By Friends of the Falls | June 1, 2023
The following is the transcript from Shelley Buck’s keynote address at Dakhóta Omníčiye 2023, an annual event hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society during American Indian Month in Minnesota.
Han mitákuyepi. Čanté waštéya napé čiyúzapi. Dakóta iá Pte Wicota emákiyapi ye. English iá Shelley Buck emákiyapi ye. Damákota. Thíŋta Wíta hemátanhan. Oyáte mitháwa kin hená Bdewakantunwan ečíyapi ye. Hello my relatives. I greet you with a good heart and handshake. My Dakota name is Many Buffalo. My English name is Shelley Buck. I am Dakota. I am from Prairie Island, and my people are the Spirit Lake Dwellers. I’d first like to say pidamayayepi to all of you for being here today. It’s wonderful to see so many of our people and our communities gathered in one place, especially this place, that’s so full of our histories. I’d also like to extend a thank you to the Minnesota Historical Society for their contribution to today’s programming, “hosting” the 4th Annual Dakhóta Omníčiye (O-ma-NI-ciye). I say “hosting” in quotation marks because while this site is under the ownership of
MNHS, this place is, has always been, and will always be a Dakota place. Bdote is a confluence, a gathering of sorts– and so it is here that we also gather; to remember,
to celebrate, to gather and share strength with each other for the future. De Dakota Makoce, this is Dakota homeland.
There are multiple places associated with our creation story depending on where you come from. Bdote, is one of those places where the Dakota people came into
human form from the waters. Water carried us into this world, and from that moment has connected us to each other, to the stars, and to this place. This area is the center of the earth, or maka cokiya kin.
It is also true that this place, this center, holds great sorrow and grief for our people, too. It was, and is, this great sorrow and grief that has and continues to be the foundation on which Minnesota statehood was able to build and perpetuate itself—both literally and economically.
A few years ago, while working on my masters degree, I did a paper that included a focus on Fort Snelling and the concentration camp therein where Dakota families were held in internment following the Dakota War. During my research, I came across William Milikan’s article titled “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp.” While many things were upsetting about this piece, including the name itself, one line in particular has stuck with me since: when talking about the Northwestern Nat’l Bank of Minneapolis, Milikan noted that “The bankthat became the backbone of the financial empire of the northwestern United States could trace its initial capital to the inmates of the Fort Snelling prison camp.” WOW! Not only did this passage stick with me because of the lack of humanity it takes to call prisoners—women, children among them—a treasure because of the material wealth they could become, but also because of the deep irony of our people, imprisoned, being the “backbone of the financial empire of the northwestern
It’s telling that the settler-colonial imagination teaches its children that this land was barren before their arrival. That this land was inhabited not by people, but by
savages who couldn’t “make use” of the land as Euro- American minds saw fit—a land ripe for the taking, for discovering. We know this narrative is a false one, we
know this land was already inhabited by peoples with thriving communities, cultures, and economies.
This country has been celebrating and re-writing the genocide of Indigenous peoples for decades. This cloaking of history does damage to Native children as well as non-Native children. It is important to recognize the impacts and ongoing structures of colonialism on our Dakota communities that still affect us today. We are expected to be invisible in our own homelands. This invisibility is designed to make our people vulnerable to continued experiences of prejudice and discrimination.
Today, I want to talk about the importance of histories and representation, the importance of who is doing the telling. After all, storytelling is more than simple
memory—it is also responsibility and accountability. We have a long, complicated history. Since the formation of the United States, the federal government has had
policies to assimilate, exterminate, and terminate our people. We have had broken treaties; the Dakota War, which led to the hanging of 38+2 Dakota warriors—still
the largest mass execution in the US. It’s also led to the horrors of the boarding school era, and the present day attempts to render our people invisible. But despite all of these atrocities aimed at our people, We Are Still Here. I’ll say it again….We Are Still Here! The fact that I am standing here before you and see many, many Dakota people joining me, is an act of defiance. Defiance against those very policies and actions against our people.
Defiance against the presents and futures of eradication that settler-colonialism intended for us.
History teaches us many lessons, but you have to be willing to listen in order to learn. Some may choose to ignore history, but that doesn’t make it any less real or
Minnesota has a particularly dark history with the Dakota people, and while I hope for a future that is rooted in reconciliation, it must be said that we cannot move
forward without recognizing and acknowledging what happened, and in some cases, is still happening, within the borders of this state. It is important for everyone to
acknowledge and learn from the wrong-doings of the past so we don’t repeat them.
