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Minnesota was home to Native American communities for thousands of years before whites committed acts of genocide and drove many tribes from the state or onto reservations.
Jeffry Morehouse from Watertown wanted to learn more about the Indian tribes that inhabited Minnesota before the white people arrived. He demanded answers from Curious Minnesota, a Star Tribune community reporting project fueled by big questions about our state.
“The government agents deceived them and killed them too. And that’s not fair,” Morehouse said. “I have a lot of empathy for Native Americans.”
The first identifiable tribe in Minnesota based on archaeological evidence is the Dakota, which began to live here around AD 1000. This was followed by the arrival of the Ojibwa in the mid-1700s. But archaeologists and historians believe that indigenous people began to live in Minnesota 13,000 years ago, when glaciers began to recede.
“Many tribes have a history tied to this place,” says Kate Beane, director of Native American initiatives for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Evidence of the first residents
The oldest remains of a human who lived in Minnesota – and one of the oldest found in the United States – are known as Browns Valley Man. His skeleton was discovered with a stone tool in a gravel pit in western Minnesota in 1933. It is believed to have lived around 10,000 years ago.
The man’s tribal affiliation is not known, said Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe professor at Bemidji State University and author of numerous books on Native Americans.
Two years earlier, a skeleton known as the Minnesota Woman was discovered near Pelican Rapids in west-central Minnesota. Radiocarbon dating gives it an age of around 8,000 years. Both skeletons have since been re-buried by the Dakota tribes.
Old designs have also survived. A collection of rock carvings in southwest Minnesota, known as the Jeffers Petroglyphs, is one of the largest such sites in the world, former state archaeologist Scott Anfinson said.
“The meaning of some [of the drawings] are inexplicable, ”Anfinson said. “There are a lot of hunting scenes. The artifacts depicted, such as spear points, suggest that the petroglyphs are at least 5,000 years old, he said.
Pottery found around burial sites near Mille Lacs Lake indicates that the Dakota people were in Minnesota at least 1,000 years ago, Anfinson said. “They may have been here longer, we just don’t have the scientific evidence for that,” he said.
Archaeologists intentionally stopped excavating Native American burial sites in Minnesota in the early 1970s, and rightly so, after being accused of desecrating the sites, Anfinson said. Now, when sites are accidentally disturbed by construction, archaeologists examine them in cooperation with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.
Oral traditions of the Dakota people say that the Dakota originated from Minnesota.
“Our spirits came from the Creator along Cancu Wanagi, the” spirits route “, more commonly known as the Milky Way”, according to the book “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota”, written by Gwen Westerman and Bruce White.
Creation history indicates that the Dakota originated where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers meet, at what became Fort Snelling, according to Beane of the Historical Society.
“Two cliffs were formed from the earth …” wrote Westerman and White. “The earth opened up this way, and out of the mud the Creator made the first man and the first woman Dakota.”
Beane said that a second version of the creation story indicates that the Dakota originated from Lake Thousand Lakes.
When the French first made contact with the Dakota in the late 1600s, they were concentrated in the Lake Mille Lacs area, Anfinson said. He said the Dakota were subsequently forced out of the Mille Lacs Lake area by the Ojibwa and moved south and west.
The new heartland of Dakota became the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, known to the Dakotas as Bdote and non-Dakotas as Mendota, Anfinson said.
“Of the many tribes that have likely made Minnesota their home, the Dakota became the dominant group a thousand years ago,” Treuer said.
The Ojibwa are coming
It is not known exactly when the Ojibwa started arriving in Minnesota, Anfinson said. “But certainly in 1750 there were large Ojibway groups in northeastern Minnesota.”
The Ojibwa lived on the Atlantic coast until 2,000 years ago, before moving up the St. Lawrence River for hundreds of years, Treuer said. By the time they reached northern Minnesota, they were distinct from 29 other tribes in the Algonquin language family, he said.
They had reached Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan in 1600, Madeline Island in Wisconsin in 1650 and Fond du Lac and Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota in 1745, Treuer said.
There were many battles and skirmishes between the Ojibwa and the Dakota, Anfinson said. “There were casualties on both sides and it was very bitter,” he said.
But the Dakota and Ojibway were not the only tribes that lived in this region.
Members of the Ho-Chunk tribe, also known as the Winnebago, lived in Minnesota. This tribe is now located in western Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Oral traditions of the Cheyenne tribe, now located in Montana and Oklahoma, say they originated from Minnesota before moving west to the Great Plains, Anfinson said. They probably lived here before 1700, he says.
The Ioway tribe historically lived along the southern border with Iowa, historian Bruce White said. On the northern border, the Cree and Assiniboine also inhabited Minnesota, Treuer said.
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