In a small park on the east side of St. Paul, prairie grass grows tall, clear water flows and a sandstone cliff looks over the land. You would never guess it was a polluted junkyard in its former life.
A step outside of downtown, flanked by rumbling highways and railroads, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is thriving under the careful care of volunteers and community groups. Over $7 million in government and donor funding has been channeled into its restoration.
But it’s more than a park. Nestled at the base of the steep cliff is a sacred Dakota cave, Wakan Tipi. Inside are wall drawings of animals still under study by historians. Above is Indian Mounds Park, a Native American burial ground in the form of tumuli.
Efforts led by the Lower Phalen Creek Project to regrow the park have converged with honoring the remnants of Dakota culture dotting the land. In 2018, the organization received $3 million from the Minnesota Legislature to construct the Wakan Tipi Center, a gathering space to educate visitors about the history of the surrounding area. The project is set to break ground in the fall.
A sign on the overlook directly above the park reads “Carver’s Cave.” It’s a nod to the British explorer Jonathan Carver, who documented his visit to the cave in 1766 and later published his description in a travel book. But Jim Rock takes issue with the name engraved on the park sign.
Born and raised on the east side of St. Paul, Rock is the planetarium program director at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He co-published multiple research articles on Wakan Tipi and Indian Mounds Park with his wife, Roxanne Gould, whom he proposed to at the sanctuary while it was still a toxic waste site. His Dakota father, who was Sisseton-Wahpetonwan, told him stories about Wakan Tipi. To him, the story of the cave is bigger than Carver’s “discovery.”
“This is where I come to remember my mom, small and big ‘M,’” said Rock.
Dakota stories refer to earth as the ‘mother’ of all things, and Rock writes in his research that Wakan Tipi and the Indian Mounds are monuments to this idea: “So (Dakota peoples) created a pregnant belly-like mound up on the bluff and saw themselves as being birthed from the womb-like cave of Wakan Tipi at the base of the bluff.”
The cave seen in the park is smaller than its original size; a large chunk of the cave entrance was dynamited in the late 1880s to make room for a railroad expansion. Nowadays, the mouth of the cave is locked behind steel doors.
Dan McGuiness, chair of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, said the plant life of the sanctuary mostly looks like what it would have when Dakota peoples inhabited the land. And that’s been intentional; almost everything, from the plants to the creeks, had to be reintroduced by humans.
ChueKongPheng Xiong recalls pulling up stubborn buckthorn as an intern with Urban Roots. The organization dispatched and paid a crew of high schoolers around 2003 to help clean up debris at the park.
“First off, I didn’t really mind about nature, didn’t care at all. Now it taught me how these plants can save our community,” said Xiong.
That passion has persevered; today Xiong teaches about the Mississippi River as a fellow with the Mississippi Park Connection. And he wasn’t alone; Xiong recalls working alongside friends and classmates, many of whom came from the Hmong community at his middle school.
Since Xiong last uprooted an invasive plant in the sanctuary, a number of developments have cropped up around the park. The area has increasingly drawn more traffic with its snaking regional trails and the construction of CHS Field in 2014. Reconstruction of the Indian Mounds Regional Park Trail is tentatively set for next summer.
A ‘more full, authentic history’
Amidst all the changes, Maggie Lorenz, the project’s executive director, hopes the Wakan Tipi Center will tell a “more full, authentic history” of the land. While the center’s final location is still undecided, current plans envision the inside to be a multipurpose space with permanent installations where visitors can read about the park.
“You ask people, whose land is this? Whose homeland is this? And a lot of people don’t know,” Lorenz said.
Pre-design renderings of the center will be revealed at the sanctuary’s annual Pollinator Festival on Aug. 3, said Lorenz.
If you are planning a visit, Rock advises bringing a simple offering: tobacco wrapped in small cloth, tied with string.
“If you want to know something, you offer the tobacco … to the universe. And you say I’m just a humble human creature,” said Rock. “Tell me not to do any harm to change the balance. … But if there’s harm done, we reverse it, which is the story of this place.”