Some will say we are trying to rewrite history, discredit “white” history, or make them feel guilty for what their ancestors did. This is simply not the case. Recognizing and acknowledging allows for healing and moving forward in a positive way.
There was a time not so long ago that my people were no longer welcomed in our homeland, in fact, it’s still engrained in the books of law in this state that the
Dakota be banished from its borders in perpetuity. Many of our ancestors were killed or exiled soon after settlers violently claimed these lands as their own and created what is now the state of Minnesota. Despite being exiled, some Dakota, including my ancestors, stayed behind. Risking their lives to remain in their homeland. Others, whose families fled or were forcibly removed remain in exile outside of their homelands.
All of our voices were silenced for decades after.
History has taught me that representation matters; representation requires leadership; representation requires sacrifice; representation requires perseverance.
Representation can help to reduce negative stereotypes. I once read the quote: if you can see it, you can be it and believe in it. Representation allows us and our
experiences to be validated and feel supported or understood. We need to bring awareness of our cultures, contributions, and resiliency through representation.
Through representation we need to make sure our stories are told so we aren’t seen as just some character from the past on the pages of history books, that we are
not the “vanishing Indians” settler-colonialism wishes us to be. We need to make sure there is a seat at the table for us. If there isn’t, we will make one—or better yet, build a new table, ever-expanding, with room for all.
We come from a long line of strong, resilient people. We need to reclaim our history, our narrative, our culture. We need to make sure our people are heard and seen for all they—we—are.
We are fortunate today to be surrounded by many great Dakota leaders who are doing their part to ensure that we, as the Oceti Sakowin, are well represented, and that our culture is preserved, protected, and prepared for future generations.
I am humbled that MNHS recognized me as a Dakota leader who is making a difference. I don’t do this work for myself. I do it for my tiwahe (family), my tiospaye (extended family), my Oyate (tribe), and for future generations of my people. I do it because it is part of who I am as a Dakota winyan. I do it because I feel a responsibility to my ancestors who sacrificed and survived all they did just so I could be here today. I take seriously my responsibility to make sure our voice is
heard, and those of you who know me, know I’m not afraid to be loud about it.
I’m proud of my work as an elected tribal leader and what’s been accomplished in protecting and preserving our Dakota heritage. I am currently serving my twelfth
year on the Tribal Council at Prairie Island. Along with my fellow Council members throughout those years, we have accomplished a great deal for our Tribe, here in
Minnesota and in Washington, DC.
We’ve fought hard for our voice to be heard and our Tribe’s interests protected. We may be a small nation, but we’ve built a powerful reputation as a Tribe that is not afraid to stand up for itself and fight for what is right. We’ve also gone to great lengths to protect, preserve and celebrate our heritage and culture with things like
our buffalo project and the education we are able to do with it; creating a Dakota language class in the local high school for our children to learn; the repatriation of
Dakota artifacts, lands, and ancestors through our THPO (Tribal Historic Preservation Office) department; and even bringing back the first permanent
traditional Dakota bark lodge in Minnesota in nearly 150 years. The last record of a traditional bark lodge built here dates back to the Lower Sioux Agency in 1862, right before the Dakota War.
I’m also proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish outside of my role as a Tribal leader. I was recently named president of the non-profit organization, Friends
of the Falls. Friends of the Falls is working with the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park Board, and the Army Corps on the conveyance of a 3-acre site near the Upper Lock for transfer to public control, and the hope is eventually Dakota control. I’m working with our board of directors and others to protect and preserve Owámniyomni (St. Anthony Falls) and Wita Wanagi (Spirit Island). These sacred sites, like so many others, were desecrated by settlers throughout the years. We are fighting hard to right that wrong and return these sites to the Dakota people—because we know these sites are more than just land or water. We know the River is our relative. We know mni wiconi, water is life. We know it is the relationship we share to this place that makes it home, that it tends to us just as we tend to it.
Friends of the Falls is working to transform the heart of Minneapolis’ Central Riverfront, which is currently inaccessible, to a place where we can reconnect with the River. My goal is to have a place where we not only rebuild relationships with the River, but also educate on a history that many don’t know about, build bridges
between communities, and create a place where healing can occur. Since taking over at Friends of the Falls, we have become a Dakota led, and majority Native board.
