Sacred in the city: Indigenous site in St. Paul prepared to welcome, educate public

The entrance to Wakan Tipi cave
The entrance to Wakan Tipi cave, a sacred ancestral site located within the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, is barricaded in order to protect the site.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Located at the base of the Mississippi River bluffs in the footprint of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on St. Paul’s east side sits Wakan Tipi, a place Dakota people hold sacred.

“This is a really, really incredibly important site for Dakota cultural history, Indigenous history in the region,” said Maggie Lorenz, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project.

More than a century and a half ago, Dakota people were forcibly removed from Minnesota to South Dakota and Nebraska. Others sought refuge in what is now North Dakota and Manitoba.

Wakan Tipi cave was blasted open for a railroad track.

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A cave entrance is seen
An empty sleeping bag in front of NorthStar Brewery Cave may indicate unsheltered St. Paul residents make temporary homes within Bruce Nature Sanctuary.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The Lower Phalen Creek Project works on a number of restoration projects related to the site. Over generations, Lorenz says Dakota people remembered its importance.

“It was a central meeting point for nation-to-nation kind of discussions and negotiations and agreements, treaty making, and then you know, of course, it’s never lost that connection.”

This month, the Lower Phalen Creek Project will begin construction on a 9,000 square foot interpretive center near the entrance of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary to welcome people back to Wakan Tipi and educate the public.

The new interpretive center will include a multipurpose community gathering space, an exhibit area, teaching kitchen, meeting room and office space. The 3-acre grounds will be managed as native gardens.

A footprint of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
In the footprint of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, hemmed in between railroad tracks and street overpasses sits Wakan Tipi, a place Dakota people hold sacred in St. Paul, on June 8.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Restoring the site

Lorenz lives on the east side of St. Paul. She says as few as five years ago, she knew of only one elder who was working to build awareness around the sites.

“As a Dakota person who lived on the east side, it was really, you know, something I felt like I should be involved in,” Lorenz said.

In 2017, Lorenz worked alongside others in the neighborhood to persuade St. Paul city officials not to build a splash pad for children near the burial mounds of Indian Mounds Regional Park. They were successful in persuading the city to divert those funds for an updated cultural landscape study. On their recommendation, the city placed signs at the park that marked the site as a cemetery.

A sign seen
The city of St. Paul placed signage atop an existing sign at Indian Mounds Regional Park affirming the site as a cemetery.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

After gaining insight from Dakota community and tribal leaders, the former leadership of Lower Phalen Creek Project agreed Dakota people should lead the organization. Lorenz was hired in 2019, and began recruiting from across Dakota and Lakota communities.

When she was hired, she began to lead another of the organization’s projects — the daylighting of Lower Phalen Creek. The city had diverted the creek underground through storm sewers and tunnels in the early 1900s.

The Lower Phalen Creek Project expects to begin work to open an underground portion of the creek where it flows out of the south end of Lake Phalen with the help of $3.3 million from the Minnesota Legislature.

“There’s a historic amount of rainfall that's been happening pretty regularly and we need to start thinking of different solutions to help our communities be more resilient to climate change,” Lorenz said. 

A woman poses for portrait
Maggie Lorenz, the Executive Director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and Wakan Tipi Center poses for a portrait.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Sacred and everyday

On a warm afternoon, a 4th grade class from Dayton’s Bluff Elementary visited Wakan Tipi to learn Dakota history. They also observed birds and at least one turtle. They also got to touch the water pooling outside the cave.

Patrice Kunesh is Standing Rock Lakota and chair of the board of Lower Phalen Creek. She said welcoming the community is a big part of the Lower Phalen Creek Project.

“We have a real dynamic community. And all of it comes together, I think at this sort of starting place,” she said.

Kunesh wants to help people understand the linkages between Wakan Tipi’s past and present “through an Indigenous lens.” She draws a distinction between caring for a historic site and caring for an ancestral place.

“When I think of ancestors,” Kunesh said. ”It’s a relationship that I have to a space, to a place, to people, to that culture. It’s, to me, living.

On another weekday afternoon Hue Yang, walks down the footpath toward Wakan Tipi cave carting a small wagon loaded with two empty water jugs. He walks around the pond and carefully steps through a small opening of the otherwise closed entrance to the cave to gather water for everyday use. Yang says the water is clean enough for cooking.

A person poses for portrait
St. Paul resident Hue Yang visits Wakan Tipi cave within the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary to gather water for cooking.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Others who visited the cave left permanent signs.

Inside Wakan Tipi cave were petroglyphs — drawings made by generations of Indigenous people who visited the site. Some of those drawings were destroyed when the railroad expanded. Leadership and staff of Lower Phalen Creek Project want to protect the cave from further damage.

The project’s work at Wakan Tipi requires a balance between protecting the site and welcoming the community who visit the nature sanctuary daily. The Lower Phalen Creek Project will use historic photos of the Wakan Tipi petroglyphs to help visitors understand why the group wants to protect the remains of Wakan Tipi cave.

“We present ourselves in a very, very unique way. And that unique way is beautiful and exciting to share with others. But it also takes a lot of explanation,” Kunesh said.

A general view of pond
A small, temperate pond pools at the mouth of Wakan Tipi Cave, a sacred Dakota ancestral site, located within Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Executive director Maggie Lorenz hopes everyone who visits the new interpretive center will feel welcome. “When people come to visit my house, I’m like, let me get them a cup of coffee, let’s visit. And so, we just kind of want to create that feeling,” she said.

When asked what makes a place sacred, Lorenz likes to quote a Dakota elder.

“The sacred is like rain, it falls everywhere, but it pools in places.” 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.