Vento Nature Sanctuary reclaims land and lost history

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Even though the sanctuary is open to visitors there's a lot of work still to be done. One day recently, a flat bed truck carrying concrete culverts the size of small cars trundled down a road from Dayton's Bluff to the sanctuary's entrance below Kellogg Boulevard. The massive conduits will carry water that flows through the site, an area about the size of 25 football fields.

A city street linking the sanctuary to Lowertown St. Paul has been dug up and will become a bicycle trail. The trail is a long awaited connection between a web of St. Paul and suburban trails.

Jim Rock.
Jim Rock, part Dakota, grew up in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood just above the BVNS and is active helping explain the site's significance to visitors.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Weiming Lu was president of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation and played a role in convincing others to join the project. Lu predicts the trail will bring a stream of visitors to the area.

"We are now envisioning how this valley could connect with the bluff, with the river, with downtown and truly create a great greenway for St. Paul," he says

More than $10 million has been spent creating the sanctuary. Some of the money has been used to clear tons of debris and create several ponds. The area was once marshland. Streams flowed through it on their way to Mississippi about a half mile away. All were covered years ago by tons of fill and officials say the cost of restoring uncovering all of them is too great.

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Neighborhood resident Carol Carey, the executive director of Historic St. Paul worked 10 years helping organize the 25 groups, including the Dakota Indians who are restoring the area. Carey says the sanctuary's native plants, the mature cottonwood and oak trees are a big draw.

John Anfinson and Carol Carey.
National Park Service history John Anfinson and Historic St. Paul executive director Carol Carey stand near the entrance of the BVNS and in front of what was a St. Paul city street leading into Lowertown and by Spring will be a bike trail.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"We can celebrate again the water, and we can celebrate the ecology, and we can create a more helpful environment for migratory birds and where we can create a space where people can learn," she says.

The National Park Service contributed $1.3 million to help buy the land. An early grant of $700,000 from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources started the process.

Besides the arrival of white settler the sanctuary can also be used to explain how the Dakota Indians largely lost access to the area when they were banished after the l862 uprising. National Park Service historian John Anfinson says the site is rich with history.

Springs.
Remnants of springs that emerge from the BVNS bluff run together to form a restored stream where watercress is growing.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"We have in this place a story of the severance of culture and the story of continuity of culture. The Dakota lost their contact in this place. The immigrants tried to create a new one," he says.

The sanctuary's Carver cave is named after an English explorer who visited the area. The Dakota call the cave Wakan Tipi and consider it a sacred site.

Jim Rock pauses as he attempts to boil down hundreds of years of Dakota culture and religion to explain the cave's significance in a few words.

"Wakan Tipi is a place that for Dakota people we consider it as our birthplace," says Rock, who is part Dakota.

The view of downtown St. Paul.
The view of downtown St. Paul from the BVNS.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

He grew up in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood above the cave. He's an educator in the Wayzata school district and comfortable trying to explain to outsiders Dakota religious beliefs and cosmology, how in their view the stars, plants, animals and people are connected.

The Wakan Tipi opening is barricaded with a heavy steel plate to ward off intruders. But the damage has already been done. Tourists and other visitors from the recent past have desecrated the cave's petroglyphs carved over centuries by native people. In the early 1860's the front part of the cave was destroyed to make room for railroad magnate James J. Hill's nearby train tracks.

The Dakota, Jim Rock says, have been waiting more than a hundred years to restore their connection to the area. Although memories of the cave's desecration and the banishment of the Dakota remain vivid, Rock says the reclamation may mark a new chapter.

"That was kind of the beginning of the end but maybe now we have the opportunity for a new beginning."

Signs interpreting the history of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and the bike trail will be in place by spring.