NONFICTION: "Mni Sota Makoce, The Land of the Dakota," by Gwen Westerman and Bruce White

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2012 - 3:18 PM

New book looks at the long-standing relationship between the Dakota and this land.

MNI SOTA MAKOCE, the Land of the Dakota By: Gwen Westerman and Bruce White.

There's an old Dakota legend about a couple of warriors, Hepan and Chaske, who share a pike dinner and develop a raging thirst. Chaske brings pail after pail of water to Hepan until his friend morphs into a pike half submerged along the riverbank.

His new shape causes a jam that wrecks many canoes until Hepan's beloved maiden shows up and presents him with beaded moccasins and handiwork. The fish retires into the water -- leaving the St. Croix River flowing around a sandbar much as it does today.

That's just one of the reminders in "Mni Sota Makoce," that this land is a Dakota place. In fact, the land is the central character in this delicious hodgepodge of oral histories and written records woven together by Gwen Westerman, Bruce White and a team of storytellers.

The book's title means "the land where the waters are so clear they reflect the clouds." The project is a four-year collaboration, "sharing what it means to be part of this beautiful homeland."

On the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War, that bloody conflict has dominated the conversation of Dakota history. This book reminds us that their history didn't start in 1862. Their narrative has been richly layered for centuries.

Westerman, a professor and poet at Minnesota State University, Mankato, is a descendant of Dakota men killed and imprisoned in 1862 and women whose resiliency helps explain why the Dakota remain here today despite exiles.

After centuries of white historians interpreting Dakota history, it's nice to put the story in her masterful hands and her sensitive ears.

"Mostly we listened to what our relatives wanted to tell us," she writes. "They held our hands and recounted family stories, they cried and laughed about what had been written in books about our Dakota people."

The book's collaborators ranged in age from 30 to 100, including 34-year-old Katherine Beane, who represents the upcoming generation of Dakota chroniclers. A descendant of Cloud Man, Beane deftly takes us back to the 1830s, when Lake Calhoun was known as Bde Maka Ska, or White Banks Lake, for its sandy beaches.

Cloud Man survived a blizzard on the plains and returned to Lake Calhoun, starting a farming colony. Dakota traditionalists could view his adopting an agricultural lifestyle as selling out and assimilating to the white man's way. Beane makes a different point:

"He did not intend to forsake his identity as a Dakota man; he was simply making an honest attempt to adapt to his surroundings, changing with the times as any human being, as well as any community, must in order to live."

It's that kind of textured history that makes "Mni Sota Makoce" a breakthrough resource for those calling this place home.

Staff Writer Curt Brown's project, "In the Footsteps of Little Crow" is available as an e-book for $3 at www.startribune.com/ebooks.

  • MNI SOTA MAKOCE, THE LAND OF THE DAKOTA

    By: Gwen Westerman and Bruce White.

    Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 273 pages, $24.95.

    Review: The land is the central character in this delicious hodgepodge of oral histories and written records, woven together by a team of storytellers.

    Event: Gwen Westerman will speak at 7 p.m. Thu. at Minneapolis Central Library on the Nicollet Mall.

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