Indigenous Perspectives on Land Management

Many of our land and water restoration programs set a goal of returning water quality and habitat to “pre-settlement conditions,” but what does that actually mean?

At Lake Elmo Park Reserve, Washington County Parks is working to remove invasive buckthorn and return the landscape to a prairie and oak savanna system.

Colonial History

The 1837 treaties between the United States government and Indigenous tribes in what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin designated land in the southern portion of the Mississippi and St. Croix River watersheds as Dakota land (most of the Twin Cities metro and portions of Pierce and St. Croix Counties, WI), and land further north as Ojibwe land. The U.S. government and Ojibwe tribes signed additional treaties in 1842 and 1854. During this same time period, Wisconsin and Minnesota became states, in 1848 and 1858, respectively.

In 1862, the United States and Dakota fought a bloody war that ended with the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota and the death of more than 300 Dakota elders, women, and children who were sent to an internment camp on Pike Island, which is now part of Fort Snelling State Park. The Dakota Expulsion Act of 1863 made it illegal for Dakota people to reside within the borders of the newly formed State of Minnesota and, to this day, the law has yet to be repealed. Learn more about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

Today, four Ojibwe tribes occupy reservation land within the St. Croix River watershed – the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

To learn more about Indigenous history in North America, read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

Marshner Maps

Between 1847-1907, land surveyors recorded the existing vegetation in Minnesota in painstaking detail. These survey notes were later compiled and translated into maps by Francis J. Marschner. Today, landscape restoration specialists across the state use these maps as a guide to set goals when restoring oak savanna, prairie, wetlands, forests and other natural habitats.

Read more about the history of the Marschner Maps and how they are used today in this article from 2018: Land cover and pollinators? There’s a map for that.

Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area overlooks the Mississippi River and Grey Cloud Island. People have lived on the island for more than 2000 years, and it was the site of a Mdewakanton Dakota village in the early 1800s.

Though the Marschner maps accurately record the land cover in Minnesota as it was in the late 1800s, these ecosystems were already influenced by the Indigenous people who’ve lived here for thousands of years. For example, archaeological records show that people have lived on Grey Cloud Island for more than 2000 years and a recent excavation led by University of Minnesota found remains of a 700-year-old village located south of Marine on St. Croix.

The Fish Lake Nature Trails at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Reserve wind through remnant and restored oak savanna where you can see red-headed woodpeckers and bison.

Oak savanna is one example of an ecosystem that has co-evolved with humans in several different locations in North America. In this transitional zone between forest and prairie, people used fire to maintain open areas as a way to attract large game animals such as bison and elk. Today, land managers continue to use prescribed fire to maintain prairie and oak savanna in locations such as Lake Elmo Park Reserve and Belwin Conservancy.

This video (below) about oak savanna was created for Native American Heritage Month and has been watched by more than 500,000 people on TikTok and Instagram. It has also ignited a robust, though not always kind, conversation about Indigenous culture and land management.


I’ll post a follow-up with two book recommendations for #nativeamericanheritagemonth and will also drop the names of some Indigenous creators in the comments for you to follow if you aren’t already #nativeplants #nativepeople #prairie #oaksavanna #habitatrestoration #conservation

♬ original sound – Angie Hong

To learn more about Indigenous perspectives on land management, read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is a beautifully written book that weaves together Indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge. I highly recommend it.

Indigenous-led Conservation in the East Metro and Lower St. Croix Watershed Today

In our region, there are several examples of Indigenous-led conservation efforts. The Lower Phalen Creek Project has been working for years to daylight Phalen Creek, which was buried underground when St. Paul was developed. The organization is also building a cultural center at Wakáŋ Tipi at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Learn more about these efforts in recent articles from the East Metro Water blog:

At one time, a stream connected Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River. Now, Lower Phalen Creek Project has funds from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to begin restoring the natural stream channel. The organization has been working with Capitol Region Watershed District and City of St. Paul, as well as numerous other partners on this effort. The image above, created by Inter-Fluve, Inc., shows what the future stream will look like. (From Lower Phalen Creek Project)

In Hugo, Dream of Wild Health operates a small 30-acre farm to grow food for a CSA program and farmers’ markets and also offers youth programs and community education for Native and non-Native people.

Further north, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) represents eleven Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. GLIFWC has a role in natural resources management and works to preserve hunting, fishing and gathering rights for Ojibwe people in the ceded territories. You can sign up to receive a quarterly newsletter.

Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission has a role in natural resources management and works to preserve hunting, fishing and gathering rights for Ojibwe people in the ceded territories. Above: Heading out to harvest wild rice on the Moose Horn River.