The Land People
The pit reached down twelve feet until the black tubing appeared. The clay walls were red and then grey lower down. Chunks of charcoal with ashen trails streaked the sides where the backhoe cut out the soil. Ten feet below the deepest roots the black pockets appeared, some with bits of bark and others encased in stone. A prehistoric lake bottom. Fifteen thousand years ago ancient glaciers covered the land and ground trees and forest into pulp. Old charred logs of pine and hemlock rolled underneath. The clay filled the depression when the ice age retreated to the arctic. Innumerable ponds, lakes and streams drained off the melting ice. The giant Lake Agassiz formed across what is now Canada and Minnesota draining down the Minnesota Valley as the Glacial River Warren, a river five miles wide and 250 feet deep.[i] The present Mi nnesota River, as it is now called, is a narrow filament in comparison to River Warren.
Just north of my home is the south ridge of this prehistoric river valley. At the end of the ice age people were hunting these areas with stone tools and recently artifacts have been found in Walker, Minnesota; evidence the area has been inhabited for nearly 20,000 years.[ii] The first people were here.
It may sseem strange to feel connected to a piece of land you have known only a few years, but more so to feel a sense of time from finding ancient charcoal beneath it. We have tried not to disturb the areas untouched on our property. We have listened to the land and observed it, but I feel there were people here long ago that knew it best because they were 'people of the land'. They slept, walked, danced on the land, and became part of it. They ate the foods the land provided and it became part of them. The Dakota respected the land and understood many aspects of its nature and management. Although they dealt with frequent attacks, hunger, fire and storms in all seasons, the Dakota thrived as a dynamic culture using what they had and reciprocated, paying homage to the sources of their food.
We were installing an underground array of geothermal pipes, preparing our homestead for a future of self-reliance, when we found the charcoal. Native plants and perennial gardens fill our acreage. Bees and chickens harvest their local foods to help build our capacity. In the previous twenty years the horse farm that was here pummeled the soil and fenced out the wildlife. That has changed. The property has gone from controlled decline to accelerated development to an edible forest garden. We are not imposing our will, but being imprinted by the land and accommodating, if not leveraging, its momentum.
Not far from us is the Mdewankaton Sioux community, the Dakota people. This valley has been their home for hundreds of years along with past villages near Lake Calhoun, Fort Snelling and Oak Grove among others. It is also the final home of a once thriving community in the lakes area headed by Cloud Man.[iii]
In the winter of 1828 a reluctant but thoughtful Dakota Chief Cloud Man (Marpya-wichasta), decided that the hunt for food, or chase, as they called it, was futile and ever more dangerous. Major Lawrence Taliaferro (Lake Calhoun Indian Agent 1820-1839)[iv] tried to recruit Dakota for an agricultural experimentalong Lake Calhoun. [v] Cloud Man refused. He was a proud Dakota living the traditions and established culture of his grandfathers. He was a high-ranking chief and the people depended on his decision making for their comfort and survival. Depleted resources caused hunting parties to travel ever-farther distances to find game. The diminishing Buffalo had receded far west. Hunting parties were gone for weeks looking for game.
During one such a chase in an unsuccessful search for Buffalo, an early blizzard trapped his hunting party east of the Missouri River. On the prairie there was no wood for fires and game was scarce. They had eaten their dogs and horses, hoping to travel to food caches in their old villages. Finally the snow trapped them individually under drifts as they wrapped themselves in blankets.[vi]
Cloud Man lay cocooned in the drift and reflected on the state of hunting and the meager resources left to survive using the old ways. Dreams came to Cloud Man as he rolled from sleep to warmth. His mother, Old Eve, appeared to him. She was dressed in buffalo and walking towards him. She knelt down peering into the drift, reached in, and pulled him out as if he were small child. The white crust shattered and his blankets peeled away. Cloud Man stood holding his musket. Old Eve held out to him a buffalo bone hoe, like the ones Cloud Man used as a child in the fields. He hesitated then handed her his musket in exchange. As he took the tool it turned to heavy iron. Old Eve stepped back and thrust the weapon into the snow. It turned into a stalk of corn with many ears. The golden ears began to grow large as thick weeds came from below strangling the stalk. Cloud Man cut down the weeds with the hoe and then with his hands, but the weed over took the corn and pulled it into the snow. Old Eve spoke, "Sleep my son, save your strength for the years to come. Dream of good things. Our people will slumber many seasons until the storm is over. Make all things ready for our people to survive and we shall remain".
