In an emotional ceremony this month, the Minnesota Historical Society officially returned 114 acres along the Minnesota River bluffs to the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

The land transfer, approved by the Legislature in 2017, became official Feb. 12, returning about half of the southern Minnesota property around the nonprofit's historic site to the tribe.

"I don't know if it's ever happened before, where a state gave land back to a tribe," Lower Sioux President Robert Larsen said. "[Our ancestors] paid for this land over and over with their blood, with their lives. It's not a sale; it's been paid for by the ones that aren't here anymore."

It's a significant step for the Lower Sioux, one of 11 sovereign tribes in Minnesota, four of which are Dakota or Sioux. The land is the Lower Sioux homeland, known as Cansa'yapi (Dakota for "where they marked the trees red") and where the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 began. For more than 20 years, the Lower Sioux sought to reclaim the property.

The final step came in January as the Historical Society's board voted on the action. Larsen tuned in online from his office and held his breath with each vote, fearing the decision could stall. When the vote passed, he choked up, thinking of what his ancestors endured.

"We can try to reclaim that relationship with the land and hopefully we can continue the healing," he said. "It's great for Indian Country in all."

The tribe will maintain trails on the land and hopes to draw more visitors to learn the history.

"This is a victory for the Lower Sioux Community ... it's more than symbolic, it's actionable," said Kate Beane, director of Native American Initiatives at the Historical Society and a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux in South Dakota. "What this specific incidence highlights is that there are actionable things that some agencies and organizations can do to help support the healing."

The Dakota people lived on millions of acres before ceding land in an 1851 treaty. The U.S. government established the Lower Sioux Agency and by 1862, war broke out. In the end, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, and the Dakota were forced to relocate to reservations and small parcels of land. Before this month's action, Lower Sioux tribal land totaled 1,800 acres.

"There are local farmers that have more land than the tribe does," Larsen said.

Beane, whose ancestors were born on the Lower Sioux reservation, grew up visiting the historic site.

"We always saw this as Cansa'yapi, Lower Sioux land," she said. "During the war, these were some of the last areas of the land that we lost. ... This is really a huge healing opportunity for all of us as Dakota people."

The 114 acres transferred to the Lower Sioux, bought by the Historical Society in the 1960s and 1970s from private landowners, lies mostly north of the visitor center. The rest of the 130 acres is still owned by the state. Any future land transfers would require legislative approval and a review by the State Historic Preservation Office.

The Lower Sioux, which has about 1,000 enrolled members, are also working to restore traditions — from revitalizing sacred tobacco to reviving the Dakota language with classes and an immersion program. (Minnesota is a Dakota word for "cloud-tinted waters.") A new building with a cultural gathering space as well as traditional and contemporary arts studios is slated to open in June. Larsen also hopes this is the start of discussions over tribal land, shifting other sacred sites to tribes to manage.

"This isn't the end," he said. "We hope this is just a kick-start to showing people that it can be done."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141