Mounds Park recognized as historic, sacred cemetery

For over a century, St. Paul regarded Indian Mounds Park as a recreational area. Now, it’s being recognized for its history as a cemetery for at least seven tribes

As far back as Samantha “Sam” Odegard can remember, Indian Mounds Park was an example of how sacred sites have been desecrated, in this case for people’s recreation.

Odegard, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Upper Sioux Community, or Pezihutazizi Oyate, helped the city of St. Paul, Minnesota conduct a cultural landscape study about Indian Mounds Park. She and three others looked at the history of the 82-acre area and interviewed people for information.

“Everything from identifying what was there, what’s proper behavior, what’s improper behavior to helping with the signage that’s going up,” she said.

A recommended new sign will read: "This is a burial place, and our ancestors are still here. You are in a cemetery. It is a sacred burial ground that has been here for thousands of years.”

The city established the park in 1892 for the purpose of preserving the area, although, “connections of contemporaneous Indigenous Peoples to the sacred site were not understood, considered, or valued,” according to the park’s website.

In the late 1880s, at least 50 mounds existed in the east and west areas of the park. Six above-ground mounds remain in the eastern section.

St. Paul was looking to use federal funding to reconstruct a walking trail in 2014. But it had to go through a federal review under the National Historic Preservation Act due to the park being in the National Register of Historic Places, according to a Pioneer Press report.

Simultaneously, the city was conducting a cultural landscape study at the park, and numerous tribes and organizations participated. Eight tribes that are listed in the study as collaborators include:

The Upper Sioux Community
Lower Sioux Community,
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux
Prairie Island Indian Community
Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin
Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska
Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate

QuinnEvans Architects, TenxTen, Allies LLC, Tribal Historic Preservation officers, the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and Minnesota Office of Archaeology and National Park service assisted with the study. As well as the Lower Phalen Creek Project.

Odegard said it was a difficult project because she listened to some people who lived in the neighborhood reminisce about their children playing at the park, using the trails, and a man who questioned the area being Dakota homeland. In contrast, it represented something entirely different to Indigenous people, and they’re already at a disadvantage.

“We’re never coming in as equals [in] the places that we should. We’re already coming in there having made a huge compromise,” she said. “Bottom line, it’s our ancient burial site, it’s our sacred site, we should have full say and full control of that.”

States like Mississippi and Wisconsin have their own Indian mounds parks.

The study also outlines other related projects like recognizing the nearby “Carver's Cave” in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary as a sacred place. In the Dakota language, it’s known as Wakan Tipi Cave.

According to the Lower Phalen Project, a nonprofit leading the initiative, Minnesota awarded the company $3 million to help fund the Wakan Tipi Center. It will “provide authentic Dakota interpretation of the culture and history of Dakota people in St. Paul.”

Odegard said hopefully all the signage and educational information will be completed by the summer. She added they are planning to change the name where Indian Mounds Park name is no longer associated with the area.

As of now there are sidewalk installations, signs on light posts and signs in areas where the mounds can be seen. Crystal Norcross, board president of Oyate Hotanin and community organizer, joined the study because she lives nearby, and as a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, she knows the mounds and Wakan Tipi Cave are sacred.

She has volunteered with Lower Phalen Creek Project for a couple of years and helped counsel on Native-related topics.

“There’s a lot of appropriation in the city and they were using it more for show and not for knowing much about the sacredness of the place and what it means to have a sacred space in this area,” she said

She found through the Indian burial mounds project that tribal communities in Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada were not aware of the mounds and were not being included in conversations.

“We have these lands, but nobody was stewarding it except the city and some of the stuff that they handled just wasn’t great, ” she said.

From a young age, Norcross would walk around the park and knew that it was a sacred spot and gradually over time learned more. One day she found garbage at the park after the Fourth of July holiday, where it is a popular place to view the fireworks. This event led Norcross to join her local community council and make sure that it wasn’t trashed again.

“There were beer cans on the mounds and that was kind of disrespectful,” she said.

And on Norcross’ first day on the community council, a proposal to build a splash pad, where kids can play in the water, was introduced. The cost of construction was $400,000.

“We were able to allocate that money from the splash pad to proper signage and interpretation,” Norcross said.

She said signs were replaced that said the mounds were built from mound builders of the Hopewell Tradition, that excluded the Dakota.

Norcross said since everything has been put up people have been accepting of it and haven’t vandalized anything. She often checks the area to see if marked and unmarked graves have been disturbed.

“Being able to see it and know that they can come here and do ceremony comfortably is rare for a city to do something like that.” she said. “It’s a first for the city of St. Paul to be working with tribes, the Dakota community and neighbors.”