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Convocation Review: Carly Bad Heart Bull on Dakota identity and resiliency

When we think about Minnesota, the history of a people is often omitted. Long before colonialism made its way to this land, it was home to the Dakota people among other Native nations. The Dakota today continue to reaffirm their history and ties to this place that they originally called Mni Sota Makoce. In her convocation “A Lasting Legacy: Acknowledging Dakota Resiliency in Mni Sota,” Carly Bad Heart Bull spoke on honoring Dakota history in a society where many Dakota have been separated from their identity.

Bad Heart Bull Dakota is Muscogee Creek and a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe in South Dakota. She grew up living away from Minnesota before moving back to her native homeland with her sister Kate Beane in an attempt to discover her identity as Dakota. Bad Heart Bull began by introducing herself in her native Dakota language, a theme that would be emphasized throughout the talk. Much of the convocation centered around Bad Heart Bull and her sister’s efforts in Minneapolis to restore the lake formerly known as Lake Calhoun to its original indigenous name, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake). In an effort to make the area feel more welcome to traditionally underrepresented communities and to give a sense of place to the area, they worked to change the name from one that honored John C. Calhoun, a proponent of slavery and stealing Native lands to one that honors Dakota history. Bad Heart Bull stressed that growing up she felt that her identity as Dakota was erased. Throughout the country, indigenous peoples have been framed as a part of the past rather than as a people that continue to live intimately connected to the land.

The Dakota people were exiled from Minnesota after the United States-Dakota War of 1812 led to the execution of 38 Dakota men, the largest in our country’s history. Still today, most Dakota do not live in Minnesota. To a people who experienced mass upheaval and separation from home, a Dakota identity has been hard to affirm, “I never quite understood growing up… what did it really mean to be Dakota?” Bad Heart Bull said. “We felt invisible,” she continued, stressing the erasure of Dakota history in the United States. Bad Heart Bull has a particular connection to this place; indeed, her family once resided in a village here before her people were forced from their homeland. Bad Heart Bull stressed the importance of a sense of place and history to the formation of identity, highlighting the power of stories and names in establishing a sense of place.

Bad Heart Bull highlighted that some local residents see the name change of the lake as a contested issue. A small group of predominantly white upper-class citizens living around the lake has fought against the name restoration. Bad Heart Bull offered some explanation of their mindset: “They’re fearful that we’re going to do to them what John C. Calhoun and what some of their ancestors did to us. They’re afraid that we’re going to disconnect them from this place; and what they don’t realize is we’re not like that… We’re providing a gift of a richer perspective, of a broader understanding of history, of connection not only to place but to one another.”

As someone who has lived in Minneapolis my whole life, I am not unfamiliar with this debate over name restoration. Bad Heart Bull’s story gave a more holistic perspective to a beautiful area that I regularly see in my everyday life. Overall, her talk was effective in that it framed her own personal story well within a larger context of Dakota history and the pursuit of identity. Bad Heart Bull conveyed a clear picture of some of the work the Dakota community in Minneapolis is doing to establish sovereignty and practice self-determination. Before closing in her Dakota language, Bad Heart Bull asserted, “Just remember that names matter and stories matter. My story matters, your story matters, and the stories and names that we collectively honor and remember through having these conversations are what’s going to change or shift this dominant narrative, in order to ensure that the stories of all people of this land including the Dakota people, other indigenous people are heard, respected, and celebrated.”

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