As a cultural studies major in college, I have a genuine interest in different cultures. It’s why I like to visit museums. It’s also why I was excited when Hocokata Ti opened in Shakopee.

The cultural center features a 3,805-square-foot public exhibit called Mdewakanton: Dwellers of the Spirit Lake. It’s designed and curated to share the culture and history of the Mdewakanton Dakota people. I visited the center last week, and I’m glad I did.

What makes the open-to-the-public exhibit so powerful is that it showcases Mdewakanton Dakota history, beliefs, lifestyles, values, people and more from their own perspective. When people get to tell their own stories and explain their own cultures, the experience is more impactful, unvarnished, and relevant — which was certainly the case here. Throughout the exhibit, audio is available to provide first-person narratives of events.

The personal stories are sometimes very moving, if not painful, to hear and at times gave me pause to think differently about an issue or event. For example, one part of the exhibit features a letter jacket and school pictures from the days when Shakopee’s mascot was an Indian. Hearing a Native American explain how this affected her on a personal level was compelling.

One of the highlights for me is the short movie at the start of the exhibit. It explains the Mdewakanton Dakota creation story, or, as the movie says, “how the world came to be.” It involves a star in Orion’s Belt. I also liked a quote printed on a wall regarding the sacred designs of their ancestors and effigy mounds. Attributed to Dakota Elder Carrie Schommer, it says, “Everything they left out there is to remind us of who we are.”

I’ve always admired the Native Americans’ reverence for the environment and sacred objects. My walk through the exhibit reinforced that admiration. The Native American culture, as explained in the movie at the beginning of the exhibit and in books I’ve read, sees life in circles — the sun and the earth are circles, for example.

The exhibit, in a sense, shows how the Mdewakanton Dakota people came full circle. It starts with the people following their culture and beliefs, living self-sustaining lives, to the incredible hardships and poverty they suffered, to once again becoming a self-sustaining community with the freedom to practice their beliefs. In many ways, it’s a story of triumph by a people who were facing the choice of eradication or assimilation, yet managed to maintain their culture and eventually prosper.

The exhibit isn’t nearly as big as most museums I’ve visited. I took my time walking through it, saw everything on display, and listened to the audios, and it took me less than two hours. Yet it’s definitely worth the $7.50 admission, especially while there are artifacts on display from the National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s group of museums and research centers.

Brett Martin is a community columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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