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Column: Once upon a time, I was the Lone Indian

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — Memories bubble up. None of us knows where they come from. There was talk of video games and of how, as kids, we had no video games. Someone mentioned cowboys and Indians. “Kids played cowboys and Indians.” We did that a few times. Then came the memory.

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Our gang was going to play cowboys and Indians, and I was the only one who was willing to be an Indian. They gave me a bow. We had no arrows. They named me the Lone Indian. I remember sitting under a tree with the bow wondering what the Lone Indian does. I still haven’t figured that out.

As I thought about it I appreciated that I — we — have known of and talked of Indians all our lives, no matter that we often have not known much of what we were talking about.

On the east end of The Grade over Lake Okabena — on the west edge of Slater Park — there is a tree-lined point which is recorded as Stony Point. A single-barreled, rusty shotgun with a water-soaked sliver for a stock, a Civil War vintage shotgun, was once found at Stony Point. We were there for a day as Cub Scouts. We were told the story that was printed in the Worthington Herald, although it is wholly fictional.

After the massacre at Spirit Lake, Inkpadutah and his maverick followers were camping on Stony Point when the U.S. Cavalry rode toward them. The Indians ran to the end of the point, scrambled down the bank and jumped in the lake. They swam underwater and escaped the cavalrymen pursuing them. One of the Indians lifted up in defiance, however, and shook the shotgun in his fist. That was how the shotgun came to be found off Stony Point. (Not true.)

There were, of course, Native American people on the banks of Lake Okabena, at least from time to time. When did a Native American first meet a European explorer and say, “We call this lake Okabena?” We surely don’t know this. It is certain, however, that in the Santee Sioux language Okabena means “nesting place of heron.” This clearly suggests in an earlier time herons were found on the lake regularly and in large numbers. Ornithologist-historians say these were chiefly blue herons.

In the 1920s, P.O. Lien opened the Livewire Variety store on Worthington’s 10th street. He built a house across from the lake on that block where Lake Avenue bends to meet Lake Street. Mrs. Lien collected arrowheads. She walked the beach opposite the Lien house and often found arrowheads there. Her collection, framed and under glass, is displayed at the Nobles County historical society museum.

When construction began on the old Worthington post office, the office building at the intersection of 11th Street and Third Avenue, a man’s skeleton was uncovered. It was dated to a time before European settlement and it was sent to the Minnesota Historical Society. It can still be seen there — or maybe not. This was more than seven decades ago.

Walter Abrams of Niobrara, Neb., took a job at JBS many years ago when it still was the Armour plant. Some of the Sioux people who lived in this area and near the lake — Santee Sioux — were transported to Niobrara in 1863. Walter stopped each afternoon at the Daily Globe for a paper. He once brought a medal with an image of Thomas Jefferson, one of several medals given the Santees by the U.S. Government. Just because. Walter called it The Great Medal.

Actually, it is likely native people considered this entire region Okabena. Heron Lake, after all, is also Okabena.

I once talked with Clara Liepold who lived on a farm near the shore of Heron Lake. Clara said, “There were two herons down front. They were both blue herons, but one was bigger than the other. The little one must have been trespassing on the other’s territory. The big one got him by the neck and held him under water. He was killing him. We got the little one and brought him up here. We nursed him back. But then he went down to the lake again and the big one killed him anyway.” Okabena.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.