As we stand in a circle of cottonwood trees, a breeze shakes the leaves in a ripple of glorious green glitter. This breath of fresh air blows through my hair and opens a door in my mind to consider new perspectives.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when the story begins. We could start in the 1990s when Friends of Swede Hollow joined with the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation to acquire a plot of land east of downtown St. Paul and transform it into a public park. In 2003, volunteers removed more than 50 tons of trash from the land and replanted the soil with native flowers and grasses. Two years later, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary opened to the public.
Perhaps, however, we should start earlier. When glaciers retreated from the land now known as Minnesota 10,000 years ago, they left behind a massive river that carved paths in the soil and rock beneath and created a thundering waterfall near what is now St. Paul. For nearly 2000 years, people came and went from the banks of the river Wakpa Tanka – hunted deer, tapped maple trees, fell in love, raised children, buried parents.
Often, the story begins in the 1837, when European American settlers arrived and Dakota people ceded 35 million acres of land east of the Mississippi River. A little over ten years later, in 1851, they ceded the land west of the river as well. By that time, the great waterfall had migrated all the way into what is now downtown Minneapolis and the land now known as Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary contained a giant marsh with streams and a spring, sheltered by tall white bluffs the Dakota call Imnizaska.
Over the next several decades, settlers changed the landscape rapidly. The railroad filled in the mouth of Phalen Creek and blasted away the entrance to a cave, Wakáŋ Tipi, turning 1000-year old petroglyphs on the walls inside to dust. A brewery opened and began storing beer in the cave that was once a sacred site for prayer and ceremony. Today, the railroad tracks and Warner Road bisect the land, creating a permanent barrier between the river and its former shore.
“Time is like an accordion,” explains Sam Wegner, Environmental Stewardship Program Manager at the Lower Phalen Creek Project. “We can talk about what’s happened in this location over the past 10,000 years or what has happened in our organization over the past 23 years.”
As he talks, Wegner leads our group of watershed educators through what is now a semi-wild field, dotted with trees and wetlands. The spring, cave and bluffs are still here. Phalen Creek and Trout Brook are not.
Keeli Siyaka, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota community and Environmental Justice Educator at the Lower Phalen Creek Project, reminds us that the story of this place is still being told. “We’ve never lost our connection to this space but it’s important to bring native people back here and have them making decisions on how the land in managed.” She walks us to the base of the Imnizaska, which is the highest point in this part of the Mississippi River corridor. “Our relatives are buried on top of these bluffs. They chose the most beautiful place to bury their loved ones; it’s a place where we feel especially connected to them.”
Overhead, the traffic on the freeway roars. Sirens wail, a passing train rolls like thunder, and planes descend on their way to the St. Paul airport. Volunteers recently removed another 2000lbs of trash, and still my foot finds a plastic bottle along the trail. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘We need to make it safe for people who want to recreate,’” says Wegner.
Siyaka picks up where Wegner leaves off. “Even with all the noise, you can find peace here. There are remnants of our unhoused relatives and if they come here to sleep that is fine. It just speaks to the fact that we need to take better care of our relatives.”
From all sides and overhead, the cacophony of modern American life clamors on. Near the base of the cliffs, however, clear, cold water continues to bubble up from the earth, supporting life year round, even in the deepest of the winter. Across the way, an eagle nests in a cottonwood tree. “The eagles are a sign of life returning,” says Siyaka.
“That tree has been here for more than 200 years. It has survived colonization and the Dakota people have too.”
To learn more about the Lower Phalen Creek Project, visit www.lowerphalencreek.org.
*Please note that Keeli Siyaka uses the word “relative” to refer to all people, not just Dakota people.