When Art Owen died of a heart attack on Oct. 27, he left a role as spiritual leader in the Prairie Island Indian Community that will be difficult to fill.
Shelley Buck, president of the community and one of the many people who called Owen “deksi,” or uncle, said the tribe is still coming to grips with his unexpected death at age 68.
“Of all the losses I’ve had in my life, this is by far the worst,” Buck said this week.
Owen, whose Dakota name was Sung Ska Natan, or His White Horse Charges, was born Dec. 7, 1949, to Amos and Ione Owen in Red Wing. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and fought in the Vietnam War. He returned home and studied political science at the University of Minnesota and the London School of Economics. He was a couple of courses shy of his bachelor’s degree when post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) led him to quit school and get busy with his life’s work: helping others, fighting for tribal sovereignty and preserving the Dakota language and cultural traditions.
Owen had a way of bringing people together from all walks of life, Buck said. As spiritual leader for the tribe, she said he worked 24/7.
“He did anything you needed him to do,” she said “If somebody needed a place to stay, he would give him a place to stay. If someone needed someone to come do a welcoming prayer for a conference or something, he was there to do that. If we needed someone to conduct a tribal member funeral, he was there to conduct a funeral in the spiritual way.”
Buck said Owen considered one of his biggest accomplishments helping to recover a sacred peace pipe given by a Dakota chief named Sunka Ska (White Dog) to a U.S. soldier after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Sunka Ska was one of 38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato — the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The pipe ended up with a Boston family, which auctioned it off for $39,975 in May to an anonymous buyer who returned it to the tribe.
Owen oversaw ceremonies to restore it to the community, said Buck, whose father was Owen’s cousin. She said they were like brothers, and went to Vietnam together. Her father lost his legs there in an explosion and became an alcoholic on his return. Owen blamed himself, she said, “because he told my grandmother he would watch out for my father and make sure he was OK.”
Johnny Johnson, tribal treasurer, worked closely with Owen. He fought tirelessly to change the names of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis and Barn Bluff in Red Wing to their Dakota names, but did so by building bridges through education, Johnson said. “What made him tick is just protecting sovereignty all across Indian Country.”
Ray Owen, Art’s younger brother, said a spiritual leader is selected by the tribe because of his total sacrifice to its well-being.
“You can’t call yourself a spiritual leader. Only the people can,” he said. “Art went out with colors. Vietnam vets and ballplayers and dancers, everybody showed up [for the funeral]. I think they said there was close to 3,500 people.”
Nicky Buck, Shelley’s sister, credits Art Owen with grounding her in Dakota culture and teaching her about native plants and medicines. She said he had married four times and sired five children but also adopted seven more and took in more than 100 foster children. He made sure all were connected to tribal traditions.
“He was the most giving man you could possibly imagine,” Nicky Buck said. “He’s everything a Dakota man would ever be.”
Services have been held.