Dakota Diaspora

Twenty-eight-year-old identical twins Kate and Carly Beane share similarly striking features—demure brown eyes and hair, high cheek bones, and quick smiles that precede regular bouts of easy, endearing laughter. Both say they are now content with their lives, a state of being that had eluded them until a few years ago, when they decided to end their family’s exile from Minnesota—almost a century and a half after their ancestors were uprooted from Cloudman’s Village at Lake Calhoun.

In the spring of 2003 the Beane twins gathered with their parents and older sister Sydney around the dining table of their home near Berkeley, California, and reached a consensus: The time had come to return home.

“Kate had just pulled herself out of an unhealthy relationship, my mom had just lost her job because of budget cuts in the Oakland School District, and the Center for Community Change office where our dad worked was closing,” Carly said. “The family needed a fresh start. We held a meeting and decided to move to Minnesota. We thought of it as home even though most of us had never spent time there.”

Following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Dakota people throughout southern Minnesota were rounded up, imprisoned at Fort Snelling, and eventually forced onto steamboats and exiled from the state. Many Dakota ended up where thousands still remain—on the barren prairie reservations of South Dakota and Nebraska. Many others, like the Beane family, wandered from place to place searching for somewhere to call home.

The Beane twins were born in Phoenix, moved to Lincoln, Nebraska at age four, and moved again to the San Francisco Bay Area at fourteen. “We just didn’t feel we belonged anywhere,” said Carly, who, along with Kate, dropped out of Berkeley High at age sixteen.

The twins had long been frustrated with school, which never matched the rigor of the lessons they received at home. By the time Kate and Carly were twelve, their parents had them reading radical philosophers like Saul Alinsky and their great-great uncle’s books about growing up in what is now Minneapolis. As a result, they can rattle off family lore like memorized prayers, quickly filling in details when the other hesitates. “…Seth Eastman was a famous painter, and a lieutenant in the army. His daughter, Winona, married Many Lightnings. They raised several kids, including Charles Eastman, the author of Indian Boyhood, and From the Deep Woods to Civilization, and one of the first Indian doctors … ”

“When I dropped out of school I told my dad, ‘I’ll just be a waitress. I’ll be fine.’ But I was not fine,” Kate said.

“One day in 1998,” Carly interjected, “Kate’s boyfriend pulled up in his pickup; she jumped in and was gone for five years.”

“I moved to Tennessee, Atlanta, back to Phoenix. My boyfriend was a carpenter and I waited tables. I didn’t realize at the time that I was looking for home. In 2003, I ended up in Chicago and had to get away quick because my boyfriend had a drug problem and had gone off the deep end. I called my sister in the middle of the night and told her I was afraid and needed to get out. She sent me a plane ticket and I went back to California. I had to change.”

Six months later the Beanes were on the road to Minnesota. The first thing they wanted to do, upon arriving in Minneapolis, was see Lake Calhoun. “We thought, that’s our lake; let’s go see it. So we drove around it and were shocked. I guess I was picturing it to look like a Seth Eastman painting. He depicted scenes of traditional Dakota life with tipis, lodges, women cooking, trees, kids playing and lots of dogs.”

“It was the middle of summer,” Carly said, “and Lake Calhoun was packed—people rollerblading, tons of traffic, mansions everywhere. All we knew was that this lake was where our people came from, and that it was sacred.”

“It’s not as if we were expecting Cloudman’s Village to still be here,” Kate added. “We knew things would be different. But we saw Lake Calhoun with our hearts; we saw how it used to be, because that was the last time our family was all together, living in our homeland, and in peace.”

Realizing the incongruity between their vision of traditional Dakota life and the reality of modern-day Minnesota was one of the most disappointing experiences of their lives. And the Beane twins soon learned Lake Calhoun was not the only place that had been significantly altered in the past 140 years. Many of the cultural sites of which they had long heard—such as the Dakota mounds on the bluffs of the Minnesota River—were buried under the city’s concrete footprint.

It took some time for the twins to realize that coming home was right for them. The sisters eventually found jobs at Louise Erdrich’s Birch Bark Books, enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s Dakota language program, and discovered that the Dakota community, which seemed to have evaporated like a dream upon waking, was still here.

“It’s in the people. It’s in the language. You see it everywhere in the names of places like Wabasha, Chaska, Winona, Shakopee, Minnetonka, and Minnewashta,” Kate said.

Today the twins’ lives are deeply engrained in Dakota culture. They teach Dakota classes to preschoolers and kindergartners at the Wicoie Nandagikendan (Learning Language) Early Childhood Urban Immersion Project, and are working with the legislature on measures to protect Minnesota’s native languages from extinction.

“In the boarding schools our people were punished for speaking Dakota,” said Carly, who recently lobbied state legislators in support of the establishment of a Minnesota Office of Indigenous Language. “When I speak to these politicians, I’m not just speaking for myself. It can be daunting. But when you speak for your ancestors, that’s a beautiful thing.”