With similar projects along the River, like Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi, River Learning Center, and others, we can work together, as a collaborative group, to truly indigenize the River.
We, as Dakota, persevered and survived because throughout our history we’ve had strong leaders who have stood up for the people and made sure we were represented. Leaders who fought hard to protect our stories, our ways, our culture. It is leadership through connection, or kinship, that we’ve inherited from our
ancestors. A leadership that guides just as much by example as by action or words. Today, we have leaders who are changing the narrative. I want to talk about
some of those great leaders today. When I think about leaders, I don’t just think about elected leaders. I think about leaders in all different fields, doing all different
kinds of work. I want lift up some of these great leaders of the Oceti Sakowin.
First, is Robert Larsen, president of Cansayapi or Lower Sioux. I have had the honor and pleasure of working alongside Deuce for years. We served on Minnesota Indian Affairs Council together as chair and vice chair, as well as through our Mni Sota Dakota Leaders group. Deuce is a force to be reckoned with, doing it with a
gentle soul. His leadership inspires me to be better, to do better. He leads with compassion while holding true to his Dakota teachings. He builds relationships because he understands the importance of working together. When we work together, we win together. He shows up without expecting or even wanting recognition. He is one of the most humble people I know. He puts his people
before himself; he’s a true Dakota leader. I absolutely adore the guy and am lucky to call him my Dakota brother.
Senator Mary Kunesh is State Senator for the 39th district and the first indigenous woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate. Her family is from the Standing Rock
Sioux Tribe. I met Senator Kunesh when she was Representative Kunesh and I was president of Tribal Council. Throughout the last 7 years I have been able to watch her lead with dignity and passion. She has been a fighter for our people and doing what is right not only for those now, but also for generations to come. She has
supported me time and time again and I am thankful for her leadership and friendship. And I can’t forget to mention she is a board member of Friends of the Falls.
Gwen Westerman is a storyteller by nature and she’s using her gifts to share stories about the Dakota people. Gwen is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton
Dakota Oyate. She is a renowned expert on Dakota history, and co-authored one of my most “go to” books, Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. She has won
many awards and accolades, but one that I think is truly special is her appointment as Minnesota’s Poet Laureate in 2021. Just think about that — Poet Laureate of a state that killed and exiled her people.
Dr. Kate Beane is a strong, active voice ensuring that Dakota people are well represented. Kate is executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art and board chair of Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi. A citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, she’s leading continuing efforts to better connect the nature sanctuary with its Dakota history, traditions and spirituality. Kate was at the forefront of the name change of the former Lake Calhoun to its original name of
Bde Maka Ska. She, along with others involved, took a lot of criticism from the public, but she stood strong to change the narrative.
Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson, the duo behind The Sioux Chef, Owamni restaurant and the North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems, where they are reintroducing indigenous food to a new generation. Sean is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading and most influential chefs. He’s using his skills and passion to help tribal nations decolonize their palates. Sean is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Dana is a lineal descendant of Wahpeton, Sisseton, and Mdewakanton Tribes. She is co-
owner and COO of Owamni, where she works to promote indigenous foods and bring food sovereignty to Indigenous peoples. Her talents don’t stop there either,
she is also a singer and songwriter. And I am proud to say she is also a board member for Friends of the Falls.
Maggie Lorenz is the Executive Director of Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi and a descendant of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation. Since joining Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi, Maggie as transformed the organization. She is a fierce proponent
of honoring and protecting our sacred sites and environmental conservation. She has gone above and beyond to push Wakan Tipi into a reality. I am proud to call her a board member for Friends of the Falls, but even more proud to have her as my niece’s mom.
There are Dakota artists such as Holly Young from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose work has been a featured acquisition at the Minnesota Institute of Art and
who has committed much of her work to a renaissance of Dakhota Floral work. She even designed the artwork featured on the cover of the Minnesota Book Award
Winner, “The Seed Keeper” by fellow Dakota winyan and author, Diane Wilson.
Similarly, there’s Cole Redhorse Taylor, enrolled member of Prairie Island and my nephew, whom I’m proud of. His use of Dakota Florals and his work in the archives have inspired and brought back sleeping knowledge about Dakota pucker-toe moccasins. He also showcases his art in different ways like being a champion woodlands dancer. He continually strives to learn more about the old styles while putting his own flare to his work.
