With its curved lines and walls of windows, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's new cultural center rises over the prairie in Shakopee, the shape of its seven enormous teepees reflected in a stream created to represent the Minnesota River.

Community members say what is inside is just as striking: a public exhibit presenting Mdewakanton Dakota history and culture from their own perspective.

"This is one of the first times a Native group has told its own story in a museum, on a scale like this," said Andy Vig, a community member who serves on its culture and history presentation work group. "It's for the education of everyone."

The 84,000-square-foot structure is called Hoċokata Ti (pronounced ho-cho-kat-tah tee), which in the Dakota language means "the lodge at the center of the camp."

Most of the building isn't open to the public but serves as a gathering place for the community, which previously didn't have a large enough space for everyone.

"The tribe, they've been wanting this building for 30 years," said Vig, who is also the son of Charles Vig, community chairman. "This is long overdue."

The exhibit, "Mdewakanton: Dwellers of the Spirit Lake," is mostly permanent, with minor updates possible. It takes visitors through the community's history, beginning with a video showing the creation stories of three bands of Dakota. (Cost is $7.50. $3.75 for children, $4 for veterans and free for seniors and children under 5. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located at 2300 Tiwahe Circle in Skakopee.)

Particularly sobering is the retelling of the U.S.-Dakota War, which resulted in the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, and the story of the boarding schools where American Indian children were sent for decades and forced to assimilate. The exhibit ends with the SMSC's modern-day endeavors in business, sustainability and philanthropy.

The 3,805-square-foot exhibit features cultural artifacts such as a dugout canoe found in Lake Minnetonka, tools, toys and articles of clothing.

The objects come from many sources, including community members, the Scott County Historical Society and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, which permanently loaned the exhibit about 25 items, Vig said.

Among the items from the Smithsonian: A boy's deerskin jacket, decorated with orange, green and blue quills; and a man's shirt featuring fringe and a geometric pattern in primary colors.

For some time, the Museum of the American Indian has loaned artifacts to tribes so people can see them close to home, said Jackie Swift, the museum's repatriation manager, adding that more tribes are now creating their own museums.

Other exhibit displays allow visitors to imagine what daily life was once like. For example, visitors can go inside a replica of a teepee set up for winter camping and listen to audio recordings of stories told around the fire.

Several large touch screens allow visitors to choose a word and hear it spoken in Dakota. "Language is one of our top things we wanted to include here," Vig said. "If you really look at the language, that's who we are."

As visitor Margaret Pearce perched on a stool near a screen, children's voices spoke the words for various family members in Dakota.

"I appreciate getting to hear how they say their words. That's a really important thing for me," said Pearce, an artist living in Red Wing.

Sandy Reavill of Prior Lake was struck by an oversized book showing how land was gradually taken from the Dakota through deception and treaty after broken treaty.

'Telling our story'

The building, made from stone, stucco and glass, reflects important cultural values and symbols. Circles, which represent life, are everywhere. A skylight faces the spirit world, Vig said.

The center took 18 months to build, said Carolyn Wolf, senior project manager at McGough Construction.

The exterior features five kinds of stone, representing the layers of the earth, she said.

There's only one 90-degree angle in the whole building, which raised questions about how to install ducts or position door frames.

Wolf noted that building three of the seven teepees — the ones accessible from the interior — was challenging because they needed to connect seamlessly to the glass walls.

Despite a lack of advertising, attendance has been good, an office manager in the gift shop said, with many visitors from Shakopee and Prior Lake.

Fern Cloud, a member of the Sisitunwan band of Dakota, recently visited Hoċokata Ti for the second time. She said the exhibit is "really needed" in Minnesota.

"You can't find out about Dakota people in any of the schools in such a defined way," she said. "We're telling our story here. You can't find that anywhere else."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781