Behind Old Eve a giant herd of Buffalo stood facing into the wind. Over the horizon they stood as the wind howled against them. The white snow covered their faces and hides until they blended into the squall. One by one the snow blew off each animal as they disappeared. Old Eve looked into the eyes of Cloud Man whose indian name was Marpiya-Wichasta and said, "The great life we once knew is no more, but will be again. Learn the white man's ways until the land is returned to us. Our people will suffer much until that time. Use what is given to you. As you cut the hide for warmth, you must cut the land for food, be wise to let all things heal". Cloud Man looked again. Coming over the horizon was a prairie fire consuming all that was before it. Raging around them the fire filled his eyes with burning smoke. It passed by and he saw all the warriors' snow mounds were untouched. "You cannot fight the prairie fire and you cannot out run it." said Old Eve, "I love you very much, my relation. Use what is given you to survive, but do not depend on the snow or the fire to save you, because the wind controls them both". Old Eve then looked into the sky and was gone.
Denis had been away from his family for months. The constant drills and routine had become exhausting, yet automatic. His mind wandered at times and he found himself back in the village or fishing with his little cousin, Pierre La Croix. He had seen the improvement in his fighting skills but the idea of using them seemed far off in a place he feared inevitable. He was not part of the immigrant army and other than the officers, no one seemed to speak English as well as he, and it was his second language. If he really needed some direction he would talk to the Dakota soldiers. It seemed the majority of the soldiers were fresh Europeans. Denis was impressed with Anton Wolf, a Prussian soldier. At sixteen, Anton had joined the military and fought Napoleon’s army at Waterloo.[vii] His English was understandable and he also seemed intrigued by the Dakota recruits. Denis would show edible plants to Anton in the field and Anton would tell stories of battle and cities in Europe. The foreign soldiers were friendlier than settlers.
In the morning Cloud Man heard his name "Maripya-wichasta" and opened his eyes. Rolling to his knees he knelt up and broke out of the crusted snow with a call to all who survived, rousing his warriors from their crystal bound shelters. Heads and feet popped through the flaky crust like prairie dogs into the sunlight. All began to talk, calling for those unseen and occasionally laughing as more heads appeared in spite of the dire circumstance. Faces held high into the warming sunlight as coverings were shaken and snapped. From the distance came voices, people of a near village approaching them. During the snow storm the hunters had stopped just in sight of the nearest tipi.[viii]
The winter winds have shifted and begin to cross our land. The Canary Grass is brown and waves of bending reeds cascade from the west. The open pond near our house freezes and thaws as autumn’s ambivalent departure brings irregular days of sun, clouds and rain. Cattail plumes drift and cover the ground, soon to freeze, locking the season into winter. The trees have shed all but the most redisent leaves opening our vision to the horizon. Distance and the breadth of our holding is now visible. It is a fresh vision unchanged with the occasional fragment of white siding or street light. Beyond the towering Oaks, wings of a new bird can be seen soaring in the sky. Its singular leg, hundreds of feet tall, holds an immense fan of three blades. Its massive head faces into the winter winds. The Mdewankaton have erected a new way to harvest their land. Surrounded by fields of Switch Grass the brilliant wind turbine shines above muted yellows, browns and naked branches, sending its pulse to homes of native families.
Sitting in the warm shelter, Cloud Man remembered the dream and pondered its many meanings. The white people ate well, were protected and increasing. With the smell of the fire he saw the flames behind his eyes. It was foolish and prideful to take his hunters so far away. He decided he would accept Major Taliaferro's offer and begin cultivating the land.[ix] As he had sworn off warring, he must now call an end to his hunting. This he must do for his people to learn a new way to adapt and prosper.
Cloud Man grew up with the love of riding horses and being the triumphant provider. He had made war and brought honor to his people, but in his eyes the landscape and future had forever changed. Logging had stripped the land of forest; trappers and fur traders had depleted the landscape of Buffalo, Bear and Beaver. The white man seemed to multiply with building forts and villages of their own. Soldiers that kept his people from visiting their grandfather’s land guarded forts closer to the scared rivers.
Taking a new path can be risky at best when faced with generations of successful tradition. Breaking away to follow a path you see as right can only be judged by descendents left to the consequences. Being the first in college or the only one not to go to college in a family. Choosing to follow the popular common knowledge and supporting the status quo leaves the weight on consensus rather than personal choice. Better to be blamed as a group than individual. Better to defer than defend. It takes isolation for some to break out of their blindness. Some transformative experience may be needed to bring insight to a well-ruminated situation and although adversity is a great teacher for those that survive, foresight is much less painful. Many of the things we choose to do on our homestead may be unavoidable for others in the future. Being an early adopter can have its benefits, however we usually only hear of those that succeeded in proactive change.
