History of the Minnesota Conference UCC: The Dakota Peoples

Compiled by Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey

There’s no one correct way to tell the story of the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ, but there’s no way to tell the story correctly without including the Indigenous peoples in this region.

When you draw the MN Conference on a map, you find a land that has been inhabited for at least 9,000–12,000 years by diverse peoples. The Ho-Chunk, Cheyenne, Oto, Iowa, and the Sac & Fox tribes all have oral history that includes inhabiting the same land that the Minnesota Conference covers. By the mid-1600s, though, two major Native American peoples came to prominence here: the Dakota and the Ojibwe. This week, we reflect on the Dakota community, who encountered Congregationalist missionaries in the early 1800s.

The Dakota peoples came to what we now call Minnesota by 1250 CE. The Dakota included (and includes) subgroups, often divided into Eastern and Western Dakota. The Eastern Dakota are sometimes called the Santee, and they include the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Wahpekute, and Wahpeton bands. The Western Dakota include the Yankton and Yanktonai bands. Although the Yankton live in South Dakota today, their name derives from when they lived at Spirit Lake north of Mille Lacs in Minnesota.

Up until the 1600s, the Eastern Dakota lived along Lake Superior in what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin. When the Ojibwe from the East arrived during the 17th century – armed with muskets from French and English settlers – the Eastern Dakota were forced south and west into territory where the Western Dakota and Teton (Lakota) were residing. Such conflicts were compounded with the arrival of French and then English settlers. In the years after the War of 1812, the U.S. government held a gathering at Prairie du Chien in an attempt to negotiate who would live where (the Dakota were notably absent). This was the first of several treaties of Prairie du Chien in the 1800s that ultimately “divided” present-day Minnesota into northern (Ojibwe) territory and southern (Dakota) territory. This would not, however, be the last time that the U.S. government would declare where the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples could and would live.

The influx of European-descended peoples in the region had an enormous and painful impact on the Dakota, in which even initially positive encounters could lead to tragic ends. Consider the case of Cloud Man. With the encouragement of Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro, Cloud Man moved his community from a nomadic lifestyle to a more agrarian one. In 1829, Cloud Man’s community established Ḣeyate Otuŋwe on the land where we now find Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. It was here that white Congregationalist missionary Samuel Pond and his brother Gideon Pond (a Presbyterian) had many positive interactions with the Dakota. In many respects, the history of the Congregationalist (and eventually the United Church of Christ) presence in Minnesota begins at Ḣeyate Otuŋwe in the 1830s.

Although Ḣeyate Otuŋwe thrived for some years, it ended up moving multiple times. And just 30 years after Cloud Man welcomed white Protestant missionaries from New England, he found himself interned at the Pike Island concentration camp during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He died there. Despite the tragic end to Cloud Man’s life, some of his descendants continued trying to work with European-Americans for the greater good (including Charles Eastman, co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America).

Today, the Dakota peoples are located throughout the Minnesota Conference and across the country. In Minnesota, there are four Dakota reservations: Lower Sioux Indian Community (Redwood County), Prairie Island Indian Community (Goodhue County), Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Scott County), and the Upper Sioux Community (Yellow Medicine County). In addition, several Santee activists were involved in creating and nurturing the American Indian Movement (AIM), which began in Minneapolis in the 1960s and is still concentrated in Little Earth (home of All Nations Indian United Church of Christ). Through AIM, artists and activists, such as John Trudell, have continued to uplift their Eastern Dakota heritage while also challenging modern American society to be more just and equitable.

Learn more about the Eastern Dakota here.

In the coming months, COMMAntary will include a regular history segment designed to help us come to terms with our past. We’re doing this not to be mired in nostalgia for “the good old days,” but to consider what our history might tell us about God’s aims for our present and future ministry. If you or your congregation know of a moment or a story from the Conference’s history that might be helpful to hear as we reflect together, email them to davidl@uccmn.org.

© Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ | 2023