With new name in Dakota, St. Paul nonprofit pushes Indigenous renaming forward

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 in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

As part of a growing effort to return Indigenous sites to their ancestral names and caretakers, a local nonprofit that cares for sites across St. Paul recently implemented a requirement for its board to be Native-led and renamed itself to reflect the original name of one site it cares for. 

Lower Phalen Creek Project is now Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi. The new name means “those who care for Wakaŋ Tipi” in Dakota, referencing a cave currently known as Carver’s Cave but ancestrally called Wakan Tipi. 

Their work involves “daylighting” Phalen Creek, building the Wakan Tipi Center, and restoring the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary where the Wakan Tipi cave is.

Technically Wakan Tipi already existed for thousands of years, so it’s a little confusing what name belongs to what. Here is what to know and what is in store for the future of Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi.

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How do I pronounce Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi?

It is pronounced, “Wah-KAHN TEE-pee Ah-WAHN-yahn-gah-pee,” according to the nonprofit.

What is the difference between Wakan Tipi and Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi?

In short: the first is a sacred cave, and the second is a nonprofit organization.

Wakan Tipi is a sacred cave where Dakota people gathered for thousands of years in private ceremonies. It is located in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Part of the cave was damaged when it was blasted more than a century ago to make space for railroads during the industrial era. Then it was abandoned and turned into an unofficial dumpsite. Then in 1997, local community activists created Lower Phalen Creek Project and began efforts to remove trash and polluted soil from what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi works to restore the Wakan Tipi cave site and plans to build an interpretive center nearby.

Maggie Lorenz, who is Dakota and Anishinaabe, is the executive director of Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi. She said one translation she likes of what Wakan Tipi means is “dwelling place of something sacred.” There are traditional stories about Wakan Tipi private to the Dakota community, and not shared outside of the community.

A woman poses for portrait
Maggie Lorenz, the Executive Director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and Wakan Tipi Center poses for a portrait on June 8.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

What led to the name change for the nonprofit?

Lorenz said the conversation to change the name began in 2019 when people in the nonprofit began questioning the organization’s identity.

The organization had built relationships with the Dakota and Native communities and in 2017 made a “strategic goal to be Native-led, or at least have the Wakan Tipi Center project being a Native-led project … after learning more about the significance of the site to Dakota people and culture,” explained Lorenz. 

Then in 2019, Lorenz was brought in as the director of the center. More Native people were brought in as board members and staff. Informally, they became Native-led in 2020. In 2022, Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi codified into their bylaws that the majority of the board must be Native and that they are a Native-led organization.

“We value our allies, too, and honor and respect those allies who handed the reins over of this organization,” Lorenz continued, “and all of the hard work that the founders put in developing a strong organization and good projects and great relationships with the city.” 

Soon after, the organization began thinking about changing the name Lower Phalen Creek Project to Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi.

There were two main reasons for changing the name: they “outgrew the name Lower Phalen Creek Project,” and changed it to a Dakota name to “signal that the organization became Dakota led,” Lorenz continued. It shows “that the work that we're doing, it's all from this lens of Dakota leadership and values.” 

Is Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi also Wakan Tipi Center?

The two are different, but connected. Wakan Tipi Center is a project of the Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi organization.

The Wakan Tipi Center will be an immersive place for learning “Dakota history, lifeways, language, and values.”

The center does not exist yet, but has been in the planning and fundraising stages for years. Lorenz shared that “we've hit our capital campaign goal twice now, and yet every time then that goal keeps moving further and further.”

A rendering of a building
A rendering of the proposed Wakan Tipi Center.
Courtesy Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi

“We have completed schematic design, design development, we've completed site and utility work, and grading. We are shovel-ready, we are ready to build the building,” Lorenz said. “We are waiting on this $2.5 million that we have in a bonding bill. And fingers crossed…that it will get included in the bonding bill and a bonding bill will get passed this year. And then we'll be able to start construction.”

Minnesota lawmakers haven’t approved a bonding bill since 2020. Heading into the legislative session this year, state agencies and local governments submitted nearly $6 billion worth of proposed projects.

The nonprofit currently estimates the center will be completed in 2024.

What does “daylighting Phalen Creek” mean?

At the moment, Lower Phalen Creek does not “exist.” In the early 1900s, the city moved it underground into sewage pipes and tunnels. At the time, the creek was seen as getting in the way of development, according to the Star Tribune. The creek is still below ground, but it is viable to “daylight” and bring it above ground again. When that happens there will be several benefits.

Lorenz said it will provide stormwater management. 

A map of a proposed creek path
A map from Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi shows a proposed path for "daylighting" Phalen Creek in St. Paul.
Courtesy Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi

“Not only will daylighting Phalen Creek provide an additional channel, because there will still be infrastructure underground to handle overflow, but it will provide more space for the drainage of water from Phalen Creek to the Mississippi River.”

Having the water flow through rocks and plants again will also aid in cleaning the water as it flows through the creek.

