Returning to Balance

Finding healing and wellness through a deep relationship with land and Indigenous lifeways.

SCANNING THE PLAT MAP, I locate our 6.44 acres and it reads, “Jason Peterson, Et ux.” This is where we live: Section 29:1, within the borders of the Swedes Forest Township. Upon looking up the meaning of “Et ux,” I suddenly feel like a piece of property. It is Latin for “and wife.” My mind quickly shifts to the patriarchal concept of ownership—land and chattel, like wife, children, live-stock, and slaves. I shake the thought from my head. Jay doesn’t own me, we are partners. We balance each other out. He runs hot, yet is calm, patient, and laid back, while I am wired a bit high strung and cool to the touch. He cleans the floors; I do the laundry. Spring and fall, he prepares the garden beds, and I plant, tend, and harvest. Through our partnership, I have been able to pursue and accomplish many things because he has supported me and kept me grounded. Our relationship is far from a traditional patriarchy but instead resembles the Dakota matriarchal form where the woman owns the lodge. For example, I typically make our financial and property decisions. Yet, our relationship is nontraditional, as he brought the patience needed as primary caregiver while I worked full-time when our boys were little. Yes, I would say we have a balanced bond, each contributing our gifts to the relationship, and bringing harmony throughout the seasons.

A view from the porch. “I feel a sense of resolute care and righteous belonging for the 6.44 acres now labeled as Section 29:1 within the borders of the Swedes Forest Township [in Minnesota].” Photo by Teresa Paterson.

We have resided in this space together for twenty years or so. After closer examination of the abstract, I read the chronicle of prior owners of the original land. Each owner sold off parcels of land, bit by bit. Some of the names include Huseby, Knutson, Christianson, Kannke, Stensvad, Olson, and Gimmestad, as well as easements to Redwood County and the Northern States Power Company. And finally, I come to the beginning of the document, “Pre-emption Patent dated August 5, 1869, of 80 acres. United States of America, By the President, U. S. Grant . . . Recorder of the General Land Office to John A. Willard.”

The Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, provided settlers with 80 or 160 acres of “federal land” — land that had been stolen from or, at the very least, swindled from the Dakota and other Native peoples. Settlers were granted free and clear title after five years, or they could purchase the land outright for $1.25 per acre after living on and “improving” it for six months. Before 1862, larger sections of land, 640 and 320 acres, were sold to generate government income. But this strategy proved difficult owing to the significant labor needed to clear those larger sections. As I continue to read the National Archives’ materials on the Homestead Act, I learn there was some public opposition to increased homesteading in the west for fear of the potential loss of cheap labor in eastern factories. Eventually, the Homestead Act provided the process for claiming land through an application and by making land improvements; after five years, one could file for a patent or deed to the land.

Owning land is a considerable asset for building wealth. I once heard that 25 percent of wealth in the United States can be directly tied back to the Homestead Act. This early government stimulus strategy, which was in effect from 1862 to 1904, was, in fact, land theft: more than 500 million acres of Native lands were taken. In her book Farm (and Other F Words), Sarah Mock provides a description of the origins of wealth generation from homestead farms: “Our ‘amber waves of grain’ love affair with these farms is rooted in hundreds of years of white settler culture . . . the American Dream that encouraged white immigrants to take Indigenous land, enslave people to work it, and transform it into cash by whatever means necessary.”

Of the more than 500 million acres of Native lands taken, 80 million acres (16 percent) actually went toward homesteads. There were others who benefited through significant acts of fraud, including land speculators, miners, loggers, and railroad companies, which is where much of today’s philanthropic wealth originates from. Yet, the original fraud centers the question, “How can these lands even be granted in the first place?” Only through coercion and outright theft.

Mni Ohdoka Taŋka. Calling the spring by its original name is an act of reclaiming, of returning to balance. All photos by Teresa Paterson.

“Our small plot holds reseeded prairie grasses—little bluestem, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Indian grass, shooting star, yarrow, and more.”

“All these plants help to maintain the blood memories of this landscape when land was treated as a relative.”