A decade earlier Cloud Man's philosophy had begun to change. Even though he rose to the rank of Chief by his warring, he maintained, "war begot war, that it never settled any dispute but only aggravated the irritation and made the continuation of war inevitable". [x] Once returned to his people after surviving the snowstorm, Cloud Man agreed to start cultivating the land with Major Taliaferro, he encouraged his band to use the tools and learn anew. These prudent decisions may have made an agrarian life much better for the Dakota if others had agreed, but many did not and Cloud Man faced ridicule from his community. Other Dakota would yell, "See Cloud Man! He hoes corn like a woman!” This had always been work for women and children in Dakota culture, but Cloud Man was resolute in his decision and the small village on the east side of Lake Calhoun thrived. The corn and other crops grew well and the agrarian life made for a more contemplative life. The other chiefs were not convinced and few people joined him at first, but as harvests improved other clans lost families as they moved to join the Calhoun experiment. At its peak, 500 Dakota lived in the village though many young braves refused to do, "Squaw Work" and continued warring with the northern Ojibwe. Marpiya-Wichasta was determined to find a new path in the changing landscape. His Dakota band prospered in agriculture until 1839 when the constant conflict with the Ojibwe from the Mille Lacs Band forced them out. By 1841 the Lake Calhoun Band had moved south to Oak Grove (Bloomington) on the Minnesota River. Cloud Man was 46 years old. The new gardens took months to develop. Around him the Dakota and Ojibwe continued to attack each other in long distance raids from the Minnesota Valley to St. Croix Falls and Mille Lacs Lake. Cloud Man did not encourage these actions and did not take part. He continued the farming practices he learned at Lake Calhoun. [xi],[xii]
The warring was distracting them from more important issues. The same year he pleaded with Chiefs Good Road, Black Dog and Little Crow to make peace, but failed. His own warriors joined the attacks on the Ojibwe with disastrous results.
The Dakota warriors attacked Ojibwe villages to the north, making no distinction of race or gender. Ojibwe came down river killing women and children in horrific acts while white traders supplied all the Indians with whiskey. Over the next ten years Sioux and Ojibwe attack each other’s villages ending with a battle in the streets of St Paul angering a frustrated State Governor. In 1853 the band was forced to move further west on the Minnesota River to the village of Chief Shakopee. The next year Cloud Man was no longer a chief.
He had heard things were not good with his cousins in the Lower Sioux Agency. Denis worried about the divisions among his village. The young full blood braves were looking for glory, but even though the allotments were late and shorted, the chiefs wanted no war with the whites. His cousin, Fred LaCrioux was on his way to the fort having joined the Renville Rangers. There would be little time to talk, but having family close by would make life a little more tolerable. His cousins and family, everyone close to him were of mixed blood. His lighter skin and face were unmistakable and although he thought he had the best of both worlds, neither accepted him. Being a "Sioux" soldier was difficult. Life outside of camp was no different than at home. Other white soldiers could go to the trading post or socialize, but he was still an Indian. He got curious looks from strangers. Neither side trusted him. He had chosen to follow the white path and volunteered to fight for the Union Army but had not proved himself in any battles. He fired his musket at targets and game, knowing soon he would be aiming at Confederate soldiers who would be shooting back.
It is dawn outside St. Peter. The red clouds reflect light just rising in the East. A horseman rushes into the camp with dust and hooves ablaze. Foam drips from the horses mouth as the young rider slides from his saddle and calls for the commanding officer. Breathless voices stammer in the cold morning mist. Questions are asked, details and messages pass from the rider before he is given a fresh horse and races off to the next destination, Fort Snelling. 105 miles away.
Having been cheated and abused the starved Sioux had attacked the Lower Sioux agency to raid the undelivered supplies. Just a few hours after the message got to St Peter, 38 miles away, Fort Ridgley was under fire and the town of New Ulm was next.
SouthWoods, our homestead is surrounded by the Spring Lake Watershed. Only 5 of our 25 acres are walkalbe year around. We can snowshoe in winter or during an early freeze, otherwise it is the domain of Deer, Geese and Muskrats. Residentail lots 1/10th the size on the nearby lake shore are triple in cost, but I find our wetland a resource that is also emotionally and spiritually priceless. It is the reason we have an unabstructed view for nearly a mile, it holds the moisture and energy which enriches our soil, and it absorbs the water borne agricultural pollutants before they enter Spring Lake and the aquifer. It is a self buffering ecology that can withstand drought, fire, the coldest winters and still produce the richest soil ever known.
