After 184 years, a home for Dakota people and culture returns to wakan tipi

On this Indigenous Peoples Day, a good crowd gathered under the concrete bridge that leads 3rd Street into downtown St. Paul. Even standing in the back, the sound of Native American songs, drumming and prayer echoed through the din of automobile traffic. It marked the start of a new presence at a site that has been central to Dakota life for millennia.

“These hilltop mounds are over 2,000 years old, in a country where we believe ancient history dates back 5 years,” said Barry Hand, who hosted much of the ceremony. “The descendants of the mound builders are still here. 2000 years ago, that was Dakota makoce where you are sitting now, and it still is today.

The celebration continued until sunset; the speeches, prayers, testimonies and contemplation were aimed at welcoming the future Dakota center which will be built on site. Funded by a host of public agencies and nonprofits, the new Wakan Tipi Center is slated to open by 2023. It is named after the site along the cliffs, a place sacred to the Dakota but little known to non-native settlers. of Saint-Paul.

Thanks to the work of the Native American community, the way most St. Paulites view the site will begin to change, as more people learn the name “wakan tipi” and what it means. According to Dakota language teacher Barry Hand, the name has “many translations.”

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“The Wakan tipi [means] talk about where sacred and sacred things live, where they dwell, ”Hand told the audience. “There are several ways to translate this. At the end of this park, here is where the cave of the wakan tipi is, what remains of it.

Although ceremonial speeches were sometimes drowned out by planes taking off from Holman Field, just across the river, the feeling of a new beginning was palpable in the air.

Litany of profanation

As a white person, descendant of the colonists who colonized Saint-Paul, writing on the wakan tipi is a lesson in humility. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to space years ago while working on a short audio documentary for KFAI Radio eight years ago. Two East American Indians, Jim Rock and Roxanne Gould, kindly took me to the pool and shared a little history of the place. Rock, who has a Dakota heritage, told me at the time that “the wakan tipi has always been our sacred site”. He described how “heartbreaking” it was to see what had happened to the wakan tipi and that the attempt to restore the prairie and wetlands – new at the time – was the first steps in the healing process.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Tipi Wakan in 1870.

But Jim Rock added a warning, shaking his head: “This term sanctuary, I hear this term Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary… It is wakan tipi in imniza ska,” he said, using the name Dakota for. what is now St. Paul. “Small sand, like the place of artesian sand water. The wetlands flow from these caves, this old water.

Like most white Minnesotans, the names were lost on me. I had never thought of this place other than as part of Mounds Park, the base of the cliff under the highway overpass.

Over the past few years, while researching the history of Saint Paul for a book, I discovered the white European history of the wakan tipi. It reads like a shameful litany of profanation.

The arrival of Europeans to the wakan tipi began in 1766 when a New England military officer named Jonathan Carver visited the Dakotas there. He entered the cave of the wakan tipi, threw a stone in the pool, and wrote a melodramatic description of the sacred site. The greatly exaggerated book on his travels across America earned him good fortune in the East.

Boy Scouts canoeing in a wakan tipi in the early 20th century.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Boy Scouts canoeing in a wakan tipi in the early 20th century.

From there, little changed until 1837, when a treaty was signed between the U.S. government and the Dakota chiefs Wabasha and Big Thunder, ceding the Dakota lands east of the Mississippi to white settlement and relocating the village of Kaposia, the long-standing home of the Dakota. people on the site. The village crossed the Mississippi River to a site in today’s southern St. Paul, although Dakota residents continued to visit the wakan tipi and cliff top burial mounds for a variety of reasons. .

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As the new town of St. Paul developed, especially once the Dakota were displaced from the area following the signing of the 1851 treaties, white settlers used the site as a minor tourist attraction. . In various places, the cave was dammed for a bottling plant, the walls covered with petroglyphs destroyed for the railroad expansion, and the cave was even used as a barrel warehouse for a nearby brewery.

The lowest point likely came in 1913, when a group from the Mounds Park Improvement Association attempted to turn the sacred site into a tourist attraction, complete with a new staircase, lights, and boats. They used local Boy Scout troops to dig an entrance to the cave and even brought in a group of American Indians from the Blackfeet Nation, whose lands were in what is now known as Montana. and Canada, as a photo prop for the opening ceremony. The supposed attraction never became very popular, and soon after, much of the cave was rendered inaccessible by a landslide.

In the decades that followed, the surrounding area became a dumping ground, then a superfund site and finally, years later, part of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a park managed and operated by the National Park Service. All the while, the wakan tipi has remained a sacred place in the heart of Dakota homeland, Mnisota Makoce.

“A healing balm”

Today, things are finally changing. Much of the credit for the future Wakan Tipi Center goes to the Lower Phalen Creek project, led by their executive director Maggie Lorenz, who spoke at length about her hopes for the new facility at the entrance to the park.

“This place is going to provide a healing balm for our people to heal these wounds of historical trauma,” Lorenz told the crowd. “It will be a place where we can reconnect with our culture, language and ceremonies, and learn from our elders and ancestors. “

The presence of Dakota drummers and singers, and dancers from various Native American traditions, added to the celebration.

Executive Director Maggie Lorenz spoke at length about her hopes for the new facility at the entrance to the park.

Lower Phalen Creek Project

Executive Director Maggie Lorenz spoke at length about her hopes for the new facility at the entrance to the park.

“This place is also going to be culturally specific,” Lorenz said. “We’re going to be grounded here in Dakota Makoce because that’s where we are. It is Dakota makoce, the land of the Dakota treaty. This is what we are going to offer here.

During his speech, Lorenz cited his personal story of growing up not knowing too much about its Dakota traditions, having to depend on inadequate textbooks. One of the goals of the center will be to educate locals – Dakota and non-Dakota – about its history as a sacred Dakota place, drawing on the specific traditions of the Dakota tribes.

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“We’re going to have a place where people can come to get this cultural healing,” Lorenz said. “And healing cannot come without the truth, so this will be a place to speak the bold truth.

Given the history of this site and the presence of burial mounds on the cliff, the right thing to do is to return the entire area to the Dakota people. Otherwise, the new Wakan Tipi Center promises to be a refreshing new chapter in a 2,000-year-old history. Considering how long the history of this place has been marginalized, erased and literally demolished, I can’t wait for the center to open its doors. I promise I’ll be one of the first in line.


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