This post is dedicated to my beloved sister Julie, a visionary artist who is transforming the cityscape of her adopted home of Mankato, Minnesota.
On this Thanksgiving Day, we might pause to Give Thanks not only to our Creator who provides for us, but also to the animals that sustain us. To Give Thanks to the spirit of an animal which gave its life to support one’s own, this sacred act practiced by indigenous peoples around the globe, perhaps once practiced even by my ancestors, the indigenous Europeans – perhaps we can add this to our Thanksgiving rituals and traditions? Perhaps, one might speculate, this lesson was imparted to those beleaguered pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving? We can Give Thanks to both the Creator and the Creation.
For the Dakota people, whose ancestors called home the land of my homestead for millennia before my ancestors claimed it as their home, how elevated must have been their Thanks Giving to the spirit of the Buffalo? It is so well-known that Tatanka supplied them their food, their clothing, tools, and their shelter. To consume the buffalo, to use it’s bones to fashion other necessities of your life, to dress in the skins of the buffalo, to dwell within a tipi made of buffalo hides – how does one adequately honor such a Creature that sustains you, clothes you, and shelter’s you? By taking it within yourself, by giving yourself a second skin with its skin, by dwelling within its protection, do you not become this Creature? And perhaps they did, acclimatizing, adapting themselves to the prairies, just as the Buffalo did.
About 25 miles, as the crow flies and as the eagle soars, from the farm where I grew up on the Minnesota prairie, a land now draped with the unending tapestry of the row crops of agriculture that feeds the mouths of millions, a land once populated by native grasses and native peoples, and where once the Buffalo roamed, about 25 miles away is Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota.
Near the site of this park, in 1862, 38 Dakota people were hanged in the aftermath of what once called the Sioux Uprising, and now, out of greater consciousness, “Sioux” being a derogatory name for the Dakota people, is called the “Dakota War”. It was primarily fought in New Ulm, Minnesota, where I attended high school. It was a war spawned out of rising tensions between the Dakota and the European settlers, stemming from limited food and supplies reaching the Dakota as was promised in various treaties. As the Dakota were starving, one trader, insensitive to their plight, and in their presence, uttered the fateful words, “Let them eat grass.” He was the one of the first fatalities of the war, later found dead with grass stuffed in his mouth. It has not been recorded whether this was Native grasses or European grasses, but, in any case, he did not enjoy a “Happy Thanksgiving”. His words are considered one of the primary causes that incited the “uprising”.
At the conclusion of the war, hundreds of Indian prisoners were tried by a military commission. 303 were condemned to death. Their death sentences were commuted by President Abraham Lincoln for all but the 38, who were executed in Mankato on December 26, 1862. The day after Christmas Day. Their hanging has the distinction of being the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.
In 2012, on the 150-year anniversary of the execution, Mankato hosted a Memorial and Dedication of Reconciliation Park, calling for healing and forgiveness of this 150 year-old wound. The park features this sculpture of a Buffalo, this most potent symbol of the life that this prairie creature bestowed upon these warriors of the plains.
The mural is found on the wall that protects the city of Mankato from the flooding of the Minnesota River. The mural is almost 500 feet long. It was the brain child and labor of love of my sister Julie. Julie conceived its vision, and fought for it through various governmental bodies and organizations, including city, county, and the Civil Core of Engineers.
The flood wall, while protecting the city, also was a scar on the face of the city, obscuring its once magnificent view of the river itself. Julie’s vision was to depict the river on the wall, to reconnect the city with its flowing roots. She ultimately won approval and headed up a team of artists who brought her vision into reality. The painting is called “The Mni Mural”. “Mni” is Dakota for “water”. The mural extends from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west. Here are more pictures of the mural, from west to east:
Julie’s concerns extend far beyond the confines of her adoptive city’s limits and the surface of this wall. As it turns out, the agricultural runoff from farms in Minnesota contribute to the ever-growing “dead zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each year. Which contributes to the creation of the “red tides” in Florida, which directly affects other members of our family. Her inspiration for the mural was in part to raise consciousness about this ever-growing problem. As it turns out, in my work with environmental groups several year ago, I also sought to stem this tide of agricultural pollutants that made their way to the gulf. So, in our own ways, we have fought the same battle, which begins on the doorstep of the farmhouse where we were raised.
It is so interesting to me that this parallels our sibling relationship. As we were growing up in a large and troubled farm family, Julie and I were always there for each other. Safe havens for each other. Though, credit must be given to Julie, being my older sister, it was her large and encompassing heart that first saved me.
Several miles up river from Julie’s mural is Minneopa State Park. About a year ago a small herd of Buffalo were released on a restored prairie on this flood plain of the Minnesota River. I visited this herd for the first time today. Here are some pictures:
Once again, this is about 25 miles as the crow flies and as the eagle soars from the farm where Julie and I grew up. Close enough to consider it as part of our stomping grounds. And, as it happens, a Bald Eagle did fly over as I was communing with the Buffalo.
One other small anecdote – years ago when I was in my late teens, at home from college, several members of my family were driving from New Ulm to Mankato and, very near this park, we saw this large “thing” running along side the road. I pulled over to see what it was. It was a wild turkey. I ran along side of it for some yards, so astonished to see it. It was the first one I had ever seen in my life. They were not here when I was growing up, but they were in the process of returning. And now they are abundant throughout southern Minnesota. Even on Thanksgiving Day.
But not without consciousness and not without effort.
Several years ago I read a book that had a significant impact upon me, entitled: “Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie.” One of the salient points of the book is that we have replaced about 45 million Buffalo, that were adapted to the scarce water of the Great Plains and were an integral part of that ecosystem, we have replaced those Buffalo with about 45 million cattle that are not adapted to the aridness of the great plains and instead destroy the native ecosystem.
Watching the Buffalo at the state park today, I observed various groups of people come and go, always eager to see the Buffalo, always excited, but frequently wondering why the Buffalo were just “sitting there”, not doing anything. Buffalo are ruminants. They feed and then chew their cud. Resting there in the desiccated remnants of prairie grasses and flowers, they were embodiments of the prairie earth itself. Massive bodies, impervious to the weather, at home in their ecosystem. Adapted to their environment. Adapted to their place on the Earth.
More and more, it seems that humanity must adapt itself to the Earth. We have had centuries of humankind, seeking to improve its odds of survival, adapting the Earth to meet its perceived needs. Now, if we are to survive, we must adopt a different strategy. It is we that must adapt ourselves and our activities to the needs of the Earth. Siblings of humankind, we must work in concert to save each other and save the Earth.