Wakan Tipi Center aims for spring groundbreaking

Current plans for the Wakan Tipi Center call for a 9,000 square foot building in the integrated areas to be used by visitors, students and for educational programming.

By Lee Egerstrom

Community supporters in St. Paul and at Minnesota’s four Dakota communities are still raising funds and making plans with their sights set on a spring groundbreaking for the Wakan Tipi Center that is envisioned as a great Dakota heritage preservation and learning center.

With a recent $1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature and additional financial help from the Prairie Island Indian Community, backers of Wakan Tipi have now raised $6.4 million of the $7.7 million needed to start work on the center.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some planning and fundraising efforts, said Maggie Lorenz (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe/Spirit Lake Dakota), executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project on the East Side of St. Paul and the Wakan Tipi Center director. At the same time, she said, work continues and the collaborating groups are still hoping for a spring start to construction.

This is all an evolving and expanding enterprise. As October was coming to a close, the Lower Phalen Creek Project (LPCP) was awaiting word from archeological investigators on how the nearby Boys Totem Town land might also tie in with the Dakota heritage on St. Paul’s East Side.

Boys Totem Town, a name reflecting how Euro-American settlers in the Twin Cities may have recognized the area’s Native cultural influence, was a 113-year-old juvenile detention center that Ramsey County closed in 2019. It involves about 80 acres of land in the Battle Creek neighborhood of St. Paul.

A report on the cultural heritage study was to be released as The Circle was going to press. Lorenz said those findings might also influence Wakan Tipi Center planning and operations going forward.

Discovering Dakota cultural heritage in the area is a constant ongoing project for Center planners and for the Lower Phalen Creek Project, Lorenz said.

Wakan Tipi means “Dwelling Place of the Sacred” in Dakota, and it is the historical name for the Mississippi River bluff cave that was explored and thus named “Carver’s Cave” after English explorer Johnathan Carver visited and wrote about the site in 1766.

That site and cave, including its ancient hieroglyphs, has largely been destroyed in the past century. It ties in nicely with the surrounding views of the Mississippi River, known nearby Dakota villages (such as Kaposia by Pig’s Eye Lake), and with the historic burial mounds in Indian Mounds Regional Park above the bluff and cave.

Current plans for the Wakan Tipi Center call for a 9,000 square foot building in the
integrated areas to be used by visitors, students and for educational programming.

“Wakan Tipi was more like the church and graveyard for the Dakota communities from across the river and from settlements miles away, up and down stream,” said Lorenz.
Her description of Wakan Tipi puts it in geographical and sacred perspective. The effort of bringing people together to preserve and rediscover Dakota heritage with the geography, however, gets a bit more complicated.

Mishaila Bowman (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota), the LPCP cultural programs coordinator and communications special, said Wakan Tipi Center development is an outgrowth of numerous historical, cultural, environmental groups working together with government agencies and nonprofit foundations. LPCP serves as the operating body for coordinating their efforts.

The entire area around the project on the East Side was terribly polluted. The entrance to Wakan Tipi cave was destroyed for railroad development along the river.

Background materials from LPCP shows it was formed by East Side and St. Paul Lowertown community activists in 1997. Cleaning up and restoring habitat in their shared neighborhoods was the initial plan.

Targeted was the land along Lower Phalen Creek that extends down the East Side from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River. LCPC, the Trust for Public Land, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service purchased the land in 2002.

Cleanup work, largely carried out by volunteers, went to work the following year and LPCP worked with Minnesota’s four Dakota communities to begin site surveys for identifying and restoring archeological and cultural significant items and ties.

Out of this work, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary was opened along the creek corridor in 2005 that with the city of St. Paul and partners has now restored six different ecosystems that are visited by 300,000 people each year.

Also extending from those efforts, LPCP has more recently worked with St. Paul in developing a master plan for a part of the area, known as Swede Hollow Park so named because impoverished immigrants often camped out and lived in inexpensive housing in the ravine along the creek.

That area served as a landing zone for Swedes in the 1860s on through later arrivers from Italy, Ireland, Poland and Mexico. The surrounding neighborhoods continue to serve the same purposes for Salvadorans, Karen, East Africans and others.

Archeologists along the way have found items in Swede Hollow that show the East Side ravine near Phalen Creek was also a site for an early Dakota village.

These ties to Dakota people and culture along the Mississippi River and St. Paul neighborhoods are gradually being rediscovered and analyzed. That should help all Minnesotans understand who they are and their shared histories.

That point was made in early October by Prairie Island Indian Community leaders participating in a LPCP Wakan Tipi Launch online program.

Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island community, said in the launch video that Wakan Tipi will not only benefit the Dakota people, “it will benefit the entire state and region.”

The Wakan Tipi Center will be a great way to preserve the cultural heritage and “what is sacred” to the Dakota people, added Franky Jackson, Prairie Island’s compliance officer.
Both Buck and Jackson stressed that it will be a great help for Dakota people and supporters to educate others. Current plans call for a 9,000 square foot building in the integrated areas to be used by visitors, students and for educational programming.

The Wakan Tipi Center Launch program is available on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bng5Oquvnac.

Background on Carveer’s Cave – Wakan Tipi is available at: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/minnesota/articles/2020-10-10/historical-marker-missing-after-removed-by-city-of-st-paula

Additional information is available at https://www.lowerphalencreek.org.