A new scholarship at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine named for a Dakota Indian man executed in 1862 comes as a symbolic apology for a dark chapter in Mayo’s history, one that left generations of American Indians fearing the hospital.
In the clinic’s earliest years, not long after bloody conflicts between Indians and white settlers reshaped the Minnesota prairie, the clinic used the body of a Dakota leader as a medical specimen for study and display. The skeleton of Marpiya te najin, or He Who Stands in the Clouds, stood in a front room of the clinic, according to some accounts, before it was removed, mostly lost, and largely forgotten.
Hoping to forge a new relationship with Indian tribes, Jeff Bolton, Mayo’s chief administrative officer and vice president, announced the Marpiya te najin scholarship at a ceremony on the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska before an audience that included tribal elders and relatives of the man whose body was used as a Mayo teaching tool.
“It’s a huge gesture on Mayo’s part,” said LeAnne RedOwl, a Santee Dakota tribal member and a direct descendant of Marpiya te najin. “I felt that it could bring healing.”
The story of how the Mayo Clinic ended up with the body goes back to the largest mass execution in U.S. history, the federal government’s hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, for alleged crimes tied to the U.S.-Dakota War of that same year.
The day after the captured Indians were cut down from the gallows and buried in a mass grave, W.W. Mayo headed to the scene in search of a body he could use as a medical specimen. Mayo, whose sons would go on to found the clinic, returned home with the corpse of Marpiya te najin, who was known to settlers as “Cut Nose” for a facial deformity.
The doctor dissected the body with medical colleagues with the intention that the skeleton would be kept for educational purposes. The Indian warrior’s bones were kept in an iron kettle, with Mayo sometimes pulling out pieces for his sons, William and Charles, to identify, according to Scott Berg, author of the book “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.”
The skeleton was put on display in the early years of the Mayo Clinic before it was put in storage. The whereabouts of much of the skeleton are not known today, but a skull held by the Mayo Clinic was sent in the early 1990s to Hamline University scientists, who determined it was that of Marpiya te najin.
A few years later, an inventory mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act found that a never-displayed exhibit at a museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., was a piece of Marpiya te najin’s skin. It had been tanned and tattooed with identifying marks.
The skull and the remains found in Michigan were both returned to the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation near Morton, Minn., and buried. A funeral ceremony in 1998 was held with honors befitting a chief.
Historical records show that Marpiya te najin was suspected of brutal crimes against white settlers during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Some viewed him as a military chief of the Dakota side during the war, and he reportedly used a combination of trickery and ruthless violence to fight an enemy that had been equally ruthless.
RedOwl, speaking of her relative, said those depictions don’t tell the whole story.
“Marpiya was a warrior. He fought for what he believed in, his traditional ways,” she said. She said she’s been awed by Mayo’s efforts to reach out to her family. Mostly, she’s glad her daughter will see something of their history.
“I want my daughter to know who she is and where she comes from. And that she has warrior blood,” she said.
The Marpiya te najin scholarship will be awarded to a meritorious American Indian medical school candidate or American Indian students in the Mayo Clinic’s School of Health Sciences, graduate school or nursing programs.
It’s one of three that Mayo announced this year in honor of American Indians. The clinic also endowed the Ernest Wabasha and Amos Owen scholarships for qualified students enrolled in one of many Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences programs.
Bolton, speaking Wednesday, said the scholarships were just some of the measures the hospital has taken in recent months to engage with Indian groups. Mayo last year hired Valerie Decorah Guimaraes, a registered nurse and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, to serve as a patient relations specialist for Indian patients. A smudge room and sage blessings for new babies are now available.
At Bolton’s urging, it was Guimaraes and Prairie Island Indian Community member Arthur Owens who started to think of ways that the Mayo Clinic could reach out to the Dakota Indian community. The scholarships came out of that effort, Guimaraes said.
“How this all happened, it seems a little surreal today,” said Guimaraes. “I was blessed that I was able to be a part of it.”