'Steps toward healing': Dakota tribe reclaims its land — and its story

Reclaiming ancestral homeland begins healing process for Dakota people in southern Minnesota.

A man stands outside on a snow-covered field.
Robert Larsen, chair of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, was one of many people involved in managing the transfer of 114 acres from the Minnesota Historical Society back to the tribe. Here, he stands on prairie land at the Lower Sioux Historic Agency in Morton, Minn., that was recently given back to the Dakota people.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Robert Larsen has waited years for the Minnesota Historical Society to return 114 acres of land to the Dakota people of the Lower Sioux Indian Community. When the unanimous vote finally came this year, Larsen was watching on his computer. As soon as it was official, he drove to the spot off of County Highway 2, east of Redwood Falls.

He said a prayer, sang a song and made an offering of tobacco.

“Steps towards healing is what we need,” Larsen, the tribe’s chair, said. “And this is one of those steps.”

Locator map of the Lower Sioux Agency in Morton, Minn.

This land is part of the Lower Sioux Indian Community’s homeland, C̣aƞṡayapi, and until last month, it was controlled by the state.

The historic site commemorates the start of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The conflict began when the United States refused to distribute to the Dakota people the food and supplies stored there, violating its treaty.

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The war between Dakota tribes and the U.S. government lasted six weeks. After it ended, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato, the largest single-day execution in the country’s history.

“This land has been paid for over and over and over with the blood and the lives of our ancestors,” Larsen said.

A sign in the Dakota language welcomes visitors to Cansayapi.
A sign in the Dakota language welcomes visitors to C̣aƞṡayapi, the name of the Lower Sioux Indian Community's homeland, along County Road 24 in Redwood County.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The historical society bought the property from private landowners starting in the 1960s. Its return to Lower Sioux Indian Community was a culmination of talks that began in 2004. Local government officials were skeptical about the change, Larsen said.

The land transfer ultimately required the involvement of the state Legislature, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the federal government and 31 different tribal nations.

“Preserving our state’s history doesn’t always have to mean the Minnesota Historical Society is doing that all by ourselves,” said Ben Leonard, who oversees the historical society’s portfolio of sites outside of the Twin Cities and is pleased the Lower Sioux Community now controls the site. “That is their history. That is their story,”

Larsen’s family was involved throughout the long process of reclaiming the land. His father and great-aunt were there from the start, and he says many community members deserve credit for the achievement.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here,” he said.

In February, tribal citizens accepted the transferred land on behalf of their ancestors.

“By reclaiming some of our traditional homelands, we’re expanding the opportunity for our generations to have a broader connection to their Dakota identity,” said Cheyanne St. John, the community’s historic preservation officer. “It was certainly a milestone within our nation's history.

The Minnesota Historical Society will still help maintain the interpretative trails on the site and for now, the tribe plans to leave the property mostly unchanged. Its goal is to encourage more visitors to visit and learn about Dakota history.

It’s an unusual move for the state to return a historic site to the tribe that once owned it, but Larsen hopes it is only the beginning.

“To get back to that relationship with the land is important to us,” he said.

Hannah Yang is MPR News’ newest regional news reporter. She covers the communities south of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, from the South Dakota border all the way to Mankato and south to Iowa. She’s new to the region, and would love to hear your stories. Share news tips, ideas or just say hello at @HannahMYang on Twitter, or email her at hyang@mpr.org.