I use our walk behind tiller to break up the soil and build berms for seeding. The black mass turns over and over as I prepare the planting beds. Its black gold, rich and fertile.
On an August afternoon Cloud Man was working in his garden when the news came to him. He could see the activity; his hands began to shake and his head felt heavy and warm. Dust was rising around the village. People were yelling between tents and down paths. Something terrible had happened. His heart sunk. That talk of conflict had become a reality. Cloud Man knelt to his knees and pulled the small vegetables from the ground. He wished the warring had ended long a go and he had never left Lake Calhoun.
By the time Denis and his regiment got to the Fort, Fred had been there a week.[xiii] It was the 28th of August, 1862.[xiv] The Indians had been twice repelled and the fort was secure, but a deep trauma was visible in everyone he saw. Many buildings had been burned, others riddled with gunfire with all the windows shot out and women and children still huddled in cramped cellars. The braves occupied some of the out buildings that the soldiers set ablaze, but none breached the fort walls. Although the dead and wounded were few inside the fort, the outside was littered with the bodies of young warriors. The company set-up tents in the field and watched the perimeter. Denis strained to see if his cousin Fred was one of the lookouts. Did he survive this slaughter without any training? Only days before he had left his family and now he had to defend the fort against cousins or other relatives. The next days the recruits were busy repairing the fort, and drilling on the field. Denis finally saw Fred in the field. They caught eyes and nodded. Denis smiled as they touched hands passing by; Fred nodded, patted his musket and was gone. Among 1600 troops he was lucky to have seen him at all.
The warriors had moved west and south. Within three days, Company A (The Union Guards) was ordered to secure the Lower Agency, ascertain the position of the enemy and bury the dead. Denis packed and marched out. Three weeks, 350 miles, and many battles later they would return for new orders.
It had been months after the Lower Agency battle. The village was under guard and all the young men were being held miles away. Cloud Man wanted to stay in Shakopee. He had resettled for the last time, starting another garden and trying to build peaceful relations with all people. The Mdewankaton Sioux had welcomed him when the White Fathers pushed him farther west on the Minnesota River. He had council with the Chief, told him his dreams, the visions of his mother, Old Eve, building the new future, and made good his intentions to support the band. He had taught all he had learned at the Lake Calhoun experiment.
It was November. Hard frosts had covered the land and cold winds of winter had begun. The leaves were now resting on the village and hardship was soon to follow. Without warning a column of soldiers and wagons filled the village. All the Sioux were ordered to dismantle their tipis and prepare for relocation. The Minnesota River had been the common water for his last twenty years and again he is being moved. Cloud Man looked again in dismay at the soldiers standing with muskets across their chests. Warriors in blue or brown seem to be shuffling his people in their unending pursuit. All the men, old chiefs, warriors and women are huddled by advancing blue coats with brown skin. Cloud Man turns to a twenty one year old private nearest him. In old Dakota he speaks, “I am Marpiya-Wichasta, I was once a great warrior and chief. Long ago I put off warring as it made no sense to me. Soon after the white man drove off all the animals, so I put off hunting. I have moved many times to find peace and protect my clan. Before, we always moved ourselves when the white man raised his voice. Now it will soon be winter. Where are we going where we will not die?” Staring into the soldier’s eyes he says, ”I see you have my blood also, so I will live in you always. When this is over, take this place for yourself. Return to here and tend my garden, sow the seed and remember to remember.” Cloud Man could see he was attracting attention of the luitenant. " What is your name?” Cloud Man asked. In Dakota, Denis quietly replied, “I am Denis Felix”. Cloud Man looked at the approaching officer some distance away and said nodding, “Yes, Oh my relation, Dana, this is good land”. Denis watched as Marpiya-Wichasta disappeared into the gathering crowd. He was unsure if he had just been given a new name or the old man misunderstood. Denis snapped to attention as the officer walked near, raised a gloved finger, and gave him a stern look. He was too busy to deal with this chatter.
The old men and young children were put on wagons. Denis could see Cloud Man leaning against the sideboards, his head down and arms around his knees. He could not help but to feel worn out and sour, his heart breaking and his jaw grinding his teeth. His head felt warm and heavy as he thought of the destination. Denis looked at the ground beneath his feet. Dried stems and vines cracked under his boots. The soil was rich and black. Not a bad place to garden.
