In memoriam: Chief Ernest R. Wabasha

NEW ULM – Through more than 30 years of friendship, two men worked to build understanding and respect between communities not historically known for a harmonious coexistence; the Lower Sioux Community and the most German of American towns, New Ulm.

The men started by making and gradually nurturing a personal connection; the ultimate “bridge builders” both, over time, they extended their camaraderie to incorporate as many others as were willing to listen and be included, developing a network of personal relationships, working toward their shared goal of enhancing economic opportunities and collaboration and, as one of them put it in a famous prayer, living “as brothers and sisters” “in harmony and peace.”

One of the two men, my dear friend Denny Warta, is still out and about, rushing through life at his own unmatched, headlong pace; no one would guess (forgive me, Denny) that he’s 85!

The other man – much quieter, serene, even reserved – passed away a week ago, on March 28, 2013, at age 83 years, 6 months and 26 days.

This other man was the hereditary Dakota chief Ernest “Ernie” R. Wabasha; a Korean War veteran; a distinguished professional; a leader of his people, with a heart open to all others.

I had the privilege of meeting Chief Wabasha, and his wife of 57 years, Vernell, through Warta. The Wabashas were a tremendously interesting couple. He was quiet and dignified, with an aura of stoicism and wisdom. She is still vigorous and outspoken, with a lightning-fast sense of humor and a wonderful, ironic wit.

By the time I met him, Chief Wabasha was older, more or less bound to a chair. He would sit and quietly take in the world; then unexpectedly make a thoroughly profound statement marked by his deep understanding of human nature.

He carried no bitterness or grudges.

(A wonderful match and counterpart to his stoic wisdom, Vernell, in contrast, once, when asked if she had e-mail, tellingly quipped, “no, I use smoke signals.”)

More people, I think should know about, and celebrate the life of, Ernest Wabasha, a bright star in an imperfect world.

Born Sept. 2, 1929, to Florence Helen (Chase) and Henry B. Wabasha, Ernest Wabasha was baptized on Dec. 25, 1929. Like many native American people of his generation, he was sent away to school, at St. Paul Indian Mission in Marty, S.D. He graduated in 1948.

Wabasha served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and was honorably discharged in 1953. He was an electronic technician and worked in 1956 on the DEW (Defensive Early Warning) Line in the Arctic Circle. He then attended the DeVry Technical Institute in Chicago, distinguishing himself during training. He joined McDonnell Douglas Aircraft and stayed with them for 10 years, working on the Gemini and Mercury Aerospace Program. He then worked for Honeywell for 25 years.

Wabasha was very involved with his cultural events and committees, according to his family. He was a Dakota Representative on the Repatriation Board. In his earlier years, he was active on many committees for the Lower Sioux, and was the first tribal representative at Jackpot Junction.

In addition to Vernell, he is survived by a daughter and a son, several grandchildren, a granddaughter, a sister, nieces and nephews, and many friends. He was preceded in death by his parents and six more siblings.

When the Wabasha Street Bridge in St. Paul re-opened after reconstruction, on July 16,1998, Chief Wabasha was asked to help dedicate it. He stood on the bridge, releasing an eagle, and said the prayer that would become his epitaph:

“For the people:

“We ask the Creator, Grandfather,

“I want to pray for the future, that we all get along together, and that we have understanding and respect for each other.

“I want to pray for the different races to get together,

“and to remember my prayers when they

“cross over this bridge.

“I asked the grandfather to help the people,

“to protect and guide us, and to fulfill this dream and this hope for a better future, unite us all as human beings.

“Help us live in harmony and peace, and to live as brothers and sisters.

“We are the survivors.”

“The prayer… perhaps sums him up best,” said Warta. “He understood that we need to get along. … Some people would like to keep stirring the pot [of enmity]; he understood how futile it is to live like that, to live in the past…”