“And for people on the East Side to have more space and opportunities to engage with nature, engaged with moving water, which is healing,” Lorenz added, “There are both tangible and intangible benefits.” 

A proposed map on the nonprofit’s website shows the creek could start at the south end of Lake Phalen, snake through St. Paul and meet the Mississippi River right by Wakan Tipi. It will also follow the majority of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

Historically, Phalen Creek and Lake Phalen served as a “road, a major kind of highway” for the Dakota to get to White Bear Lake.

Where did the name Phalen even come from?

Lorenz said she initially didn’t know anything about where the name “Phalen” came from, but once the organization learned more about who the lake was named after, they also started trying to change the names of Phalen Creek and Lake Phalen.

The lake and creek were named after Edward Phalen (sometimes spelled Phelan), who is part of the oldest murder mystery in Minnesota. He was a soldier who was discharged from Fort Snelling looking to homestead but didn’t have the money. So he partnered up with Sergeant John Hays who could fund it but couldn’t homestead himself since he wasn’t discharged yet.

According to records, the two often fought and one day Hays went missing. When his dead beaten body was found, Phalen was suspected of the crime. He claimed Hays went to “search for a missing calf that he suspected was stolen by Native Americans.”

“Nobody was buying it. And I think that says a lot. Because at that time to say to a white man, 'No, I don't think it was the Indians. I think it was probably you.' That says a lot to me,” Lorenz said.

Tracy Mumford wrote for MPR News in 2015, “Despite Phalen's association with the brutal murder of Hays, many modern St. Paul landmarks are named after the early settler. Residents took issue with this as early as 1876.”

For over 100 years, the conversation of changing the name has gone on.

Lorenz shared that there are no recorded ancestral names of Phalen Creek and Lake Phalen, “but that doesn't mean that they don't exist.”

“It also doesn't necessarily mean that the name of the lake and the creek have to be Dakota either,” she said, adding that perhaps they could use a Hmong name. ”By and far the Hmong community utilizes Lake Phalen more than any other community.”

Lake Phalen, circa 1890
A group of boaters on Lake Phalen in St. Paul, circa 1890. The lake's name was already a source of controversy, over 100 years ago.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Why is it important to change the name of sacred sites, organizations and places?

Restoring names to Indigenous places “shows respect for us as people … as the first people here,” Lorenz said.

Lorenz would like to see Carver’s Cave officially renamed Wakan Tipi.

“Restoring the name of Wakan Tipi here would mean a lot to us. And I don't think it would have like, such a big impact in a negative way on anybody else. So, why not do it? Just out of pure respect,” she said. “Also, and this is just a little bit more philosophical or spiritual … it's paying respect to the land.”

Today places are typically named something like “Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, named after a person,” Lorenz said, but she explained that when “Dakota people, as the Indigenous people here, named places … it was about that place. What was special about that land? What was the special significance here?” 

The name Carver’s cave came from an English explorer who named the site after himself after Dakota people took him there.

When it comes to the name Wakan Tipi, having “people saying it, and then non-Native people saying it, it’s like this land also feels respected and recognized for what it is, for who it is.”

What other sites does Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi care for?

Besides the Wakan Tipi Center and daylighting Lower Phalen Creek, Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi plays a supporting role for several other sites. While all of these projects and areas have different names, they all are close together on a swath of land near the Mississippi River in St. Paul. 

For example, they advise on the Indian Mounds at Indian Mounds Regional Park, reimagining them as a sacred site rather than a recreational area, and Swede Hollow Park, which is connected to Lower Phalen Creek “in terms of how the creek will be daylit there eventually.”

“They're all related because, in a Dakota worldview, we're all related.” Lorenz then explained that if an ecosystem at any of these sites is hurting, then the rest of the sites are as well. 

The nonprofit also recently helped establish a medicine garden at Rivoli Bluffs. It’s “more of a community initiative to try to provide places for the community to access and learn about and engage with important cultural plants and medicines.” 

Wakan Tipi Center is planned to have medicine gardens, so Rivoli Bluffs is a “pilot, to see how it goes,” Lorenz explained. This plan is to see how the center can allow the Native community to harvest, forage, and grow medicinal and ceremonial plants.

The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Rules and Regulations allow for small personal foraging of berries, mushrooms, and nuts but require high-level approval to plant or cultivate anything.

Several plants are required for specific Native ceremonies and are used in different ways. When Wakan Tipi Center is built, the medicine gardens there will be a legal place “for Native people in the urban area to harvest in a place that’s healthy, the soil is healthy … that’s accessible, so you don’t have to drive all the way back to your home community, or reservation.”

“We wanted to establish some of these spaces so that Native people would feel comfortable ... put down their tobacco and harvest their medicines, without feeling like somebody’s gonna say something to them.”

Not all sites and projects are connected to one another, but the environmental, cultural, and restorative stewardship Wakaŋ Tipi Awaŋyaŋkapi does around St. Paul show how the organization outgrew its former name.

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