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Worthington 150: They called area Hokah-be-na: 'The nesting place of heron'

The Indian culture along the shores of Lake Okabena remained undisturbed until the mid-19th century, when white settlers first moved into the area.

Swimming
People enjoy splashing in Lake Okabena in this undated image from the Nobles County Historical Society archives.
Nobles County Historical Society
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WORTHINGTON — The first humans to stand upon the crest of the Coteau des Prairies, where Worthington would someday be, and view the land that time and nature created were the Sioux Indians.

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Once the Sioux were forest people who lived in the lake region of northern Minnesota. During the first half of the 18th century, French traders drifted up from the southeast, bringing guns to the Chippewas, bitter enemies of the Sioux. No longer able to defend themselves, and with a dwindling food supply, the Sioux moved south and westward.

One branch of the Sioux nation, the lower Sissetons, were in this area and some made regular visits to the shores of Lake Okabena. In the Sioux Language, “hokah” means heron “be” means nest, and “na” is a diminutive suffix. To the Indians this area was known as the nesting place of herons. It was a place of abundant game and fish, and rich soil.

There were very likely several different family groups camping near the lake at various times, since the Sioux were restless and migrant people. They despised restraint and wandered freely across the vast prairie, carrying their entire camp.

Lake Okabena
Activity abounds in the early days on Worthington's Lake Okabena.
Nobles County Historical Society

Sioux men hunted, fished and fought. They valued bravery, daring and cleverness above all else. For a young man, the surest and quickest way to ensure prestige and wealth was success in battle. War parties aroused special interest among the tribe. Any warrior might recruit and lead one. Its existence was temporary and membership voluntary.

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Women performed the vital but unheroic labor. They cooked, tended the crops, made clothing and maintained the camp. At times they inspired warriors to great feats with their devotion and admiration.

Men and women cooperated in raising the children. Parents displayed overwhelming and unconcealed affection for their sons and daughters. They imposed almost no discipline and indulged every whim.

The Sioux loved funny stories and practical jokes. They reveled in games of all kinds. Betting was universal. A ceremony developed from the nightly telling of the tribe’s legends and myths in which their history was preserved.

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Religion dominated nearly every thought and action of the Sioux. It reflected their intimate relationship with nature. Dependent upon nature’s gifts of survival, the Sioux felt one with his entire environment. Every natural manifestation was attributed to divine will.

There were also malevolent gods whose sole purpose was to tempt and make trouble for the Indians. Every misfortune that befell the Sioux was attributed to one of the evil spirits. For example, Mini Watu caused decay and was perpetually trying to enter the human body and cause sickness. For this reason the priests of the tribe were called medicine men. It was their duty to drive evil spirits away.

The medicine men were perhaps the most powerful individuals of the tribe. These spiritual leaders were looked to for instruction and guidance in all areas of life. They often controlled the destinies of their people.

The chief had relatively little power. His duty was to carry out the will of the majority — much like an elected official. It was his responsibility to protect the laws and traditions of his people. The position could either be inherited or earned through strength of character, success in war, or accumulation of wealth.

The Indian culture along the shores of Lake Okabena remained undisturbed until the mid-19th century, when white settlers first moved into the area. The whites threatened the Indians’ way of life and the Sioux reacted violently.

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Later, during the Great Sioux Uprising in 1862, whites and Indians clashed at Lake Shetek, New Ulm and throughout southwest Minnesota. Both sides sacrificed many lives in the struggle for land. During the conflict, General Thomas’ soldiers pursued a band of Sioux to the shores of Lake Okabena. The incidents frightened potential settlers, and as the Sioux moved farther west, this area briefly was void of human habitation.

After confidence was restored, both settlers and Indians returned and coexisted peacefully. In September, 1868, a small group of Sioux from the north spent the fall trapping near Graham Lakes. They came back the following year and pitched their tepees on the west shore of Lake Ocheda. Another band moved to Indian Lake and greeted the first white settlers there.

The settlers’ fears did not totally disappear though. As late as 1876, a rumor spread at Worthington that the Sioux were rebelling again. The rumor is said to have originated with a local boy named Hemphill who devised the plan to escape raking hay. The panicked community united and fortified Miller Hall. A scouting party was organized, but Indians were never discovered. The Sioux culture that once dominated this area eventually disappeared completely.

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