A Homecoming for the Dakota

Friday morning I had breakfast with a very hard working group of people doing something truly unique for the Winona community – they are building the bridge that welcomes the Dakota Indian population back to their homeland, now known as the city of Winona.

Now when I say I had breakfast what I mean is I sat there and freebased coffee, because it was 7:30 in the morning and frankly I’m not much of a thinker at that hour. But I went because the group asked me to be a ‘friend’ of the committee as they navigate the world of media and marketing and hey, I need friends.

I remember when the Dakota Homecoming started up as a fledgling idea six years ago to take place along side the Grand Excursion, an event that celebrated the white man’s settlement of communities along the Mississippi River. A few big picture thinkers, namely Lyle Rustad and Ed Lohnes from the Diversity Foundation and Eric Sorenson from the city of Winona, recognized that to settle in Winona, white people had to displace those already living here, namely the Dakota Nation. That first event was  cobbled together by the efforts of a few volunteers, a few donors, and a handful of connections in the Dakota tribe who agreed that perhaps it was time to mend the fences broken more than a century ago when the Dakota Nation was stripped from this land. The event received a financial boost from the City of Winona, something that ultimately made the gathering possible and a stalwart few pieced together three days of what they billed as reconciliation.

That year was a success beyond anyone’s expectations, particularly because of the number of Winona community members who came to the event to see, listen and learn. The Dakota who came from their homes across Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada admitted that at first they were wary – they did not want to come be a spectacle for Winona’s entertainment, and no community had ever approached them and said, “Hey, we want to say we’re sorry for the sins of our ancestors and invite you to come to a home that we know is as much yours as ours.”

The Dakota I talked to that year were surprised to see so many families sitting in the grass, so many people who came to the sunrise ceremonies, who shared meals and listened quietly and apologized sincerely in truth telling circles. It opened a doorway that had been closed for 140 years and by the weekend’s close a lot of people’s perceptions had been shifted on both sides of the homecoming.

The homecoming has only picked up steam since then – more Winona community members and more Dakota families come each year, a beautiful and kind of magical feeling place called Unity Park has been constructed at the base of Sugar Loaf, and organizers have begun to spotlight various aspects of the Native American culture to celebrate them more completely. From this event college scholarships, outreach efforts and a Winona-Dakota Unity Alliance have been spawned, each serving to solidify the bonds between the Dakota Nation and the city of Winona.

This year the Dakota Homecoming will honor Dakota children, a generation that exists in duality between the modern pulls of society and the deep roots of their heritage. Within their own communities the Dakota are working to keep that heritage alive, passing down the oral traditions of the Dakota language once illegal to use when Dakota were corralled onto reservations, and passing down the integral spiritual and cultural beliefs that make up the Native American legacy.

Winonans will once again be invited to join in a celebration of this culture – the event is always the first weekend in June and this year promises to be bigger and better than ever.

And if you go, don’t miss the sunrise ceremony held each morning on Saturday and Sunday. It is a solemn, magical and moving half hour standing over a fire while a Dakota holy man thanks the earth and welcomes the sunrise with traditions that are thousands of years old. Even my daughters, who are teenagers and too cool for everything, are profoundly touched by this ceremony and now beg  me to get them up at 5:00 a.m. to go. Seriously. You know it has to be cool.

Folks, the Dakota Homecoming is the only event of its kind in the Midwest, and just another reason why there really is nowhere quite like Winona. Hope we see you in June 🙂

Beautiful dancing at the Dakota Homecoming

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