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

Funded by a host of different public agencies and nonprofits, the new Wakan Tipi Center is scheduled to open by 2023.

A rendering of the new Wakan Tipi Center, scheduled to open by 2023.
A rendering of the new Wakan Tipi Center, scheduled to open by 2023.
Lower Phalen Creek Project

This Indigenous People’s Day, a good crowd gathered beneath the concrete bridgework that carries 3rd Street into downtown St. Paul. Even standing at the back, the sound of American Indian singing, drumming and prayer carried through the din of automobile traffic. It marked the beginning of a new presence on a site that has been at the center of Dakota life for millennia.

“Those mounds on the top of the hill there are over 2,000 years old, in a nation where we think ancient history is 5 years ago,” announced Barry Hand, who emceed much of the ceremony. “The descendants of the mound-building people are still here. 2,000 years ago, this was Dakota makoce where you’re sitting right now, and it still is to this day.”

The celebration continued until sunset; the speeches, prayers, testimony and contemplation were aimed at welcoming the future Dakota center that will be built on the spot. Funded by a host of different public agencies and nonprofits, the new Wakan Tipi Center is scheduled to open by 2023. It’s named for the site along the bluffs, a spot that is sacred to the Dakota but little-known among the non-native settlers of St. Paul.

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

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“Wakan tipi [means] talking about where the holy sacred things live, where they dwell,” Hand told the audience. “There are a few ways to translate that. At the end of this park here is where the wakan tipi cave is, what’s left of it.”

Though the ceremonial speeches were occasionally drowned out by the airplanes taking off from Holman Field, just across the river, the sense of a new beginning was palpable in the air.

Litany of desecration

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

Wakan tipi in 1870.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Wakan tipi in 1870.
But Jim Rock added a disclaimer, shaking his head: “That term sanctuary, I hear that term Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary… It’s wakan tipi at imniza ska,” he said, using the Dakota name for what is now St. Paul. “Little sand, like the artesian sand water place. Wetland drains out of these caves, that old water.”

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

Over the last few years, as I researched St. Paul history for a book, I learned about the White European history of the wakan tipi. It reads like a shameful litany of desecration.

The European arrival at wakan tipi began in 1766 when a New England military officer named Jonathan Carver visited the Dakota people at this spot. He went into the wakan tipi cavern, threw a rock into the pool, and penned a melodramatic description of the sacred site. The highly exaggerated book about his travels through America earned him a good fortune back east.

Boy Scouts canoeing in wakan tipi in the early 20th Century.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Boy Scouts canoeing in wakan tipi in the early 20th Century.
From there, not much changed until 1837, when a treaty was signed between the U.S. government and Dakota chiefs Wabasha and Big Thunder, ceding Dakota land east of the Mississippi to white settlement and displacing the Kaposia village, the long-time home of the Dakota people on the site. The village moved across the Mississippi River to a site in today’s South St. Paul, though Dakota people continued to visit wakan tipi and the burial mounds atop the bluff for a wide variety of reasons.

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As the new city of St. Paul grew, especially once the Dakota were displaced from the region following the signing of the 1851 treaties, white settlers used the site as a minor tourist attraction. At various points, the cave was dammed for a bottling plant, the petroglyph-covered walls destroyed for railroad expansion and the cavern even used as barrel storage for a nearby brewery.

Probably the low point came in 1913, when a group from the nearby 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 excavate an entrance to the cave and even brought in a group of American Indian men from the Blackfeet nation, whose lands were in what is know today as Montana and Canada, as a photo prop for the opening ceremony. The supposed attraction never became very popular, and soon afterward, much of the cave was made inaccessible by a rockslide.

Over the intervening decades, the surrounding area became a dump, then a superfund site and eventually, years later, part of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a park run and operated by the National Park Service. During all of that time, wakan tipi remained a sacred place at the heart of the Dakota homeland, mnisota makoce.

‘A healing salve’

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 offer a healing salve for our people to put on those wounds of historical trauma,” Lorenz told the crowd. “It will be a place where we can reconnect to our culture, our language and our ceremonies, and learn from our elders and our ancestors.”

The presence of the Dakota drummers and singers, and dancers from a variety of American Indian 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. This is Dakota makoce, Dakota treaty land. That’s what we’re going to offer here.”

During her speech, Lorenz cited her personal history of growing up without knowing much about her Dakota traditions, having to depend on inadequate textbooks. One goal of the center will be to educate people in the region — Dakota and non-Dakota people alike — about its history as a sacred Dakota place, drawing on the specific traditions of Dakota tribes.

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“We’re going to have a place where people can come to get that cultural healing,” said Lorenz. “And healing can’t come without the truth, so this is going to be a place for bold truth telling.

Given the history of this site, and the presence of the burial mounds on the bluff, the right thing to do is give the whole area back to the Dakota people. Barring that, the new Wakan Tipi Center promises to be a refreshing new chapter in a 2,000-year-old story.  Given how long the history of this place was marginalized, erased, and literally demolished, I can’t wait until the center opens. I promise I’ll be one of the first in line.