Eddie Benton-Benai Speaking on Sacred Land and Indigenous Beliefs.
Eddie Benton-Benai Speaking on Sacred Land and Indigenous Beliefs.
Excerpts of the testimony of Eddie Benton-Benai, Ojibway spiritual elder, to Minnesota state archeologist Joe Hudak, MnDOT staff and a consultant, under mediation ordered by state Judge Peter Albrecht regarding sacred land and traditional cultural property rights claimed by the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, the Iowa people (pre-Dakota), Anishinabe people and other indigenous peoples.
March 19, 1999, Minnesota State Office Building, Room 400, St. Paul Capitol grounds
Mr. Benton-Benai’s credentials include:
-Grand Chief of the Mdewiwin Society, also called the lodge or the Medicine Lodge
-fullblood Ojibway (Anishinabe)
-born and grew up on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in Northern Wisconsin
-founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) with Clyde Bellecourt, 1968, originally to protect urban Indian people from police violence, expanded into housing, education, environmental and religious rights
-worked as a Native Education Consultant
-wrote The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway based on elder Anishinabe spiritual teachings
-bachelor’s degree University of Minnesota
-Master’s of Educational Administration, California Western University
-25 years in Indian education, founded the Red School House in St. Paul, a survival school, 1972
-published curricula for Indian education
-previous to his education career, he worked as a journeyman steel construction work for 14 years.
-Mr. Benton-Benai was active in DFL politics, mentioned his lobby background and said Minnesota was a leader in Indian education in the mid-1980s.
-also known as Bawdwaywidun Banaise, Mr. Benton-Benai died in 2020, aged 89
About 900-950 AD the forebearers of the Ojibway people migrated from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River westward across the Great Lakes. These people brought a particular philosophy or spirituality with them. “We have a different relationship with the Creator, and thus with the Creation.” The Ojibway Creator is “kind, forgiving, nurturing, encouraging, it is that kind of relationship.”
Mr. Benton-Benai talked about “the rampant use of free will without discretion” which “brings us to where we are today.” He spoke of a 300-year old prophecy, inconceivable at the time, about rivers running with poison. The Mdewiwin [M’day-wi-win] Lodge teaching about the need to protect waters is “to show the world how to love fish….How we take care of the water is how it will take care of us…Water is sacred.” He called for a “covenant or relationship” with the earth as “the mother of all living things.” He invited us to “come to the door of the (Mdewiwin) lodge and ask, ‘How can we stay alive’…There is a new thinking,” he said. It is respect. “The first commandment of our spirituality is respect.”
The elder also talked about the importance of oral history. “The Bible itself is a result of oral history. Yet we hold it to be sacred.” He compared swearing on the Bible to touching the sacred pipe. “Our history is valid….It is time for us to share our story. Our story goes back 50,000 years.” This period of time now, holds the possibility of “a new brotherhood of the nations and the beginning of the Great Peace. Or not.”
Mr. Benton-Benai began speaking specifically about the land between Minnehaha Falls and Coldwater Springs, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.
“We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, was a sacred place, was a neutral place, a place for many nations to come. And that (to) further geographically define (it), the confluence of the three rivers, which is actually the two rivers. That point was a neutral place. And that somewhere between that point and the falls there were sacred grounds that were mutually held to be a sacred place. And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far. I’ve never heard any direction from which I could pinpoint, but that there’s a spring, near the lodge, that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremony. That’s in the words of our water people of the (Mdewiwin) lodge.
“The people that are concerned, the people that are identified are the Dakota, the Sauk, the Fox, the Potowatamie, the Wahpeton Dakotas, the Mdewakanton Dakotas, the Mesquakie people as all having used and recognizing and mutually agreeing that that is forever a neutral place and forever a sacred place. That is confirmed by our oral history.
“It is difficult to even estimate when the last sacred ceremony was held inter-tribally there. But my grandfather who lived to be 108, died in 1942. [born 1834] I will tell you this. Many times he retold how we traveled, how he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place. Those are his words….
“And I, having been born into an Ojibway/Anishinabe family, having been raised in this tradition, and having been now entrusted with teaching this tradition and articles of faith, I can say that to you….
“Some of the research that correlates with the oral tradition is from” Indian Notes and Monographs volume IV: A Series of Publications Relating to the American Aborigines, Allison Skinner, 1920, NY Museum of the American Indian, “Medicine Ceremony of the Menominee, Iowa and Wahpeton Dakota With Notes on the Ceremony Among the Punka, Among the Ojibway and Potowatamie People.”
“The lodge to which we refer is now known as the Mdewiwin Lodge—was common to all of those people. And this study indicates that the people known as the Ojibway were the carriers and the people who first brought this belief system and this theology into this area.
“But I want to make special note of this, again, it characterizes something about Indian people, and that is—we share that which we have. There was respect among us, even as different-speaking people. Respect of the land, the same respect for the land, the same respect for the sacred….And the people were given access to this spiritual teaching, to the lodge, and then at some point were given, were given the lodge for them to worship and to practice.
“Within my physical memory, visiting the Prairie Island Dakota Nation as early as the 1940s there were still elders in that community who were still members of the Mdewiwin Lodge, along with the Winnebago [Ho-Chunk] of Wisconsin….There was a great dialogue– there was always dialogue among our people and those of the Prairie Island Community regarding the lodge. That’s how we have always known this way of life and practice, as the lodge, meaning the Mdewiwin Lodge, the system of belief.
“With the passing of the Honorable Amos Owen, who was the last person of that community who I ever heard refer to the time, as ‘when we belonged to the lodge.’ He’s the last person that I ever heard of talk about that mutually sacred place, meaning the falls and the spring from which sacred water would be drawn—Coldwater.”
Mr. Benton-Benai noted that the Indian Monographs book is centered on the Medicine Ceremony of the Menominee but it also includes Dakota words for the Initiation Ceremony and the Reinstatement, ceremonies of the lodge. “It goes on to describe the Iowa Medicine Dance and includes the Dakota origin myth, the initiation by purchase. In the initiation by purchase I have discovered that the Wahpeton Dakota people actually purchased the rights to have, maintain, and to carry on the lodge from the Ojibway people. That purchase was not monetary. It was not goods of any kind. They purchased to right to have and maintain it, by their faith. Nothing else….
“It is our belief that the prophesies contain a promise. The new people, the new awareness is here among us, among all people. There’s a growing awareness that we need to care for the earth, we need become concerned with the water, the air and all of creation. We need to do this together….We have to begin to reach out and say, ‘Brother, we are of the earth.’ That all prayer originates at the same place and arrives at the same place. That is what I believe.”
Transcribed from an audio-visual tape of the testimony,
by Susu Jeffrey, April 1999.