Layers of plans and studies have Indian Mounds neighbors wondering what’s going on

Confusion was the main topic during a community listening session about Indian Mounds Regional Park July 22 at the Marian Center in St. Paul.

The confusion comes as a number of projects and studies are taking place at the 111-acre St. Paul park, leaving neighbors and visitors wondering what’s going on, and why.

City staffers are currently finishing plans for trail work, while a separate cultural landscape study of the park is on hold while the state works on a cemetery designation for the Dakota burial sites inside it. 

The July 22 listening session was held after a heated June community meeting and a series of social media posts signaled the community’s confusion with all the work.

The session aimed to get project planners, state and city agencies, indigenous stakeholders, neighbors and park users all into one room to get facts about the projects happening at the park and for park supporters to share their thoughts on what the park means to them. 

 

Interlocking projects

The trail work, slated to remove parts of a trail along the bluffs of the park and rebuild another along Mounds Boulevard, will be paid for with federal funding and state grants. 

Clare Cloyd, spokesperson for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said via email the trail work was originally planned for this year, but was postponed to 2020 in order to “allow for advancement of the cultural landscape study.”

Funding applications for the trail work were submitted in 2014, a few years after the city council approved a master plan for the park in 2011.

Because of the trail work’s federal funding, a Section 106 review was triggered under the National Historic Preservation Act, which involved an archaeological study. Indian Mounds Regional Park is on the National Register of Historic Places, protected by the Field Archeology Act and the Private Cemetery Act.  

The review was conducted through the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which manages projects in the state on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration, which is the source of the federal funding. That review started in May of 2018.

State statute also calls for guidance from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers when work is conducted at cultural sites.

City staffers originally planned to remove some of the trails along the bluff for safety and rebuild the trails further back. However, data from the Section 106 archaeological study, conducted with ground-penetrating radar, found evidence of burial items that would be disturbed by trail reconstruction. 

Based on advice from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers — which helped with the study — the city decided to remove the trails but not rebuild them. 

Work on the cultural landscape study started in 2017, sparked because the park’s master plan from the city recommended the construction of a splash pad. 

Dakota neighbors and tribes spoke out against the water feature, calling it inappropriate for the park, and began working with the city to make a more comprehensive assessment of the cultural value of the park. 

The cultural landscape study was put on hold in April of this year as the state began work on the cemetery designation of the Dakota burial sites, which would create recognized boundaries for the sites. The cultural landscape study will resume once the cemetery designation is finalized.

 

Passion for the park

During the listening session more than 30 neighbors and Dakota tribal members spoke about the park and what it means to them. 

While many of the speakers agreed the burial mounds and park should be respected, some asked for clarification about what that would look like in practice beyond the trail work. 

Melissa Cerda, a cultural resources specialist from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said the archaeological study data is still being reviewed, which will delineate cemetery boundaries, which will affect future work. Franky Jackson, a compliance officer with the Prairie Island Indian Community, added because it’s a newer process for everyone involved — including the tribes — it’s unclear how state agencies and the tribes will want to move forward with the archeological data and how it will affect the park.

Indigenous people, the officials noted, had generally been left out of previous park planning stages, before many of the state and federal laws dictating collaboration with local tribes were created. 

Another challenge, Cerda said, is the wide disbursement of artifacts from mounds that were destroyed. While six mounds are visible today, the area used to have hundreds where homes and Mounds Boulevard are located today. Because of the destruction of those mounds, human remains and other relics have been strewn throughout the park.

Many of the Dakota neighbors and stakeholders who spoke said the area is sacred and that they hope to be able to reclaim some ownership of the burial areas. 

“Our elders and ancestors went through a lot for us to be here today,” said Steven Slow Bear, saying he feels that he owes it to them to protect what’s left at the burial sites.

Others supported him, pointing out the Dakota have compromised enough and deserve to have the small piece of land returned to them. 

Session attendees also discussed how the park has served as a spiritual place, with many adding that they grew up there and have lived near it their whole lives.

Others had questions about the process the city has been going through, saying they didn’t understand why the trail along the bluff was deemed unsafe and why it needed to be moved in the first place. 

Attendees also asked whether the archaeological data used to make the trail decisions would be made public.

Cloyd said in her email the study would not be released immediately because of the “sensitive information it contains and the potential for vandalism. The [Minnesota Indian Affairs Council] and [Tribal Historic Preservation Officers] have expressed concerns and the city respects those.”

The listening session, which went over its planned time by half an hour, ended quietly as folks began to file out. Attendees said on social media after the meeting that they felt it was productive.

The city plans to hold more community meetings about the park though none have been scheduled yet. For more information about the trail work or the cultural landscape study, go to www.stpaul.gov/IndianMoundsTrail, or www.stpaul.gov/IndianMoundsCulturalStudy. 

 

–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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