In 1862, Mankato was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history, with 38 Dakota tribe members being hanged at the end of the infamous Dakota Conflict. It is a gruesome record that Mankato held for many years with a mixture of twisted pride and shameful secrecy, with residents often refusing to talk about it or telling the non-Native version of events.
But thanks to the efforts of Dakota tribal members and other community advocates that began back in the 1950s, there is now an annual event focused on raising awareness of the Dakota culture and bridging the divide between the two groups: the Mahkato Wacipi.
The annual Mahkato Wacipi (Wacipi means “they dance” in Dakota), now coming into its 46th year, is a traditional pow wow that takes place for three days in September. The event includes traditional dances, songs, crafts and food from the Dakota and other indigenous tribes, with an open invitation to the Southern Minnesota community to join them and learn more about their history and their culture.
“It’s one of the only times [Dakota people] have an opportunity to come back home,” said tribal member and event chairperson Dave Brave Heart. “The Dakota people were displaced. This is their homeland.”
The first pow wow took place in the fall of 1972, thanks to the continuous efforts of lifelong friends Amos Owen and Bud Lawrence. Owen, a member of the Dakota tribe, shared his cultural history with Lawrence, who was fascinated and wanted to raise more awareness about Mankato’s multi-cultural history. Eventually, they decided to organize a pow wow. The event drew about 2,000 Dakota, along with other tribes, from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“Back then, not many people talked about what had happened,” Brave Heart said. “It was a one-sided story, a dark cloud hanging over Mankato. Bud [and the others] wanted to bring awareness of what happened. So the idea came up, ‘Why don’t we have a pow wow in Mankato and bring the Dakota people back?’ That’s how it all started… There was that thought, and a prayer made, a prayer that we’re still living today, a prayer to reconcile and to tell the story.”
While it had been intended to be a one-time event, the organizers realized how important it was to keep going, organizing yearly pow wows at Sibley Park until the city of Mankato offered a special section of Land of Memories Park for the event. In addition, the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association was formed to organize the event every year. Now, the Mahkato Wacipi is one of Mankato’s most cherished events. Last year, roughly 3,000 people attended the pow wow, with more than 400 Dakota members participating in the traditional dancing and songs.
According to Brave Heart, one of the highlights of the event is the Grand Entry, which officially starts the pow wow but also takes place several times throughout the three days. All the dancers enter the arena, led by veterans who act as flag bearers. The flags can include the eagle staffs of various tribes and families in attendance, along with the U.S. flag, tribal flags, service flags and the P.O.W. flag. After the flag bearers come other important guests, such as tribal chiefs, elders and royalty. Then the male dancers, female dancers and children dancers follow. The event includes an entrance song, a song to honor the flag and a song to honor the veterans, as well as an invocation.
Brave Heart, who has been involved in the pow wow since 2011, said one of the reasons he loves the event is because it is a traditional pow wow, instead of one focused on competition. In a competition pow wow, most of the dancing and singing is restricted to competitors, but in a traditional pow wow, anyone and everyone can participate.
“It’s more about the people coming together and having a good time,” he explained, adding that any funds they raise through the event are simply used to help with future events. “[All our proceeds] go back to the people so that they can have the best experience and take home memories of being with relatives and friends, and new friends they met at the pow wow.”
Another emphasis is education — raising awareness about the Dakota people and about Southern Minnesota’s complicated, multi-faced history. Last year, about 600 sixth graders from the Mankato area spent the Friday of the event at learning stations manned by Dakota and Ojibwe teachers, learning about the tribe’s traditional songs, games, regalia, medicines and stories — along with getting an up-close view of a bald eagle courtesy of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center.
There is also a general education tent for the public right at the entrance, which teaches visitors about the history of the pow wow and of the Dakota people. Tent volunteers include representatives from Blue Earth County Historical Society and Nicollet Historical Society, along with the Southern Minnesota Children’s Museum, and also tribal elders who rotate and tell stories.
“There are still some people who really don’t know what happened,” Brave Heart said. “[But when people find out], they want to know more, they want to get involved. Our goal is just to educate people so that they know who the Dakota people are.”
Indigenous Peoples Day
This June, the Mankato City Council passed a resolution to name the second Monday in October (often celebrated at Columbus Day) as Indigenous Peoples Day. According to Brave Heart, there will be a copy of the resolution in the education tent during this year’s pow wow, with city councilors attending the event to read the resolution out loud.
“We are going to honor them,” he said. “As we say in my home and my community, they’re good relatives. They’ve been good relatives to the Dakota people.”
Brave Heart added that people will also have a chance at the education tent to share their ideas about how to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day moving forward.
What: The 46th annual traditional Mahkato Wacipi
When: Sept. 21-23
Grand entry times: Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m.
Where: Land of Memories Park in Mankato
Cost: $7 for all-weekend access (children under 12 and seniors 60 and older are free)
According to Brave Heart, the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association is working to construct a permanent arbor with shade so that people can be protected from the elements when they attend the pow wow. Because of summer’s flooding, construction had to be postponed until after this year’s event. The structure will cost about $200,000 to complete, with $160,000 already raised.
By Grace Webb