Mayo accompanies apology with scholarship

September 21, 2018

In a spirit of reconciliation, Mayo Clinic recently announced a new full medical scholarship named after an executed Dakota leader, whose remains were studied and displayed at the clinic without permission for many decades.

The new scholarship, named after Marpiya te najin, or Stands on a Cloud, who was also known as “Cut Nose,” was formally announced to the Dakota tribe on Aug. 31 in Santee, Neb., by Mayo Clinic’s Chief Administrative Officer and Vice President Jeff Bolton.

The Marpiya te najin scholarship will be offered to “a meritorious American Indian medical school candidate or alternately be designated for American Indian students in the Mayo Clinic School of Health Science, the Mayo Clinic Graduate School or the Mayo Clinic Nursing programs,” according to Mayo Clinic.

Bolton was quoted in an Omaha World-Herald column as telling the tribe members that, “The Dakota people and the Mayo Clinic are connected … History can also bind us in broken ways. We acknowledge our role in that broken relationship.”

A letter from Dr. John Noseworthy and Bolton stated that the hope for the scholarship is to “carry on your ancestor’s legacy of leadership. We will make sure that scholarship recipients understand the impact made on the world by the man for whom the award is named.”

A descendant of Marpiya te najin was pleased with Mayo Clinic’s approach to dealing with the 156-year-old issue.

“They are taking responsibility for what they did. They are making it right. That is how I view it,” said LeAnn Red Owl in the Omaha World-Herald column.

Mankato execution

At the heart of the scholarship and the apology made to Marpiya te najin’s descendants is the shadowy history of Mayo Clinic and the body of the Dakota warrior.

In 1862, Marpiya te najin was a leader of a bloody uprising against settlers in southern Minnesota. He was eventually captured and found guilty of murdering 18 women and children as well as five men.

He was one of 38 tribesmen who were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, by order of President Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. W.W. Mayo, then in his early 30s, had helped treat people hurt in the violent conflict and attended the execution. Many historic accounts state that after the executed men were buried in a group grave, the young doctor dug up them up to collect a body to study.

The story goes that after dissecting the body, the flesh was stripped from the skeleton. The skeleton then was reportedly wired together and used as an educational aid for Mayo’s two sons, the future Drs. Charlie and William Mayo.

The skeleton was then reportedly displayed in Rochester after the founding of the Mayo Clinic.

In an 1921 Rochester Daily Bulletin newspaper article, Dr. Charlie Mayo was quoted as saying, “Oh yes, Chief Cut Nose was hanged. He is hanging right here in Rochester yet … over at the clinic, where he may be seen by anyone curious enough to visit him.”

He went on to say that he and his brother “were privileged to study from his bones.”

Fate of the remains

Dr. Charles Mayo, the grandson of Dr. W.W. Mayo, also mentioned the skeleton in his autobiography. He wrote that his grandfather “cleaned the skeleton and rearticulated the bones, keeping it for reference in his office.” Charles Mayo added that he was told that Marpiya te najin had personally tried to kill his grandfather, but the doctor had fought him off with with a riding whip.

“He (W.W. Mayo) must have taken a small relish in Cut Nose’s bony presence,” wrote Dr. Charles Mayo.

Mayo Clinic has few records of the skeleton and its time in Rochester. However, Mayo Clinic did return two skulls, one of which was confirmed to belong to Marpiya te najin, in 1998. The skull was repatriated and buried.

The fate of the rest of his remains is a mystery.

“Unfortunately, we do not know what happened to the full skeleton. There is speculation that the skeleton may have been misplaced during the move to the Plummer Building in 1928, but our records do not have documentation of that event,” according to Mayo Clinic public affairs representative Ethan Grove.

There was a skeleton identified as “Cut Nose” displayed at Mayo Centennial celebration in 1964, Grove said. However, it was concluded that the skeleton was not his, based upon “the absence of anatomical features that would have been present in the original skeleton.”

While the history is unclear, clinic officials want to repair the relationship with the tribe.

“Mayo Clinic collaborated with tribal leaders through the years, seeking to lay a foundation toward reconciliation,” Grove said. “The invitation to speak to those gathered at the Santee Sioux Reservation provided an ideal moment to speak from the heart and share a message of apology, hope and healing. We are grateful for the opportunity to speak to these past events and continue on this journey of shared healing.”

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