ChangeMakers: Kate Beane, bringing Indigenous stories into the present

A woman in a patterned dress sits on a rock in front of a lake.
Kate Beane sits at the public art site on the shores of Bde Maka Ska on Monday, honoring Maḣpiya Wicaṡṭa (Cloud Man) and Ḣeyata Ọtuŋwe (Village to the side), the Dakota leader and community that inhabited this area in the 19th century.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

For Kate Beane, the stories of Indigenous communities in and around the Twin Cities are personal. They are the stories of her family. 

Beane is a public historian who holds a doctoral degree in American Studies. She and her twin sister, Carly Bad Heart Bull, didn’t grow up in Minnesota but moved back with their family to have the opportunity to study the Dakota language. Beane can trace their ancestry back to Ḣeyate Otuŋwe or Village to The Side, a community along the shore of Bde Maka Ska.

In discovering this history of her family, she also learned not to take no for an answer. Along with her sister and father, they created a path to restoring the lake to its original Dakota name despite community backlash and legal challenges.

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“We were told there was no process. We were told that it was something that couldn't be done,” Beane said. “When we started looking at this space, in particular, we realized that this is the place that made us successful — because we, as young Native women, took control of our own narrative of our own story and our own education. And we were empowered by the stories of our grandparents here.”

In addition to their work in name restoration, Beane and her family have chronicled some of the history makers in their own family. She and her father collaborated on a film about their ancestor Ohiyesa, known as Charles Eastman. He was one of the first Native American medical doctors and a documentarian of Indigenous history. 

Beane is the director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

To be an Indigenous Minnesotan today means to have a voice. I think something that is so exciting about being alive today is the fact that we're living in a time of great change. We're living in a time of empowerment. We're living in a time where our voices are finally being heard. We are becoming the key decisionmakers within our communities. We are helping to educate the people around us to understand what being Indigenous means. 

And for us, to be Indigenous means to have a clear connection to the land. To have a connection to our cultural identity and our language. To be able to speak to who we are, and to be able to humanize our family stories and our contributions to this place that we all love [and] where we all live.

What figures have shaped you?

There have been a lot of people who have been very influential. Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but I think it's something a lot of people can relate to, in that [influences include] my grandparents, my ancestors, my grandparents’ grandparents. I come from a very strong family. 

My grandmothers Wanda and Lillian are very strong, powerful women who are from South Dakota and Oklahoma, who have guided me in ways that I don't think that they've ever really known. 

My grandfather, Charles Eastman, was one of the first writers to come out of Minnesota. He was born here, near the Lower Sioux Community, near Redwood Falls in 1858. He and his siblings were children during the Dakota War. He documented that history and that story so that we know today what happened to our family and to our community. 

He was a very influential thinker, a very influential person [and] a very stubborn person. He worked within institutions that were clearly created to destroy us in a lot of ways. He was one of the first in our family to become formally educated. He was a graduate of Dartmouth College. He became one of the first Native American medical doctors. He tended to those who were wounded at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 in South Dakota. He worked both as a physical healer, as well as an advocate for our rights, so that our stories and our families could be humanized and so that people would know that we belong. 

I would also say that my children definitely guide me. They keep me on my toes. I have two young daughters. They are the first in our family to learn our language as children for three generations. I'm just so incredibly proud of them because they are proud to be Dakota. They don't question who they are. They're seeing the strength that they have and that they show. I learn every day from them.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

My vision for future Indigenous people in Minnesota would be my vision for my own grandchildren. That is to continue to be proud of who they are, to continue to speak your language and know that your language is welcome everywhere. To continue to practice your ways and know your histories. To continue to connect to the lands and to be an advocate for these lands. 

Our stories, our spiritual connections and our contributions to this land cannot be measured. We are everywhere. And for people who are oftentimes considered statistically insignificant, we oftentimes don't even show up within those charts. The way that I look at it is because we're off the charts. We are so significant. We are so much a part of this land. We are so ingrained within this earth that we were created out of, and within the spaces that we love, that there's no question we are going to stay here. We're resilient people and we're not going anywhere.

Who do you see as a changemaker in your community, and inspires you?

I see a lot of very strong Native women making contributions in our communities and impacting each other and supporting one another in really healthy and productive ways. I see women leading. 

I see the ways in which the solutions for the issues that we're having within our communities lie within our communities. As we lead, we are seeing our communities thrive in all kinds of ways. It is so important to focus on that positivity in order to be inspired. And in order to empower our young people, we need to remember our strengths. This is hard work. It is really hard to lead. It is really hard to navigate through systems that were created, not only to define us, but to destroy us. And in order to enter within these systems and really create a change and a systems change, we have to be there for one another and we have to give each other grace. We also have to listen. We have to learn. We have to make sure that those around us are understanding the reasons for why we are doing this work. Education is key.

Where are we and what is its significance to you?

Today we are at Bde Maka Ska and we are within the public art space here on the southeast corner of the lake. This public art section was created by some powerful Dakota women and allies Sandra Spieler, Mona Smith and Angela Two Stars. They created this gathering space and in this sort of place here to represent our historic Dakota community village site, which was called Ḣeyate Otuŋwe or Village to The Side. 

This is the community where I come from. My grandparents Mahpiya Wicasta, also known as Cloud Man, and Caŋpadutawiŋ, [also known as] Chokecherry Woman, were the leaders in this community. This was a community that thrived in the 1800s. This was a community that supported one another. That supported their neighbors who provided food and access to resources for one another during a time when it was really needed. It was a community that wasn't afraid to try new things. 

And, for me, it is a really positive place. It's a hopeful place. It's an inspiring place that helps me to stay grounded in who I am and helps me to remember where I am and where I'm going.