wacipi will be the participation
of many Dakota living in Canada. There are 12 known Dakota tribes in the
United States and Canada, all have been invited to this year's powwow.
"I wanted more of our Canadian relatives to come. They are part
of the 'Lost Dakota' tribes that fled after the war. It's lucky they were,
quote, 'lost' because they preserved a lot of our culture," Wabasha
"Many of the Canadians didn't know of the powwow and they were
looking for their roots and they believe their roots are in this area.
So it's exciting to have them here."
Indeed the site of the Wacipi, at the confluence of the Minnesota
and Blue Earth rivers, is where the Dakota people met at the end of each
summer. "It's a very spiritual place."
Wabasha said the annual powwow and more accurate portrayals of the
1862 conflict have greatly improved relations between Indians and non-Indians.
"For years we didn't ever come to Mankato because of what happened
[in 1862]. Indians drove through Mankato at night. It's the difference
between the oral history we have and written history. Written history
is put on the shelf and forgotten. Oral history stays alive and current,"
"The first year I came to the powwow I was apprehensive. I thought,
there are all these white guys and we're here being 'the Indians' - but
people were very friendly, and I didn't detect any racism."
Although relations are greatly improved, there are still things that
Wabasha wishes others would take more time to understand about the Indian
culture. Even simple things, such as not reaching out and touching an
"Long hair is very important to Indians, and we don't appreciate
it being touched. How we braid it shows respect to our mothers,"
Wabasha admits he continues to learn more about his own history. The
more he learns of Chief Wabasha the more he admires him.
"He lost favor with his people because he refused to lead people
in war, but he regained their favor."
That renewed respect came when soldiers were marching Indians from
Mankato to an internment camp near Fort Snelling after the conflict. Someone
in a mob near Henderson grabbed and killed an Indian baby as they marched
past. "Chief Wabasha told the soldiers they were going to stop and
bury the baby properly. His people respected him standing up to the soldiers.
He stayed with his people during and after the conflict."