To move forward, we must remember the past

December 15, 2017


Photo of 3 Dakota men at Minnehaha Falls in 1857This is the ninth and last in a series of columns about the history of the Minnehaha Creek watershed.

As this is my last column commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD), I’d like to go all the way back to the beginning to discuss the first inhabitants of this area: the Dakota. Many of the names of our communities and our waters come from the Dakota language. Wayzata is a derivation of the Dakota word “waziyata,” meaning “at the pines, the north, or north shore,” and the Dakota translation of our namesake Minnehaha is “waterfall” or “curling, rapid water.” These names and many more throughout the region are lasting tributes to the Dakota who lived throughout what is now the MCWD around Lake Minnetonka, the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, and along Minnehaha Creek. They tended to move seasonally, allowing the land to rest and rebound. Water was an important resource for the Dakota for travel, food, and gathering together. Lake Minnetonka held special significance, as it was considered a sacred place and served as a burial ground. About 50 burial mounds still remain around the lake today, protected by law.

The Dakota in the area around Lake Minnetonka interacted with fur traders, but did not tell them about the lake due to its spiritual importance. However, in 1822, Joseph Renshaw Brown and William Joseph Snelling traveled up Minnehaha Creek by canoe from Fort Snelling and eventually entered Lake Minnetonka. Despite the record of their trip, Lake Minnetonka was kept relatively secret until the early 1850s when European settlement spread across the watershed with the Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in 1851.

Elsewhere in what is now the MCWD, settlers noted Chief Cloud Man’s camp on Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun) as early as 1829. Frequent contact began in 1834 when a European mission was established near the camp. However, few settlers traveled up Minnehaha Creek until the signing of the treaties in 1851. Once the treaties were signed, white settlement began in earnest along Minnehaha Creek and Lake Minnetonka, and the Dakota were pushed to a small reservation along the Minnesota River.

The U.S. government’s failure to honor the signed treaties eventually led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which lasted for six weeks. When the war ended, 38 Dakota men were executed (in the largest U.S. mass execution in history) and non-combatant Dakota (mostly women, children, and older men) were held in an internment camp near Fort Snelling for the winter. In the spring of 1863, the U.S. government declared all previous treaties null and void and expelled all Dakota people from their ancestral homes in Minnesota. However, starting in the 1880s and onward, Dakota people slowly started to return to Minnesota.  

Efforts to honor Minnesota’s American Indian populations are gaining steam in the state and certainly here in the MCWD. Many of you may be familiar with the recent renaming of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the Dakota name for the lake (meaning “white banks lake”). The effort not only attempts to recognize the importance of the landmark to Dakota history, but also acknowledges John C. Calhoun’s legacy – he was a fierce supporter of slavery and helped craft the national Indian Removal Act, which was signed into law in 1830.

Another example is the recent renaming of Alexander Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis to Justice Page Middle School. This name change was a student-led effort and was initiated because students did not want to promote Ramsey’s legacy, a Minnesota territorial governor who negotiated treaties with the Dakota (which the U.S. then failed to uphold). Ramsey also called for the Dakota to be removed from the state after the U.S.-Dakota war in 1862.

Coldwater Spring in Minneapolis, considered a sacred site by the Dakota, and also an early European settlement in the state, was added to the Mississippi River and Recreation area in 2010 with the goal of restoring the landscape to an oak savanna/prairie complex.

There are also special events that aim to reconnect American Indians to their history in the area and to re-establish the sacredness of water. For example, each summer the Mde Maka Ska Canoe Nations Gathering takes place at Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun), and MCWD has been a participant in the event. It’s an opportunity for American Indians to reconnect with their heritage and celebrate and honor the special role of water in their culture.

I applaud these efforts to honor Dakota history in the watershed and reconnect individuals to their cultural heritage. As we end this year of reflection for the organization’s first 50 years, it’s important to remember the history and the significance of this watershed. As we move into 2018 and beyond, we are committed to protecting these important natural resources for generations to come.

Learn more about MCWD’s first 50 years.