In a city that abounds with holy places -- most identified by crosses, spires or bell towers -- there stands a natural symbol of creation and a people's struggle to survive.
Bounded by busy roadways and railroad tracks is a cave the Dakota Indians call Wakan Tipi, or sacred house.
"This place of our origin, 'Dakota Makoce Cokaya Kin' ... means our Dakota center of the universe," said Jim Rock, a Dakota who has long worked to preserve the site.
Just east of downtown, the 27-acre site is officially called the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in memory of the late Minnesota congressman. For a century, industrial use desecrated the area, but after more than a decade of clean up, much of the area has been reclaimed.
St. Paul officials say that by the end of the year the site, a city park, will have an outdoor classroom. St. Paul Parks planners say a large, vacant four-story building on the sanctuary property is suitable for reuse and likely will include an education and interpretive center for visitors.
If the plans are realized, they would go a long way toward honoring a sacred place that was long mistreated.
Rock, 56, was born and raised in the Dayton's Bluff and Mounds Park neighborhoods east of the sanctuary. He remembers using the area as a playground, but said others used it as a dump.
"I do recall seeing people back up their trailers to the edge of the bluff cleaning out their garage of who knows what -- including refrigerators and old tires and mattresses and whatever," he said.
Long before that, in 1862, the Dakota sacred site was taken over for development by James J. Hill and other railroad tycoons, who filled the marsh and flood plain to build rail lines. They destroyed whatever they considered obstructions to progress, including the Dakota's sacred cave.
"They dynamited that, you know, thirty, forty, fifty meters across domed cave which had those petroglyph drawings on the cave ceiling," Rock said.
Jonathan Carver, an early white explorer, entered the cave in 1766 and wrote about animal shapes and other figures carved into the sandstone ceiling. Subsequent visitors obliterated them with graffiti.
All that remains now is the shallow cave entrance, blocked by huge metal plates to bar entry and discourage further vandalism, installed after American Indian activists demanded them in 1977.
In 2000, Rock began working as a consultant for neighborhood residents, government and non-profit groups, including the Trust for Public Land, to buy and clean up the site. A succession of railroad companies had used the area to repair rail cars, and store and transfer commodities, including chemicals.
The city of St. Paul purchased the land owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway for just over $2 million, using a $1.3 million National Park Service grant and an $810,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. To date, about $9 million has been spent to clean up and restore the land, according to the Lower Phalen Creek Project, a coalition of groups working on the effort.
After removing 50 tons of garbage, they stripped off soil polluted with a mix of chemicals and replaced it with clean soil, where trees and native plants now grow.
Part of the restoration reclaimed two brooks that had been diverted. As a result, oak and cottonwood trees, some newly planted, attract birds.
"There's certain places where we know the eagles have returned which is such a wonderful sign," Rock said. "That means there's food here."
The Dakota used the natural features -- the mounds on top of the bluff, the water flowing from the caves -- as symbols to explain the Dakota origin or birth story, said Rock, a retired educator who taught chemistry, astronomy and physics for 30 years in the Wayzata school district.
"So when you understand it in that way," he said, "you have the belly and womb, the uterus, the cave from which the water, the birth water emerges, that artesian water, 'Imnizaska.'"
By leading tours of the sanctuary, Rock aims to build bridges to other cultures. But he said reconciliation isn't easy.
Attitudes from the church-backed European colonization that took land from Indian tribes and subjugated their people are still prevalent and run counter to Dakota culture.
"To go out and claim and make profit in the name of greed in God's name," he said, "wow, and that's a sacred endeavor? See why we have a difficult time translating sacred terms for a place of ancestors where we can all be relatives, good brothers or sisters, cousins, family?"
Still, when visitors from the St. Paul Garden Club recognize him and ask him about the place, he sees it as an opportunity to educate them about its history.
"Good morning my relatives," Rock welcomes them in Dakota. "I greet you today. . . This is a sanctuary, like our Garden of Eden. We come to remember all those relatives. We are all related."