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Powwow links man to past

Leonard Wabasha says annual Wacipi part of his own cultural rediscovery

By Tim Krohn - Mankato Free Press Staff Writer


MANKATO - 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," he said.

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 through Sunday.

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 said.

"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," Wabasha said.

"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 Indian's hair.

"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 said.

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."

Jeff Thompson
Leonard Wabasha was in Land of Memories Park preparing for the 28th annual Wacipi, or powwow, this weekend, honoring the 38 Dakota Indians hanged in Mankato in 1862 after the U.S.-Dakota conflict. Wabasha, from the Twin Cities, is a direct descendent of Chief Wabasha, who opposed the 1862 conflict and refused to lead his people into battle, but nonetheless fought with them and led them after the conflict.