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Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness: Mayo Clinic and the Dakota

An interactive exhibition brought to you by the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office, and Mayo Clinic.


At Mayo Clinic, we talk often about bringing hope and healing to those in need. These words give purpose and direction to our mission and values every day. And healing takes many forms — the physical, emotional and spiritual. The history between Mayo Clinic and Native peoples, particularly the Dakota, is long and deep, preceding the clinic’s founding. The relationship, too, is complicated.

The climactic event that brought these two groups together is painful for both. In 1862, 40 Dakota men — now referred to as the “Dakota 38 + 2” — were sentenced to death, 38 of whom were hanged near Mankato, Minnesota. This was the largest execution in United States history, carried out during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The men had been accused of war crimes. It was reported that after the burial, the bodies were exhumed and given to physicians from Minnesota and beyond, including William Worrall Mayo, M.D. Dr. Mayo is said to have dissected the body of Marpiya Okinajin for the education of other physicians, and used Okinajin’s skeleton to teach his sons about human anatomy. 

The Dakota people believe that if a body is buried incorrectly or if a burial ground is desecrated, the spirit walks the earth unable to be at rest. The removal of the bodies was a tragic event for the Dakota and Minnesota communities, and the reconciliation process is important in recognizing the effects it has on our shared history. 

Over time, Okinajin’s remains were moved and their whereabouts unknown. An intensive search in the 1990s led to the discovery of a skull that was believed to be Okinajin’s. Working with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Mayo Clinic submitted to independent forensics experts at Hamline University a skull it believed to have belonged to Okinajin. Positive findings by these experts led to the remains’ being returned to the Indian Affairs Council. Through the years, Mayo Clinic and the Dakota Nation stayed connected, and worked on strengthening their relationship, often through shared efforts toward hope and healing. 

In December 2017, Jeff Bolton, vice president, Administration, Mayo Clinic, attended a Dakota community event in Mankato for the Dakota 38 + 2 Wokiksuye Ride, at the invitation of elders Alberta and Jim Miller, who founded the ride. The Millers also asked that Bolton deliver remarks to those who had gathered.


“The Dakota people and Mayo Clinic are connected by our respective contributions to the rich and complex history of this region,” he said at the gathering. “History also binds us in ways that feel broken. Today, we remember the tragedy of the Dakota 38 + 2, and honor their memory through this heartfelt memorial celebration. We acknowledge and commit to mending the division between the Dakota people and Mayo Clinic that exists because of our shared history. We are two groups committed to healing.”

“We acknowledge and commit to mending the division between the Dakota people and Mayo Clinic that exists
because of our shared history. We are two groups committed to healing.”

— Jeff Bolton, 
                                                                    Vice President, Administration, Mayo Clinic