ChangeMaker: Maggie Lorenz, preserving cultural heritage through land conservation

A woman standing in front of a cave reflected in water.
Maggie Lorenz, 37, stands near the sacred Dakota cave, Wakan Tipi, which is located in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul. Her Dakota name is Pabaksawiŋ, which means "Cut Head Woman."
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Maggie Lorenz, 37, spent a significant part of her childhood exploring the green spaces in east St. Paul with family members. Now as the head of Lower Phalen Creek Project (LPCP) and the director of the Wakan Tipi Center, Lorenz is reconnecting with those parks and natural places she described as “magical.”

LPCP is a Native-led nonprofit that advocates for natural spaces on the east side of St. Paul, spanning from Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River and throughout the East Side River District. The organization works to educate and engage people to protect and honor landscapes that have deep cultural and historical significance to Dakota people.

One of the organization’s current projects is the development of the Wakan Tipi Center, a 9,000-square foot building that will serve as a gathering space and learning center. Wakan Tipi means “dwelling place of the sacred” in the Dakota language. It refers to the sacred cave at the base of a cliff in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, which was desecrated over the years by railroad expansion and industrial use. 

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The goal of the center is “to create a place to come together to reconnect — not only Dakota people with our history and our stories — but educate the larger community about our history and stories,” said Lorenz, who is Dakota and Ojibwe. Lorenz hopes that it will also serve as a repository for cultural resources and will help interpret the landscape, the history and the life of Dakota people in a contemporary context. They’re scheduled to break ground in the spring.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

I think right now is such an incredible time to be in a position to bring forward ideas to make change for our community, because there just seems to be so much energy right now around supporting Indigenous people.

I think that there's just such an incredible happening of reclaiming place, reclaiming ceremonies, reclaiming language, reclaiming our relationship to the land. It just feels like such a great time to be Native in Minnesota.

What figures have shaped you?

A lot of women leaders that I've had the honor to work with over my career have shaped how I work. There's a woman who was vice president at Metropolitan State University named Trenda Boyum-Breen. She's the president now for Rasmussen College. She had a huge impact, just watching her leadership style. Another woman, Cecilia Stanton [Adams], was our dean of students, who was my direct supervisor. Having women in leadership and women who were directly supervising me at that time in my life as a young professional, I was supported and my professional development was prioritized. I felt valued. I've had the opportunity to work under other leaders since that time who were men. It's just such a stark contrast having women in those positions. 

And then my husband has had a huge impact on my life and the direction of my life, especially when it comes to reconnecting with my identity as a Native woman. I didn't grow up in a traditional household. I grew up in a very American assimilated household. I didn't go to powwows to participate and I didn't really understand anything that was happening. We just went occasionally as spectators. That was about the extent of my relationship with my Dakota identity growing up. Meeting my husband, who is an incredible knowledge keeper in our community … he has such a wealth of not only cultural history, but cultural knowledge that was imparted to him by some really important people in the Oceti Sakowin. I just feel really blessed to have come together with him in our life journey, and he's had a really huge impact on my life, too.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

When I think of my ultimate ideal, I would want [for] our generations of Native youth to grow up with our language being their first language. We have so many amazing Native revitalization programs and work happening that I think need all hands on deck. We all really need to support those efforts. Everything about our culture and who we are is tied to our language and if we lose our language we will never again be able to be fully Dakota or fully Anishnaabe. We have to save our languages. And so that would be my ultimate goal for future generations of Native Minnesotans: That they'll have that opportunity to become fluent in the language through immersion programs that are fully supported, fully funded from early childhood through high school. 

And No. 2: That they'll have access to high quality heritage programming like we'll offer at Wakan Tipi Center to reconnect with our ways, our food ways, our stories [and] our history. And have places like Wakan Tipi Center where they can come together with community and fully be themselves as Dakota and Anishinaabe people in Minnesota.