Written by: Mecca Bos
“We are now one percent of one percent, when we used to be the entire state of Minnesota.” Jim Rock, Dakota Sisitunwan, instructor and Director of Indigenous Programming at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a scholar of Wakáŋ Tipi Cave and present-day Indian Mounds Park in Saint Paul.
Rock has spent decades studying the sacred space known to generations of non-Native Minnesotans as a public park, and to many indigenous Minnesotans, particularly Dakota, as a sacred burial ground.
“Mounds Park,” as it is colloquially called by Saint Paul-ites is a famous -- and all too often infamous -- site for anyone who grew up in the area. Like too much history, its truth and significance were erased, suppressed, and often desecrated and disrespected.
Along with the genocide, removal, forced re-education, and colonization of American Indians from their native Minnesota, Native people have been separated from the history and significance of their sacred places. But through scholarly efforts, and the Native-led nonprofit organization Lower Phalen Creek Project, the area is currently under intensive conservation and environmental restoration.
Dakota history is an oral and storytelling tradition, but was also documented with the kinds of petroglyphs that once existed on the walls of Wakáŋ Tipi Cave cave, which also served to honor the spirits that existed within. European settlers, developers, and the expansion of the railroad desecrated the cave and destroyed the petroglyphs. But through Native-led research and restoration efforts, the sacred nature of the space is being re-introduced to non-Native visitors as a sacred place that should be respected as such, and a growing number of Native Minnesotans are embracing the area as it was once used and intended.
A Symbol of a Long History
Marlena Myles, Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee artist says she didn’t even know about the mounds growing up, but now says that the park is her favorite place to spend time in St. Paul because they prove that indigenous people “have a place” here.
“The park is a symbol of our long history here,” she told communityreporter.org, and the work that indigenous people are doing to restore the true history of the place can be taught as a lesson in restoring sacred places.
Children’s book author Tara Perron, Dakota and Ojibwe, also spends a lot of time at the park in prayer, drumming, listening, and harvesting traditional medicine. She says the most important thing to keep in mind about Mounds Park “is to get the facts and knowledge about that space from our people.”
Perron received storytelling tradition from her father, who always told her that the mounds were a sacred dwelling place for their ancestors, as well as a place for healing. When they would visit, he told her to close her eyes and wait to see what she saw. Cottonwood Trees, she said, and that her people “came from the stars.”
Below the mounds, Wakáŋ Tipi Cave, or The Dwelling Place of the Sacred, is where Perron’s relatives told her that their ancestors came to give birth. She likens it to The Garden of Eden, and reminds visitors that the area should not be perceived as a play area to walk dogs or let kids run around.
Ancestors, Known and Unknown
Maggie Lorenz, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe and Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, and Executive Director of Wakan Tipi Center says that the mounds and the cave should be thought of as one site, and that the ceremonies and burials that took place there predate colonization by at least two-thousand years. This place also has meaning and significance for many native nations whose reservations are beyond the borders of Minnesota, but have history here.
While only six mounds visibly remain, Lorenz says there were more than 50 mounds along this bluff, indicating the scope of the site’s historical significance.
“Indigenous people, particularly Dakota, would meet annually at the site to bring the remains of anyone who passed over the winter. It was a ceremonial time for communities to come together and make plans and pray for the coming year. It was a nexus point, or a hub for communities around the river. We have ancestors, known and unknown there.”
But the conservation and restoration efforts, plus a landscape study, combined with cultural connections and healing, are a start to strengthening Native ties to the cultural sites like this one that were severed with land removal and genocidal policies in Minnesota.
Wakáŋ Tipi Center
The long term goal from a Native-led perspective is to restore the area to a more natural state without disturbing what remains, and to re-educate the general population who have always related to the mounds as a park to be used for recreational purposes.
A planned Wakáŋ Tipi Center, with a projected opening date in Spring of 2022, will serve to re-educate Native Minnesotans and visitors alike.
“The Dakota people have been through a lot but I think we are now getting strong enough to stand up again,” says Lorenz.
Protocols for visiting the site:
- Remember that this is a sacred space, and should be treated as such. If people are praying or leaving offerings, allow space and respect for them to do so.
- If you see an offering, called “prayer ties or flags,” often tied to a tree or a branch, do not remove or disturb it.
Rendering credit: Full Circle Indigenous Planning
Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities based food writer and professional chef. Thinking of tacos and travel are hobbies. Her work can be found at meccaboswrites.com