He carried down one of the most storied names in Dakota tribal history, but Ernest Wabasha never put on airs.
“He was a private person who never tooted his own horn,” said Vernell Wabasha, his wife of 57 years.
Wabasha, who served in the Korean War, worked as an electrical technician on Gemini and Mercury space rockets and negotiated with museums to repatriate and bury Dakota remains, died Thursday at a Redwood Falls, Minn., hospital from congestive heart disease. He was 83.
He descended from a line of several Chiefs Wabasha — including the Mdewakanton leader forced to march into detainment at Fort Snelling and then exiled after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 despite saving more than 100 white captives.
“Whenever we met elders in Nebraska or the Dakotas,” his wife said, “they would always shake his hand and say how honored they were to meet him. But he remained quiet, polite and strong — a quality leader and role model who will be missed.”
One of nine siblings, Ernest Wabasha was sent away like many young Dakota of his era to a missionary-run boarding school in South Dakota. That’s where he met Vernell. They were married Feb. 11, 1956, after his naval stint in Korea concluded. He scored in the top dozen of 600 electricians at Chicago’s DeVry Institute and quickly landed a job in the Arctic Circle, working on defense systems during the Cold War.
“They say the first year of marriage is the toughest, so maybe that’s why we were able to stay together 57 years — he was in the Arctic that first year,” Vernell said with a chuckle.
Wabasha joined McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in St. Louis for 10 years, working on electrical panels for the space program. After living in Chicago and St. Louis, the Wabashas returned to Minnesota, where Ernest worked 25 years for Honeywell. In 1979, they moved back to the Lower Sioux Community in Morton, where Ernest served as the first tribal representative at Jackpot Junction casino.
Throughout his life and during his retirement, Ernest relished Dakota cultural events and the tribal history to which he was so connected. On his mantel, he kept for years a pair of heavy iron shackles that his great-grandfather, Chief Wabasha III, wore during the forced march across the southwestern Minnesota plains in 1862.
When St. Paul opened a rebuilt Wabasha Street Bridge in 1998, Ernest Wabasha opened the ceremony with a Dakota prayer. The street, like the river town and county in southeastern Minnesota, carry his family name.
In 2000, when a Michigan museum returned a tattooed piece of a Dakota warrior’s skin for reburial, Wabasha was on hand, saying: “It was a good ceremony, but there are many more [specimens] that are in museums and collections around the country so we still have work to do.”
Said his son Leonard, the cultural resources director for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community: “He was a kind, generous, humble man who was reserved in his nature and always treated everyone with dignity and respect.”
In addition to his wife and son, Wabasha is survived by his daughter, Theresa Wabasha, also of Morton; sister Vera Hutter of Redwood Falls, grandchildren Cheyanne and Forrest St. John and Winona Wabasha, and great-granddaughter Inez St. John.
After an all-night wake at the Lower Sioux Community Center, Wabasha’s visitation will continue at 10 a.m. Wednesday followed by a funeral service at St. John’s Catholic Church in Morton. He will be buried at the nearby St. Cornelia’s Espiscopal Cemetery.