George Growingthunder looked at the ancient rock carvings and wept as the sun rose over Jeffers Petroglyphs, a historical site in southwestern Minnesota. He was thankful to visit the land of his ancestors, and he was gratified the Minnesota Historical Society was working to do a better job telling this site's history from Native Americans' point of view — a perspective absent in many museums and historical sites around the country.
Soon, Growingthunder hopes to bring that perspective to his career. A student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., Growingthunder was one of six students from around the nation who joined a summer historical society program aimed at including more Native voices in the telling of history. He studied efforts to decolonize museums, learned about repatriation of objects in museum collections and helped build exhibits.
"I'm a changed person," he said. "(The Minnesota Historical Society) is a template. They're changing the narrative, treating us like people instead of a collection object. They've done something a lot of other museums don't do."
The Native American Undergraduate Museum Fellowship has been part of the Minnesota Historical Society for more than a decade and is nearing 100 alums. A 2019 grant from the Mellon Foundation helped expand it to a 10-week program. Many alums work in the museum field. Six have gone on to get their Ph.D.
The fellows traveled to historical sites around Mni Sota Makoce — Dakota for "the land where the waters reflect the clouds" and the inspiration for the name Minnesota — while interning in their chosen discipline. Some compiled digital databases of the museum's collection of documents and artifacts from their tribes. Others digitized tribal newspapers or worked in research. Growingthunder worked in exhibit design.
"A lot of times these students say they never saw museums as a place for them, never thought they belonged," said Amber Annis, director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society and a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. "There's a responsibility that museums have, that the history field has — fields that have taken advantage of Native communities. And there's no one better to tell our own stories, understand our history, than Native people themselves."
The field is shifting slowly, Annis said, to center Native voices. But the Minnesota Historical Society remains the rare state historical museum with a department dedicated to Native nations and communities.
Gavin Zempel is from the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwest Minnesota and a is senior at the University of Minnesota Morris. He's been studying the Pipestone Indian Training School — one of many boarding schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s that aimed to assimilate Indian youth into mainstream American culture — and its effects on Dakota people, including his own family.
"My family really didn't have much else in the way of choices," Zempel said. "Poverty on the reservation was terrible. There were multiple disease epidemics. Part of reason they went to boarding school was the conditions at home. That's often not talked about."
Zempel was inspired to go into the museum field after working as historic site manager at Lower Sioux Indian Community. After graduation, he hopes to get his Ph.D.
"History has had lots of problems with how it's portrayed Native people," Zempel said. "The history that was written was written by men who were prejudiced against Dakotas. So there's a great opportunity for Native people like myself to tell Dakota history, that history that's been ignored."
Taylor Fairbanks, a sophomore the University of Minnesota majoring in sociology and American Indian studies, has family from White Earth Nation in Minnesota and Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. When her grandfather was sent to Indian boarding school, she said, her family's ties with their culture, tradition, and language was severed.
She joined the fellowship to reconnect those ties and bring that history back to her family in St. Paul.
"The Minnesota Historical Society believes American history is Native history," she said. "We're slowly decolonizing these spaces, but it doesn't happen overnight. There's a responsibility within us to be the next generation of knowledge-keepers."
Fellows spoke of the program as both an academic pursuit and as something far more personal. Like when Growingthunder stood on the same outcropping of Sioux quartzite in Southwest Minnesota where his ancestor, the Sissetuwan Dakota chief Standing Buffalo, stood 161 years ago — before his people were exiled.
As a child in Montana, Growingthunder knew his ancestor's story: In the mid-1800s, Standing Buffalo had advocated for peaceful relations with white people who were pushing further onto Native lands in the Upper Midwest. He had just returned from a buffalo hunt in August 1862 when he heard some disturbing news: Four young Native men had killed five white settlers in Acton, east of Willmar.
Thus began the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Dakota Uprising: Indian attacks to drive settlers from the Mississippi River Valley, counterattacks by U.S. militias, hundreds killed on both sides, the executions of 38 Dakota men — the largest one-day execution in U.S. history — Dakota noncombatants (mostly women, children and the elderly) put in a concentration camp at Fort Snelling and the exile of Dakota people from Minnesota.
When he heard of the initial attack, Standing Buffalo knew war was afoot. He prayed at Jeffers Petroglyphs that his descendants would return and pray at this same spot.
And when Growingthunder visited the same spot at sunrise earlier this summer, that's exactly what he did.
"It was like déjà vu. I'd never been there physically, but my spirit had been there," Growingthunder said. "Everything's being revived: our culture, our language, our ceremonies. We're people in exile. This is our homeland, but we fled. I want to come back to Minnesota and bring my family."