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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 20, 2004 - Issue 109


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Wabasha Returns to Ancestral Home

by Cynthya Porter Winona Post (with special thanks to Leonard)
credits: (Cynthya Porter; photo at right courtesy WCHS) Leonard Wabasha, above, a descendant of Chief Wapasha II, right, returned to Winona recently at the invitation of the city.

Before 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.

"I remember in my teens having dreams about a place with white rocks," he said. "That place is here, it's Sugar Loaf, Wapasha's Cap."

Wabasha 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.

Part 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.

Eventually, 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.

Monday 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.

Thanks 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 generations.

And although it's been 150 years since the Dakota left, they knew the Winonans would be coming.

According 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."

And 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.

The 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.

Rather, 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 and drummers.

And 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.

Sorensen 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.

Reaching 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."

John 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 together.

Sorensen 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.

Breza 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.

But 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.

Rustad has been a pivotal part of the connection with the Wapasha family and the reservations the committee visited during their trip.

Rustad, 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.

Wabasha 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.

He 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."

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