Syd Beane - Documentarian of Place

Syd Beane Head Shot Vicinity Coffee .jpg

Placemaking comprises these essential elements: 

1.     Physical amenities that draw people to a place;

2.     Programming and activities that engage people within a place;

3.     Artifacts that represent and tell a story about a place. 

Place-makers are the people who build, program, document, curate, chronicle, celebrate and support places that are great for people. 

Syd Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux) lives the storytelling element of placemaking.

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He is a filmmaker, historian, documentarian and Dakota elder in the Twin Cities.   Central to his story is Mni Sota, the place the Dakota call the “Land Where the Water Reflects the Clouds.”  As a storyteller, Syd draws the energy of his Dakota ancestors and explores how place elicits individual and collective value: 

In order for us to understand ourselves and each other,” Syd says,

“We have to start with place.  We then connect the visible with the invisible.  The invisible shapes our character, our overriding sense of who we are.  The only way we can connect with the invisible is through the visible, through place:  the place where we were born, where we live.  We need to understand place, and if we don’t, then we cannot understand ourselves, we cannot understand others.”

As a schoolboy, Syd recognized that his Dakota story was largely untold.  Being of mixed heritage – Scottish, French, English and Dakota – Syd says the story of his non-Dakota lineage was “well documented,” celebrated in textbooks and in the movies.   Less known to him were stories told in the Dakota voice.

“The idea that ‘This story is better than that story’?  To that I say, ‘No way,’” Syd offers.  “There are many stories here.  That compendium is valuable.” 

The absence of significant pieces of the story depletes us as humans.  Recognition, Syd says, leads to reconciliation:

“The process of disregarding history and place disintegrates us as individuals.  The American Indian story is so critical [to tell] because it relates to that process of relocation, disconnecting from place.  Many of us in America can relate to that.  Over time, diaspora and disconnection have become common.“   

Syd grew up dislocated from his ancestral home of Mni Sota. His immediate family had lived outside of Minnesota since the Dakota people were persecuted and exiled in 1862.  Syd was born in on the Flandreau Santee Sioux reservation in South Dakota.  His parents and grandparents did not share stories of their dislocation or pass along the Dakota language to him because “it was all too traumatic.” 


For years, Syd worked as an organizer and lived a comfortable life in San Francisco.  He married and had children.  And while Syd had always identified with history and storytelling, it took parenting to compel a renewed interest in the story and name of his original home in Mni Sota, a place called Bde Maka Ska.


Syd’s daughters, Kate and Carly, who at the time were teenagers, wanted the family to move back to Minnesota.  Syd agreed:  “We needed to know where we had come from so my kids could know where they were going,” he says.  “We needed to reconstruct our story to understand ourselves. 

When they arrived in Minneapolis, the family visited Lake Calhoun, a place with historic and sacred meaning to the Dakota, known to them as Bde Maka Ska.  A developed and busy urban lake, Calhoun offered nothing that connected them to their past; to the important presence (prior to exile) of their Dakota grandfather, Chief Cloud Man – Mahpiya Wicasta; or to the agricultural experiment and semi-permanent residence at the lake’s edge known as Heyate Otunwe, or “Village to the Side.”

Kate and Carly and babes bde maka ska.jpg

It took many years, first with Syd researching the area then, drawing from his organizing background, collaborating with other Cloud Man descendants to share the story with neighborhood groups, schools, libraries and the Bakken Museum.  “After hearing the story from my family’s perspective,” Syd says, “Most people were receptive.  I wasn’t advocating then for changing the name [of the lake].  Without people understanding the story, how were we going to advocate for the restoration of the name?”

Today, at the corner of Richfield Road and East Calhoun Parkway, on the lake’s south side, there stands a newly installed sign reading “Bde Maka Ska” (pronounced bah-DAY mah-KA SKA), Dakota words describing “White Earth Lake.”  

Beane family at Bde Maka Ska sign.jpg

Kate and Carly are credited with taking up their father’s narrative thread and stitching a two years’ long Minneapolis Park Board process of renovations and capital improvements at the lake with the Dakota story.   With ancestral inspiration, and proud patience, they told their story over and over, gaining a coalition of supporters and independent votes at the local, county, state and federal level to restore the lake to its original name. 

Syd is proud of his daughters’ achievement.  In their own vocations, each continues to expand historic interpretation at Bde Maka Ska and advocate for indigenous equity throughout Minnesota.  An interpretive native art installation in honor of Cloud Man has been installed at the southeast corner of the lake, and new signage is coming that will include the Dakota language and tell people about the area in Dakota words. 

Meanwhile, Syd continues making films about his relatives that speak to a new era. His latest, “Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian” is currently playing at film festivals and on public television across the country. His daughter, Kate, is the subject of the new documentary. The film chronicles her as she discovers the story of her ancestor, Charles Eastman - Ohiyesa (“Always a Winner”), doctor, activist, storyteller - who, like her, descends from Cloud Man.

“It is time for this generation to tell the story, to learn their place in history.  We are providing an example for our grandchildren – we do not want them to feel disconnected from the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I come from?’  No erasure, but a clear path forward.”