Marpiya-Wichasta was sent to the Fort Snelling concentration camp that November day. Taking only the bag he could carry, he traveled by wagon for two days. Cloud Man died that winter in one of the tipis of the Fort Snelling barricade.[xv] Later that winter, the survivors were moved to the Santee reservation in Nebraska. In 1866 leader of Cloud Man’s band, Hahakamaza, Iron Elk, was pardoned and released from the Davenport Iowa Prison and sent to Santee, Nebraska.[xvi] Others members had hidden in the forests or travelled to northern Minnesota until they could return to the Minnesota Valley.
Born: 25 August 1844, Mendota, Dakota, Minnesota [xvii]
Died: Abt 1928 Prior Lake, Scott, Minnesota
Enlisted in Minnesota Company A Sixth Regiment
Married Elizabeth Coursolle, daughter of Joseph Coursolle (Hinhankaga, The Owl)[xviii]
By the end of his enlistment Denis had traveled over 8000 miles by foot, rail and steamboat. As far South as Mississippi and East as Arkansas. He had fought the confederate army, disease and prejudice, but at the end of the Civil War, still in his late twenties, he returned to the shores of the Minnesota River and lived out the rest of his life as a farmer[xix] not far from the last garden plot of Cloud Man, in Eagle Creek Township. What is now now Prior Lake,
In the generations after Denis Felix and Cloud Man, the Shakopee Mdewankaton Sioux lived in poverty and was the most destitute community in the state. The federal policies left it abandoned in welfare and seclusion. In 1890 Congress finally realized the population of Indians in the state and re-aquired some of the land they gave up, but the United States Government did not recognize the Mdewakanton until 1969. In 1993 a community center was built from bingo hall proceeds. It was not until the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 that the tribe’s financial and infrastructure began to change dramatically.The band had a source of revenue to improve their living conditions and build a future, not dependent on government beaurcracy.
The Mdewankaton Band has survived these many years. Although the tribe has a reputation for extravagant living in the present day, signs of self reliance can be seen for those that look. On a recent October weekend the tribe installed a 1.5 Megawatt wind turbine to power the residential community.[xx] An award winning bio-fuel electricity generation plant is also operational. Pastures and fields in the community have been transitioned to prairie or Switch Grass bio-fuel production.[xxi] The ethic of Old Eve is well and honored in the community.
Looking out my West window, in the distance I see the hotel complex and the wind turbine. They represent the two worlds that the community lives in. One being the economic engine of the casino campus, creating the paper wealth that supports their initiatives, and the other, a towering monument to a future which may not sustain the tribe through white gambling. Either way, they have been here, and I think will remain here, as a viable community, adapting to the landscape of white rule, restoring the once prosperous Dakota culture, and understanding that as long as they are people of the land, it will not fail them.
[i] Sansome, Minnesota Underfoot, pp. 118-19 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glacial_River_Warren
[ii] Archeological find in Walker may be one of oldest human sites by Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio January 26, 2007, http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/01/22/walkerrocks/
[iii] Lettermann, E J. (1969). From whole log to no log; a history of the Indians where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet. Page 105
[iv] Letterman, 87
[v] Letterman, 101
[vi] Letterman, 108
[vii] Hill , Alfred J., Stees Charles J. History of Company E of the Sixth Minnesota Regiment of Volunteer Infantry (2008) Gutenberg Ebook. This person was actually in Company E of the Sixth Regiment, but may have known Denis Felix. He was an example of the many immigrants fighting in the civil war to earn their funds to acquire a homestead.
[viii] Letterman, 108
[ix] Letterman, 108
[x] Letterman, 109
[xi] Lettermann, 131
[xii] Neill, Edward Duffield , The history of Minnesota (1740-1882) Minnesota Historical Company, Page162,
[xiii] Wilson, Diane, Spirit Car,(2006), Borealis Books
[xiv] There are discrepancies in time lines of various books. Some do not agree. Denis Felix arrived at Fort Ridgley on August 28th, 1862
[xv] Letterman, 237
[xvi] Anderson, Woolworth, 66
[xvii] U.S. Census, Year 1900, Eagle Creek Township
[xviii] The narrative, The ordeal of Hinhankaga, is a narrative relayed by the son of Denis Felix, Clement. Popularized by F.J. Patten who is said to have romanticized the story. Denis Felix is lauded as a hero in three particular situations. He does not however appear in detail in any other narrative. The single source being his father-in-law makes the accounts suspect. Also, the accounts are said to have happened prior to Denis Felix arriving the site, according other records.
[xix] Carley, Kenneth, Minnesota in the Civil War (1961) Minnesota Historical Society
Story Consultants: Diane Wilson, Author; Spirit Car, Peta-Wakan-Tipi
Deborah Peterson, Mdewakanton Sioux Community Library
Donna La Chapelle, Dream of Wild Health