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Minnesota is returning 1,400 acres of land to the Upper Sioux Community

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Upper Sioux Agency State Park in Minnesota is a beautiful landscape with a dark past. Now the state is returning it to the Native people whose ancestors were killed on the land more than a century ago. The Upper Sioux Community will receive nearly 1,400 acres of land that the Indigenous group once used for religious and communal ceremonies. Kevin Jensvold is the community chairman. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KEVIN JENSVOLD: Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Will you begin by painting a picture of this land for us? What does it look like?

JENSVOLD: Well, we live in southwest Minnesota. There - it's a rolling prairie there intersected with various waterways, rivers and streams. It would be much like you would probably see - could imagine a prairie would look like 200 years ago, but basically farmland these days. Very little prairie, limited prairie left.

SHAPIRO: This land that is being returned to the Upper Sioux Community holds so much meaning. Can you briefly explain why?

JENSVOLD: Well, if you understand the context of the creation of the state of Minnesota, the Dakota people, during the treaty negotiations with the United States, we protected 10 miles either side of the Minnesota River from New Ulm to the Big Stone Lake in South Dakota. That was the land that our ancestors deemed we were not going to negotiate away to the United States. But we were willing to release to them for consideration nearly 50 million acres of land. So it was something our ancestors deemed was quite important to protect.

SHAPIRO: You have been fighting for this transfer for years, almost 20 years, as I understand. What was your initial reaction when you heard that this was finally going to happen?

JENSVOLD: Yeah, that's a very difficult question you pose because it's been 18 years that I've been honored to be by the people of the yellow medicine, to be one of their leaders and to speak on our behalf. I've made it known to the state of Minnesota that this historic land was being misused and mistreated as recreational land when it's a place of holocaust and genocide that was inflicted upon my mother's ancestors. This was to be protected as Dakota Land and the United States failed to live up to the terms of those negotiations through the treaty process. So it's a stark reminder out our eastern windows, that painful history that all Dakota people have had with the United States of America.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, it's not up to you as an individual. It's up to the community. But is your personal hope that it be treated with reverence as a gravesite, that it be brought back to life as a site of ritual and ceremony? I mean, what would you like to see?

JENSVOLD: Overall, our belief is that we need to be able to go there for those, like you referenced, the spiritual aspects, the ceremonies that occurred there, to be able to embrace it as a relative. That land is more than just a piece of land. It was a place that was defended and protected by our ancestors. We never gave up hope that this was going to occur. We truly believed that regardless of who controls the land, that it always belonged to our people and always would. And when I say belong, I don't mean as a titled holder, I mean as a relative. That land is greater than anything. This Minnesota River Valley - we've lived here 10,000 years. And our ancestors deemed that this was the place we're going to live for 10,000 more.

SHAPIRO: Chairman Kevin Jensvold speaking with us from Upper Sioux Community tribal headquarters in western Minnesota. Thank you very much.

JENSVOLD: You're very welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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