Wind rustled through wildflowers as Bob Klanderud pointed down the Mississippi River valley from atop Pilot Knob Hill in Mendota Heights.
He could see the distant skyscrapers of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But he was imagining its first metropolis — villages of animal hide teepees dotting the banks.
Over many years, settlement and war annihilated such images. For Klanderud and others indigenous to the area, the wounds are still fresh.
“Our story lives in these places,” said Klanderud, a Dakota cultural teacher at Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis.
Those narratives are getting fresh expression through Healing Minnesota Stories, which this week became a program of the Minnesota Council of Churches. The project illuminates largely untold stories from American Indian history to raise consciousness and heal cultural rifts.
Partly because Christian churches played a role in past trauma, Minnesota’s faith community will be a key audience, according to a council news release. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian-run Indian boarding schools stripped Indian children of their culture, while others died in internment camps at places like Fort Snelling.
Telling the stories is difficult but necessary for Klanderud.
“When we stand with a live heart of Dakota descendancy and use our sacred voices with our holy words, it takes a new dimension and the healing can come,” he said. “Not for the person telling, but for all the people.”
The program was born in 2011 out of a series of visions, said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, a Mohican tribe member and associate pastor of the Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights. Three nights in a row, he dreamed of Pilot Knob Hill, a long-sacred Dakota burial ground. He also saw 38 feathers representing the 38 Dakota men hanged in Mankato in 1862. After speaking with Dakota elders, he felt called to educate people on that history.
“I believe that people owe it to the indigenous people of that land to know their narrative and their history,” said Bear Jacobs.
In spring 2012, he and Klanderud began giving tours of historical areas under the auspices of the St. Paul Interfaith Network. About 4,000 people have taken the tours, which are free but carry suggested donations of $30 to $50. Others have attended dialogues, workshops and film screenings offered by Minnesota Healing Stories. Donations are funneled back into the program to pay Native American speakers.
The hope is to make the history more personal and to show that even a place like modern Pilot Knob Hill bears ghosts and scars. In 2002, developers planned to put townhouses in the area. Eventually the area was turned back to public land, but not before bulldozers had lopped several feet off the Mississippi River lookout point.
Jacobs hopes faith members bring awareness of these issues and of native values of environmental and social justice back to their congregations.
“I don’t believe that indigenous people need the church’s message,” he said. “I believe the church needs the indigenous message.”
Jacobs said joining the MCC gives the program a broader platform and opens opportunities for historical tours or community events in other parts of the state. That’s exciting, he said, because the impact has been palpable. For instance, he said, audience members have told him that they now pray every time they cross the Mendota Bridge, which passes over land where many Indians died in confinement.
“Each time I feel the effects of historic trauma coming from my body,” Klanderud said. “But each time somebody speaks, we begin to heal.”