Winona Ryder came to my hometown to find herself last month. Actually, she came here to shoot a Super Bowl ad for the Squarespace website platform, but it’s being pitched as a “quest for self-realization.”

“I just want to find the real Winona, you know?” the actress explains to a waitress in one of the ads.

What better place to embark on that journey of self-discovery, she muses, than to spend a few days wandering the place for which she was named — Winona, Minn.?

The whole production was the subject of great interest around town, what with the film crew scouting dozens of locations and recruiting locals as extras.

With all the hype, it maybe isn’t surprising that some residents were a bit let down by the resulting 30-second commercial. The ad consists of Ryder and an actor playing a local police officer having a shouted conversation about her website as she sits in the snow, laptop at hand, under a (fake) “Welcome to Winona” sign. Think “Fargo,” but further south.

To be fair, the ad campaign includes a website about Winona (the city) created by Winona (the actress). Squarespace calls it “a love letter to American small towns.”

The feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. The publisher of the Winona Post ripped into the ad agency in a long editorial that listed the many jewels in the city’s crown — its festivals, historic buildings, universities, natural beauty, and so on.

He and other local critics (“Super Bowl ad swings and misses,” Opinion Exchange, Feb. 4) may be right that the ad agency missed the mark in their quest for the “true Winona.” (For the record, no one blames Ryder. She charmed the socks off everyone she met.)

On the other hand, maybe we locals miss the mark, too, when we focus on the big tourist draws. Maybe the true heart of this city is buried in its past, only unearthed in recent years — not by a film star, but by a gathering of Native Americans and the descendants of European settlers that takes place on the shores of Lake Winona every year.

The gathering is relevant not only to the true character of our city, but also to Ryder’s own “quest for self-realization.” As she explains in the ad campaign’s behind-the-scenes documentary (yes, there’s a documentary), her mom decided to give her daughter the name “Winona” after picking up a booklet titled “The Legend of Winona” in a local coin-operated laundry.

The booklet’s title refers to a romantic European legend about “Princess Winona,” the daughter of the Dakota chief whose people used to make their summer camp here. Her name, We-no-nah, simply means “firstborn daughter” in the Dakota language. According to the legend, she leapt to her death from atop one of the river bluffs rather than be forced to marry a man she didn’t love.

The legend is dubious, at best, part of the European romanticizing of Native peoples after they were subdued. The true story of the young Dakota woman for whom Winona Ryder was named has yet to be told.

But every summer, people come here for the Great Dakota Gathering, an event in which the stories of her people can be told; it aims to reconcile the people of Winona and the people of the Dakota Nation “through educational, cultural, and service projects mutually designed to bring both together in greater wholeness,” according to the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance.

What makes this rare encounter even more remarkable is that it occurs against the background of an especially fraught history, the little-known Dakota Uprising of 1862. After resettling the Dakota on a reservation near Mankato, the government failed to deliver promised food annuities. On the point of mass starvation, a handful of young Dakota led an attack on European farms, killing more than 800 settlers over the course of several months. Government troops eventually quelled the uprising, hanging 38 Dakota men — the largest single-day mass execution in U.S. history. The Dakota people were relocated to reservations in Nebraska and the Badlands of South Dakota, and banned from the state. Those who aided settlers during the conflict were not exempt.

That history is still raw for the descendants of those on both sides of the conflict. But every year, some of them gather here in Winona’s Unity Park for dancing, speeches, food, art and cultural demonstrations.

And the spiritual heart of the gathering is the Talk Circle, where people with very different cultural legacies come together to share their stories, and to listen, too — acts of brave vulnerability that seek not only to heal, but to create something new: friendships built over the ruins of hurt and hostility.

If our true self is the embodiment of our best aspirations, then here is where Ryder and Squarespace should return to shoot a sequel to the “finding Winona” campaign: not in an empty cornfield in January, but on the shores of Lake Winona in August.


Jerry J. Windley-Daoust is a writer in Winona, Minn. He’s at On Facebook: @Windhovering.