U.S. Grant, the nation’s eighteenth president, granted John A. Willard 80 acres of land in 1869 that rightfully belonged to my Dakota ancestors. Before Willard and Grant, this parcel of land was part of the northern end of the Mdewakaŋtoŋwaŋ and Wahpekute treaty lands of 1851. It was part of a narrow strip on the southern side of the Wakpamnisota (the Minnesota River) and was all that remained of Dakota lands after several earlier land cession treaties — treaties that were never fully upheld by the government. This and subsequent events resulted in the war of 1862. After the six-week war, our Dakota ancestors were force marched and held in a concentration camp that winter at Fort Snelling. On that fateful and historic day of December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were mass hanged in Mahkato (Blue Earth; Mankato). To date, this is the largest mass execution in US history. Others were imprisoned in Davenport, Iowa; women, children, and elderly prisoners were shipped to Crow Creek, South Dakota. And some, including my great-great-grandmother and her family, fled to Canada. In 1863, Congress abrogated all the treaties with the Dakota and exiled our people from their homelands.

Many years later, my great-great-grandmother Taṡina Susbeca Wiŋ, and her family, along with other Dakota people, made their way back to Mni Sota Makoce — Land of Cloudy Waters (note: there are other translations, however this is the one taught to me by my grandmother, who was in part raised by her grandmother, Taṡina Susbeca Wiŋ). Longing to return home, many of our people bought back some of their homelands. The irony they must have felt, knowing the history of what happened to their land and people. Today I wonder if those generations of families who claim pride in owning farmlands for more than a hundred years really know how those homesteads were gained. As for me, I feel a sense of resolute care and righteous belonging for the 6.44 acres now labeled as Section 29:1 within the borders of the Swedes Forest Township.

Before homesteads and reservations, before boundary lines, surveyors, and speculators—before treaties and land theft — this land was simply Dakota homelands. Mni Sota Makoce held tioṡpayes, multigenerational and extended families of the Dakota oyate (nation or people). I think on these things as I walk across these lands and to the creek below us that is nestled within a coulee. It is a natural and perfect campsite for long-ago traveling Dakota. The creek is fed by the nearby Big Spring. Settlers had renamed it Boiling Spring because of the steam that rose from it in the winter. A marker just three hundred yards from our home, inscribed by the Redwood County Centennial Committee of 1862–1962, states that it “was long an Indian camping place and later a watering spot on the Fort Snelling-Dakota Road built in the 1850s.”

OUR HOME SITS on top of a bluff overlooking the vast Minnesota River valley. Today this land is surrounded by homestead and corporate farmlands that each year predictably produce corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. This “progress” has garnered a limited diversity of plant life. I like to believe that the bees and pollinators prefer to gather at our diverse cornucopia of blossoms and nectar. Our lands are void of field corn, soybeans, and sugar beets and the accompanying chemicals that cause pollinating relatives to lose their internal compass. While we are planning to restore more, sections on our small plot hold reseeded prairie grasses—little bluestem, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Indian grass, shooting star, yarrow, and more. All these plants help to maintain the blood memories of this landscape when land was treated as a relative. I think about how much change has occurred since the start of the Homestead Act to today’s current capitalistic and extractive economy. How have these changes defined and shaped our daily decisions and choice of lifeways, including “feeding America” to farming our babies out to strangers to be raised by other mothers? These questions swirling in my mind are not meant to hold judgment over individual decisions but are directed toward the lack of choice and the capitalist system many feel trapped by. I am struck by the imbalance between a few with more than they will ever need and the vast majority, who are working hard to keep the “system” going while missing life’s sweet moments.

I am back at the spring and listening to the sounds of the land and the company of relatives — bees and flies, butterflies and moths, grasshoppers and birds who also relish in the sounds of life. The spring’s waters running year-round offer fresh water for deer, rabbits, coyotes, and other relatives. In the spring, even up the hill where our house sits, I can hear the fullness of the creek, though in the summer, less so with the thick foliage muffling the flow. The meandering path strewn with fallen leaves in the autumn invites me to sit in the quiet once again. And like many natural springs, despite frigid temperatures in the winter, she continues to flow surrounded by mounds of snow and patches of ice. Today, sitting on a felled tree near the spring, I decide that one small act to return to balance is to reclaim the spring’s original name, Mni Ohdoka Taŋka, just as my relatives would have called it.

Excerpted with permission from Perennial Ceremony: Lessons and Gifts from a Dakota Garden by Teresa Peterson. Forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in June 2024. Copyright 2024 by Teresa Peterson. All rights reserved.

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