Restoring Names to their Rightful Places: A Dakota Perspective

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Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa addresses the crowd gathered at The East Side Freedom Library on January 27.

Last week on Wednesday evening I attended a talk by Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, a Dakota elder and historian, chair of the Oceti Sakowin Omniciye (Seven Fires Summit), a retired professor from Southwest Minnesota State University and a Community Faculty member at Metropolitan State University. I met him and his wife Mary Beth Faimon some years ago and I have reported on several events in the Dakota community where they have been involved.

When I learned that Dr. Mato Nunpa would be speaking at the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul on the topic of Indigenous Renaming: Acknowledging Minnesota Genocide, I was interested to follow up on developments since January 2013 when the Year of the Dakota resolution was passed by St. Paul’s city council. Part of the resolution called for identifying, naming, and interpreting sacred Native American sites throughout our city. I was curious to know if there has been any progress in naming Dakota places in St. Paul.

After introductions from East Side Freedom Library founding co-executive directors Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary, there was drumming and singing, a prayer and a greeting in the Dakota language; everyone in the audience participated in ceremonial smudging with smoke of burning herbs held in a conch shell.

From the length of his hair to his frequent use of the Dakota customs and language in his talks, Dr. Mato Nunpa makes it clear that he has a Dakota perspective. It is a perspective that may be unfamiliar to many and controversial to some. For many years he has been teaching and talking about the importance of names and terms. He and others have waged a battle over words, insisting that the word genocide describes what happened to the Dakota people of Minnesota, beginning with the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. He compares it to genocides in Germany, Rwanda and Turkey and challenged the audience to examine the idea that if these other genocides are appalling then we should equally condemn what happened in our own state some 150 years ago.

When Minneapolis and then St. Paul used language in their respective resolutions recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and acknowledged that  the War “led to the mass execution of 38 Dakota, the largest in the history of the United States, and the genocide of the Dakota people…” it was a marked change in the battle for using certain names and terms for these historic events. When Dr. Mato Nunpa spoke in St. Paul city council chambers on the day the resolution was passed in January 2013 he described the long fight to have “key terms” such as genocide and concentration camps used and stated that he was “elated and excited to have lived long enough to see this happen.”

Wednesday evening, Dr. Mato Nunpa argued that the Dakota genocide meets the definition of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948. He put forth many examples of the hostile acts and policies intended to eliminate the Dakota from Minnesota, such as the state order for establishment of scouts patrols in 1863. Scouts were offered generous bounties for Dakota scalps. Dr. Mato Nunpa passed out a photocopy image of the scalp of Little Crow, a Dakota leader during the conflict, who was murdered and scalped by Euro-American settlers for the reward.

The U.N. Genocide Convention was passed after WWII to prevent, by strength of global law, genocides like those against Armenians in Turkey and then against Jews in Germany. The first time the UN law was enforced was in 1998. The International Criminal Tribunal found the mayor of a small town in Rwanda and the head of Rwanda’s government, Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, guilty of genocide. Both men are currently serving life terms in prison.

It is too late to put Minnesota’s “genocidaires,” perpetrators of genocide during the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, in jail. But it is time to reconsider the meaning of the many places that are named in honor of people who were leaders in the genocide of the Dakota. At the top of of Dr. Mato Nunpa’s list would be Alexander Ramsey. The former St. Paul mayor, Minnesota governor and Senator who addressed the Minnesota Legislature in 1862 saying, “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” As far as Dr. Mato Nunpa is concerned, anything bearing the name Ramsey should be renamed. That includes the many places named in Ramsey’s honor: the city and county of Ramsey, schools in St. Paul, Minneapolis and elsewhere and several parks in the state.

Dr. Mato Nunpa also includes Henry Hastings Sibley, who along with Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully and John Pope, carried out Ramsey’s orders to drive the Dakota from Minnesota, their homeland. Renaming the places that honor such men would include Pope and Sibley Counties, Sibley State Park, and Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. Dr. Mato Nunpa noted that there is even a Sibley Plaza shopping mall on West Seventh Street in St. Paul.

Another genocidaire whose name graces a city and a major St. Paul Avenue is William Rainey Marshall, fifth governor of Minnesota and a Colonel during the Dakota War. It was under his command that 1,700 Dakota women, children, and elders were forced to make a brutal march 150 miles from southern Minnesota to a “concentration camp” site at Ft. Snelling. For Dr. Mato Nunpa, such events are deeply felt and personal. His mother Elsie Two Bear Cavender, an oral historian, called this the “Dakota Death March.”  This historic march is re-enacted annually and today is called the Dakota Commemorative March.

Dr. Mato Nunpa talked about the “cognitive dissonance” that can be found when people we admire and honor for some actions are also capable of hateful deeds as is the case with Jane Swisshelm. She was a remarkable nineteenth-century woman who, at a time when women rarely held such positions of leadership, was a prominent newspaper publisher and editor in St. Cloud. She was a passionate abolitionist, Civil War nurse and advocate for women’s rights. However, in 1862, during the Dakota-U.S. War, she used her power and influence to call for punishment of the Dakota. She wrote, “Ours is to kill the lazy vermin and make sure of killing them.” There is a plaque honoring Jane Gray Swisshelm on the St. Cloud State campus, near the site of newspaper office.

In addition to changing the names of places bearing the names of  genocidaires, the honoring of the first people in the region, the Dakota, is appropriate, says Dr. Mato Nunpa. He is pleased about the name of the state, Minnesota, a Dakota word that can be translated as land where the waters reflect the sky or heavens. He is pleased that Dakota names are found in places like Yellow Medicine County and Kaposia Park in South St. Paul.

He would like to see more such names restored to places throughout the region. Imniza Ska describes the place along the river known to the Dakota people for its white sandstone bluffs, a good name for St. Paul. (Read Dr. Mato Nunpa’s story about this published by the Saint Paul Almanac.) Dr Mato Nunpa. would like to see Dakota names restored to educate all Minnesotans about the fact that the Dakota were the first people here, they have been here for millennia and they are still here.

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