he ever stepped foot in Winona, Leonard Wabasha had seen it in
his dreams, a mysterious land of rugged beauty that lurked behind
his thoughts even as a teen. On his first visit to Winona a couple
of years ago, Wabasha's dreams found their name: Winona.
remember in my teens having dreams about a place with white rocks,"
he said. "That place is here, it's Sugar Loaf, Wapasha's
is a direct descendant of the Indian chiefs who gave Winona the
name Wapasha's Prairie long before white settlers ever climbed off
boats 150 years ago. His father, Ernie, is Chief Wabasha VII, and
someday Leonard is destined to be Chief Wabasha VIII.
of the Dakota Nation, Wapasha chiefs and their band of Indians inhabited
this region for as long as legend remembers. In the 1850s, white
men came and built on the prairie, and the Dakota quietly packed
their things and headed west.
Wapasha's Prairie was renamed Winona, taken from the Dakota word
meaning oldest daughter of the chief, and Wapasha's Prairie slowly
vanished under the buildings and footsteps of a thriving white settlement.
marked only the second time a Wapasha has been back in Winona since
the day the ancestors left, but this homecoming is just the beginning.
to the work of an ad hoc committee who traveled to meet Wabasha
and other Dakota Indians across Minnesota and the Dakotas, Wabasha's
visit was to announce the first step in a plan to bridge today with
the past, reuniting the Dakota with a land that is sacred to them
and hopefully healing the wounds that have been passed down for
although it's been 150 years since the Dakota left, they knew the
Winonans would be coming.
to City Manager Eric Sorensen, "One of the bands told us that
a spiritual leader who is now dead predicted that there would be
a group from Winona coming to make reconciliation."
between February 19 to 22 a group from Winona did just that, meeting
first with Wabasha near Morton, Minn., then traveling to reservations
in North and South Dakota. Their mission, Sorensen said, was to
build relationships with people who used to call this land their
own and invite them to come back to celebrate their heritage and
share it with the people who live here now.
homecoming is scheduled to take place during the days just before
the Grand Excursion flotilla arrives in Winona, but the Dakota who
visit Winona during that time are by no means considered part of
the "entertainment," Sorensen said.
they will be invited to use areas around East Lake Winona for a
"wacipi," a traditional celebration that can include everything
from informal gatherings to formal Powwows with dancers, singers
through their ceremonies, their customs and their person-to-person
contact with people here, the Dakota will share their story with
those who would like to better understand a culture that is often
shrouded in mystery, Sorensen said.
said the committee is working locally to raise funds to support
the return of Native Americans from as far away as Manitoba, Canada,
for the event, and the number of guests and the scope of their festivities
will depend to some extent on the financial support of the community
for the homecoming.
out to the Native Americans who historically called this area home,
committee member Tim Breza said, is part of a "vision to have
the Dakota be a part of this community in a very real way."
The first step, Breza said, is recognizing the Indian Nation and
atoning for hurtful deeds in the past. "This is a great opportunity
to reconcile with the past and correct injustices that may have
been done many years ago."
Borman, also a member of the delegation, echoed Breza's sentiments
and spoke of the future of possibilities once the two cultures have
bridged the gap of history. "This brings people together,"
he said. "What we hope to accomplish here is not just a homecoming
but a reconciliation." Borman said it would be exciting to
see what can happen in the future once the two cultures come back
said the committee is working toward something similar to a "sister
city" relationship, although this may be more of a sister culture
than a single city. Annual events, local educational opportunities
that expand understanding of the Native American culture and an
open and ongoing dialogue between Winona and the Dakota people are
just part of the vision for the future of this relationship, Sorensen
and other committee members explained.
also spoke of permanent commemoration, perhaps through local displays
of Native American artifacts or dedication of some type of permanent
marker identifying this area as part of the original Dakota Nation.
this is not just something that will connect Winonans to the Dakota,
it will help the Dakota connect to themselves, Lyle Rustad of the
Diversity Foundation said. By celebrating their heritage, he explained,
Native Americans who for a century have been scattered across the
upper Midwest and Canada are able to unite as well, working together
to preserve their culture for generations to come.
has been a pivotal part of the connection with the Wapasha family
and the reservations the committee visited during their trip.
originally from Rushford, said he encountered Ernie Wabasha a couple
of years ago, and Wabasha asked if he could help find where his
Dakota ancestors are buried in this area. That conversation opened
the door to the communication taking place now, Rustad said, and
Winona should be proud of its proactive efforts to improve cultural
relations with the Dakota. "You are providing an environment
that can be sort of a role model," he said.
said he appreciates Winona's steps toward a relationship that is
perhaps long overdue, and hopes people will donate possibly long-forgotten
Native American items from their attics or basements to the public
collection set to be displayed.
also appreciates what it feels like to be back on the soil where
his ancestors lived, although in the end his feelings are mixed.
"This is a very sacred site. It feels good to be here, but
it feels bad, because I can't stay," Wabasha said. "When
Dakota see (Winona), they see the beauty. It feels like home. Here
I can see the sacredness that makes an Indian an Indian."