I’m proud to say I’m a second-generation St. Paul resident – not that I’ve known that for a long time. I was introduced to St. Paul when I started my bachelor’s degree at Hamline University, nestled comfortably in the Midway. It was only then my father first told me stories of his childhood growing up off of Thomas and Fry, only a few blocks away. Nearly ten years later, my partner and I have a beautiful daughter, live in Rondo-Frogtown and look forward to writing our own story here. She will know where she came from – that is certain.
However, what I’ve discovered is where we are is as important as who we are. For the residents of my neighborhood, Rondo was stolen by planners and developers to build a freeway that still leaves its scars on the community through health complications and eminent domain. It is a burial site to a working-class black neighborhood, and cars pass without care over their remains every day. So too is it with Indian Mounds Regional Park and the hundreds of thousands of visitors it receives each year.
For those unfamiliar with the East Side of St. Paul, Indian Mounds Regional Park has some of the best views in the city, bar none. It overlooks the river, state parkland, animal refuge and downtown St. Paul. If you haven’t gone – you should. Streets.mn has already pegged it as a must-see place in St. Paul. The name comes from the fact that the park contains 6 Dakota nation burial mounds, where at least 16 others used to be. If you go further down the hill, you could have found another 1 ½ dozen burial mounds. The value of the land was recognized millennia ago by the Dakota peoples who settled here and interred their dead where they could oversee future generations.
A lot has changed since European settlers arrived and changed the name of Wakan Tipi to Carver’s Cave. You won’t find any but the 6 in the park today, due to the destruction of those mounds by white settlers, industrialists and railroad tycoons of a bygone era. These efforts left human remains scattered across the park. You can see the locations of some of these mounds in this map, courtesy of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the St. Paul facilities department website.
This summer, neighbors of the East Side and officials from St. Paul, the State of Minnesota and a handful of tribal governments got together to discuss what to do about this park, once and for all. Contrary to what some journalists might have anticipated, the event itself went smoothly and was one of productive conversation and learning. The goal was to explore the current Reconstruction and Cultural Landscape Study being done in the park and how best to fit the needs of both the residents of the East Side while honoring the wishes of the American Indian communities whose ancestors are buried there.
While a number of Dakota tribal members spoke, a number of white neighbors stood up to demand respect for the land, and the honor it deserves as a cemetery for generations of Dakota families. Some folks mentioned engineering solutions to the problem, while others shared their consternation of who’s paying for it all. With speakers as young as 18 and old as 95, and a descendant of James J. Hill himself present, the entire neighborhood came together to find common ground for St. Paul’s collective future. The meeting was opened with a Dakota song and blessing, and neighbors were addressed as family. It was quite the peaceful sight to behold. White neighbors spoke with frankness… “paying reparations to the Dakota people for desecration over generations by someone who looks like me… that would be a compromise. Having any access by non-Dakota people to this space is a compromise, and it is a very, very good compromise for people like me.”
The most stirring allegory was shared by pastor Danny Givens Jr.: “Imagine… I love airplanes. To sit on the hood of my Dad’s old Cadillac and just watch the airplanes fly by from Post Road… the hood of the car would vibrate as some of the planes would fly over. And I would just think… my grandfather is buried right now at Fort Snelling. And there’s no view of the planes like there is at Fort Snelling. How would I love to have a bike path or walking trail just right over my grandfathers grave, so I could sit back and enjoy the years of history of my nostalgia, the moments I had with my dad… [doing] something centered in a narrative that desecrates, that disrespects and disregards the indigenous people of this land.”
And the visual holds – would you allow a bike path or walking trail over your parent’s or grandparents’ graves? That was what some folks were asking of the Dakota whose ancestors are buried beneath the park. After the meeting, I reached out to Crystal Norcross, one of the organizers of the event and a member of Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota nation. “For anyone who cares about the park and the land beneath it, reach out to folks in the St. Paul city government.” When doing so, as one resident recommended; “I encourage all of my non-Dakota and non-indigenous neighbors to sit in the discomfort that what you think of as respect might not be what our Dakota neighbors want.” Now that the dust has settled and plans have been agreed upon, I’d like to say that St. Paul is better prepared to work with and respect all of its communities when planning projects. Only time will tell.