And Rubia Buck, my very own god-daughter and niece whom I am so very proud of. She is also enrolled at Prairie Island. Rubia is a jewelry designer, working with beads and quills. As a matter of fact, her beautiful quill and beadwork walked the MET Gala red carpet on the arms, ears, and neck of none other than Quannah Chasing-horse.
And last, but most certainly not least, I want to recognize my Deksi, Art Owen. He was the spiritual leader and knowledge keeper for many at Prairie Island and beyond. He gave selflessly to help all people, not just Dakota. His goal in life was to continue the education of our ways while also building bridges that had been burned down so long ago between our people and others. He didn’t know how to tell his people no. He had the most forgiving heart and was a true Dakota treasure.
I could go on and on with more Dakota leaders, but we would be here all night.
Each of these leaders is bringing their individual style and skill to representing Dakota people. And they, are all inspirations to me.
As I said at the beginning: We are still here. We have always been here. We will always be here. We are not going anywhere!
These great Oceti Sakowin leaders are proof of that. They understand what is takes to ensure that the Dakota Oyate are represented: it takes leadership; it takes sacrifice; it takes perseverance. I don’t know how many people know my story; how I got here. I am the daughter of a disabled Vietnam Vet and a retired nurse. My father served in the Army as Airborne in the Vietnam War and was injured during his service, having his legs amputated from the knees down. Once he was stabilized overseas he was flown to Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Colorado, where my mom was one of his nurses. That is how I came to be. Unfortunately though, I wouldn’t be here if my father hadn’t endured the suffering that he did. And that is a hard pill to swallow sometimes. I didn’t grow up with my father or his family, who are Dakota. I grew up in a small, mostly white community just south of Indianapolis, Indiana, with my mom and her English family. I didn’t grow up knowing my culture or our language. What little that I did know, I researched for myself.
When I had children I wanted them to grow up in the culture, learning our language. I also wanted to give back to my Tribe and my ancestors who had given me so much. I moved my family to Minnesota and immediately got involved helping my Tribe. I worked hard through the years to earn the respect and support of Tribal members and was elected to Tribal Council in 2007. It wasn’t easy and even to this day there are some members who have an issue that I didn’t grow up here, but it was worth it because my daughters have been able to grow up in the culture hearing and learning our language.
I tell you all of this not for a pat on the back, but to show that it wasn’t an easy road and I didn’t give up. I was resilient and persevered. That is what each of us can do if
we don’t quit; if we gather the strength that is already inside each of us, given to us by our ancestors, we can accomplish anything we set our minds too. Each of you
can persevere, just don’t give up and don’t be afraid to try. You will fall at some point in time, get back up and brush yourself off, and try again. It may take a few falls, but remember you come from a very strong group of people. We aren’t supposed to be here today holding onto our culture and our language. But our people didn’t give up and neither should we.
I challenge all of you who are here today to do what it takes to help ensure our continued representation and to make sure that we continue to learn from history.
Many will try to paint all Indigenous people with the same broad brush – they don’t see our differences; they don’t celebrate our differences – to them we are all the
same. Some will say our oral histories are not relevant or real and therefore discredit them. It is up to each and everyone of us to play our part, to use the talents and gifts we were given, to help change the narrative. To help educate the next generation of Dakota people.
To all allies in the room, I challenge you to listen; learn more and then share with others; support Native American organizations; support Native American Artists;
celebrate Native American culture but don’t appropriate it; understand whose land you reside on and how it was stolen from the original stewards; challenge misinformation or misconceptions.
I call on all the Dakota folks in the room to honor our ancestors; learn our language, even if it’s just a few words or phrases; be a good neighbor as well as a good steward of the earth; honor our Dakota women and girls as they are sacred; and be good to one another. I was told once by a very wise Dakota elder that it’s not the shade of your skin that defines how much Dakota you are. It is what is in here, in your cante, your heart.
And most of all be proud to be Dakota! My hope is that future generations won’t have to work so hard or endure as much.
Again, pidamayayepi to everyone here today and to MNHS for organizing this event. I hope this day is the start of a reclamation; reclamation of our culture, our
stories, our land, and our narrative. De Dakota Makoce!