SANTEE, Neb. — The important looking man walks to the front of the room. In the crowd, the important woman and the 50 others fall silent.
The crowd is mostly in jeans and T-shirts, including several that say, “Exiled Indian.”
The Important Man is wearing pressed slacks and an ironed dress shirt. He glances at his notes and clears his throat.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be here with you today,” he says.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
The Important Man’s name is Jeffrey Bolton. He’s a bigwig at the most famous hospital in the United States. He flew on an airplane from Rochester, Minnesota, to this Santee Sioux Reservation in rural northeast Nebraska to say what has gone unsaid for the past 156 years.
The Important Woman sitting in the crowd is named LeAnn Red Owl. She and many Red Owls in the audience today are the descendants of the great warrior Marpiya Okinajin, commonly known as Cut Nose. These Santee Dakota people hitched rides and drove in used cars from as far away as Omaha to be inside this casino conference room.
They are here to hear what they have needed to hear for the last seven generations since the Mayo Clinic treated their ancestor’s body like a hunter might treat a deer head he mounts on his wall.
“The Dakota people and the Mayo Clinic are connected,” Bolton says. “History can also bind us in broken ways. We acknowledge our role in that broken relationship.”
The crowd remains perfectly silent. LeAnn nods her head ever so slightly. Yes, she thinks. Yes.
For LeAnn’s entire life — for generation after generation — many people in this room have feared and loathed the Mayo Clinic.
It began back on Dec. 26, 1862, the day the U.S. government hanged Cut Nose and 37 other warriors in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.
The mass hanging in Mankato, Minnesota, followed months of violence between the Santee, white settlers and the U.S. government — violence the government sparked by trying to starve the Santee into submission.
Some members of the starving tribe responded by doing horrific things to white settlers: Kidnapping. Torture. Murder. And in response to that, the government arrested and planned to execute more than 300 Santee men, a number the U.S. president himself whittled to 38.
The president who signed Cut Nose’s death warrant: Abraham Lincoln.
Cut Nose and the rest of the 38 got trials but no lawyers or translators. They couldn’t understand the charges against them or protest when accused of crimes they didn’t commit. All of “The Dakota 38” were found guilty, and all were hanged the day after Christmas.
The Santee’s near-apocalypse grew worse from there.
Six months after the mass execution, a farmer shot Little Crow, the tribe’s powerful chief. Little Crow’s body was dragged into the town square of Hutchinson, Minnesota. During its July Fourth celebration, the white townspeople shoved firecrackers in Little Crow’s mouth, mutilated his corpse and chopped off his head.
Eventually the government forcibly exiled the Santee Tribe from Minnesota, imprisoned them and then moved them to northeast Nebraska.
This is why the Santee wear “Exiled Indian” T-shirts, but it’s not exactly why tribal members have long loathed Mayo.
That loathing exists because, on the day Cut Nose was hanged, a young doctor snatched the warrior’s body from the shallow river bank where it had been buried. The doctor was unconcerned with Santee religious beliefs that the spirit of an unburied body will wander the Earth, forever lost.
The young doctor carted the corpse to his office, dissected it, melted off the flesh and made a skeleton he studied and allowed his children to play with.
The young doctor’s name was William Mayo. He moved Cut Nose’s skull to the famous hospital he founded. The stolen skull remained there, on proud display and then simply lost, for more than a century, until Mayo returned it to his family in the late 1990s.
The Santee have passed the story of William Mayo and Cut Nose down through seven generations. It’s a story of being devastated once by the executions they believe unjust. And then devastated a second time by Mayo’s treatment of Cut Nose’s corpse.
“We were conquered again,” says Valerie Guimaraes, explaining the story passed down in her family. “We weren’t safe even in death. That floated through my grandmother’s generation, to my mother’s generation, to mine.
“For so long, his body was still there. You couldn’t trust them. That lingers.”
Valerie is now a Mayo employee, a registered nurse who specializes in caring for the spiritual needs of Mayo’s Native patients. She’s one of the people who has worked hard to rebuild trust — worked hard to make this day possible.
Mayo officials, led by Jeffrey and Valerie, have attended previous tribal events and announced education and outreach programs.
Earlier this year, they contacted LeAnn. We want to endow a new scholarship for a Native American student, allowing one student a year to go to the Mayo Clinic’s medical school for free, forever. We want to name the scholarship in honor of Cut Nose, and fly you out for the announcement. Would that be OK?
Yes, LeAnn said. But you can’t do it in Minnesota. You need to come here, to the reservation, and say what needs to be said in front of the whole family.
Which leads us to this conference room on Aug. 31, to the crowd assembled, to the Important Man at the microphone. He says Mayo would love to come into the reservation school to talk to students about medical careers.
A Red Owl family member asks if a relative can be there when the scholarship is awarded, to give the winner a little history of Cut Nose. That’s a fantastic idea, the Mayo vice president says.
There is drumming and chanting and singing. Tribal elders stand and tell the younger people about the darkest chapters of Santee history. But they, one after another, also tell the crowd that this day — this experience — is historic.
LeAnn Red Owl gets up then, and the important visitor hands her the microphone. She stands before her mom and her 13-year-old daughter and her relatives and her tribe and the vice president of the Mayo Clinic. She stands just in front of a framed photo of Cut Nose she has placed on a chair behind her. The Important Woman looks around nervously, and begins.
“This is a huge part of who we are,” she tells the crowd. “I am really happy about the way things went today. And I want to thank you for coming. It feels really good.”
The scholarship announcement is important, as are the traditional blankets that Mayo gives to the elders, as are the ideas hatched and promises made to continue to mend the broken relationship between the Minnesota hospital and the northeast Nebraska reservation.
But the most crucial moment is none of these things.
The key moment are the words of the Important Man, as he says something Mayo has long needed to say, and that the Red Owls have long needed to hear.
I apologize, he tells them with his words and his actions. I am truly sorry.
This will not erase the past. It will not even please everyone in the crowd — one woman from Omaha says afterward that it fell short of what she had hoped for.
But, as the four-hour ceremony ends and the crowd begins to disperse, LeAnn is asked what she makes of the Important Man’s words.
Her relative’s body was once stolen and desecrated. Her family was exiled from their home, pushed to the margins of American society where they have struggled to survive. Her grandparents were alcoholics. She battled drug addiction before kicking it six years ago.
LeAnn’s 13-year-old daughter, Phalynn, is whip-smart and beautiful and so painfully shy that she speaks in a whisper. Her mother hopes she will go into medicine. Phalynn dreams of going to business school.
So, does an apology matter, LeAnn?
She looks at her daughter.
“Actually, yeah, it does,” she says. “They are taking responsibility for what they did. They are making it right. That is how I view it.”
It is a start, the Important Woman thinks.
It is important for her daughter to know the truth about her people — her ancestor.