MANKATO — It had been 110 years since 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato near the Minnesota River.
Yet, even in 1972, when those responsible for the largest mass execution in U.S. history had long since died, Dakota descendants were hesitant to visit the area. Their history hung heavy in the air, said Bud Lawrence of Mankato.
“They’d come back, but they’d come through at night mostly,” Lawrence said.
He said there was a stigma attached to Mankato, even after more than a century, because of the mass hanging after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Lawrence always had been interested in Dakota history because of that event.
And his friendship with Amos Owen, a Dakota spiritual leader who died years ago, added to his interest. The two met in 1958 on a fishing trip near Owen’s home at Prairie Island in Red Wing.
As members of the YMCA’s Y’s Men club, Lawrence and friend Jim Buckley (then the YMCA director) were talking about ideas for an event to highlight area culture in 1972. While they were out jogging one day, Lawrence suggested a powwow, which Owen would help coordinate and which would finally bring Dakota back to Mankato.
That summer a huge farming event was being held in Mankato, which drew thousands of people from all over the country, including celebrity entertainers such as Bob Hope. The powwow idea came up, in part, to offer entertainment to the attendees of the festival, which Lawrence remembers included a plowing contest.
“We thought we would do something as a club that would give them a good picture of what Mankato was all about,” Lawrence said. “We could introduce not only visitors of Mankato, but local people as well, to Dakota Indian culture.”
The Y’s Men Club was on board, Buckley said. The club also thought the powwow would make a good fundraiser for youth programs.
“We thought it would be a Jim Dandy fundraiser to do,” Buckley said.
But that was only if the organizers could get the Dakota to come back to Mankato. Lawrence said Dakota people were hesitant at first.
“They weren’t so sure because they wondered what the motive was,” Lawrence said. “The last group meeting here wasn’t very good 110 years before.”
Dave Larsen, who lived on the Lower Sioux Agency, said Mankato was a subject that wasn’t discussed on the reservation.
“It was an area (of the state) I’d never been in and none of our people were ever in that area,” said Larsen, who was about 30 years old at the time. “Our people just didn’t go to Mankato. Nobody spoke about it.”
But some Dakota — including Owen and wife Ione, Wallace and Gertrude Wells, and Ernest and Vernell Wabasha, among others — put a great deal of effort into planning meetings and getting the word out to the Dakota people about the reasons for the event.
As a result, many Dakota from across the Midwest and as far away as California and Arizona attended the first Mahkato Wacipi (which means “dance” or powwow). The YMCA opened its doors for the Dakota while they were here, Buckley said.
“They really appreciated the reconciliation activity that seemed to be taking place here,” Lawrence said. “They thought the Mankato people were really inviting and friendly to them and that really surprised them because of the oral history that has been passed down.”
Buckley agreed. He said the first powwow, which was held at Franklin Rogers Park, was an important event for Dakota people. He said organizers spoke to Dakota whose grandparents were connected to those hanged in Mankato.
“This was really a very emotional event for the Indians,” Buckley said. “It was special.”
Larsen attended the powwow that first year. But he said few people from the Lower Sioux Agency attended.
“We knew almost nothing about what to expect,” he said. “I was a little leery. I don’t know why. (But) I went because I wanted to go to a powwow.”
Part of the hesitation from some Dakota may also have come from the social climate, Larsen said. Dakota didn’t feel comfortable showing their “Indian-ness,” Larsen said.
The turnout was better than expected, Lawrence said, but not quite good enough. The first event was not a successful fundraiser, Buckley said.
“We did not have the turnout,” Buckley said. “The club lost $1,400 the first powwow, and back then that was a lot of money.”
As a result, the club didn’t hold a powwow in 1973, Buckley said.
“But the third year, the Chamber of Commerce was wise enough, smart enough, to see this type of event would be excellent for the community of Mankato.”
Each year brought more and more Dakota to Land of Memories Park for the annual powwow. The event is believed to be the biggest off-reservation powwow in the country. About 3,000 Dakota take part each year, although Lawrence wonders if the 150th anniversary year will bolster participation.
Larsen, who took over last year as chair of the powwow committee, said he continued to return to the Mahkato Wacipi year after year. He participated in dances and even served as master of ceremonies years ago. He also brought his children so they could further their education on Dakota culture and dance.
Larsen said the original powwow committee was mostly all non-Indian, but they listened to a Dakota advisory board, which made the early events authentic. What has been great to see is how the powwow has evolved to not only be an educational opportunity for non-Indian people, but a celebratory, community event.
“Now it’s getting to be more and more the place to be,” Larsen said.