Telling Minneapolis’ Hidden Native American History: A Difficult Road Ahead

The City of Minneapolis is working to research the sacred places and untold stories of the Dakota people and other American Indian peoples who lived here prior to white settlement — and who continue to live here today. City staff held a kick-off event Tuesday night at All My Relations Gallery to announce the project and get some initial community feedback.

About 50 people attended Tuesday’s meeting, at least half were Native Americans. They gave city staff an earful.

Sheldon Wolfchild of Lower Sioux and several other people mentioned how it is difficult for western researchers to get their minds around Native ways of thinking. It is not just certain spots here and there that are sacred to the Dakota people, he said: “Every inch is sacred to us.”

Several people talked about the importance of recognizing the validity of Native peoples’ oral traditions (and not just depending on written documents of white historians.) “Go talk to the Dakota elders,” Many Horses said. “They have the knowledge.”

A woman from Red Lake commented on buildings important to Native Americans — such as the Peacemaker Center and the Heart of the Earth Survival School — that already have been torn down. “Franklin Avenue has such a great history of Native organizing,” she said. “You can’t see that history.”

While people expressed appreciation for the city’s effort to tell these stories, there was an underlying anger over the fact that Dakota and other Native peoples were not leading the research.

One participant said he was upset: “Every time we turn around … there is some non-Indian leading the pack. Why isn’t he on this project?” the man said, pointing to Wolfchild.

Said another: “You are the one getting the money. What are we getting? Tiny sandwiches and coffee.”

Two people noted that it can be difficult for Indians to talk to non-Indians about this traumatic history, and they would rather talk to their own people.

Areas identified needing city research included Cloud Man’s Village on Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun), Owamni Yomni (St. Anthony Falls), Coldwater Springs, and Bdote (the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and the site of the Mdewakanton Dakota’s origin story.)

Wolfchild noted that the city and Fort Snelling should have a memorial to his grandfather, Medicine Bottle, and Little Six, the last two Dakota men hung after the Dakota-U.S. War.

John Smoley, a senior planner and zoning administrator, facilitated the meeting on behalf of the city. In an interview after the presentation, Smoley said he understood some would view the white staff with skepticism. “I fully expect that sort of question and criticism,” he said. “I can’t change my heritage, but I am proud to be working on this effort. … This is long overdue.”

Smoley said the research is being funded by a grant from the National Park Service.  The city did not receive any proposals from firms that identified as Native American, he said. Two Pines Resource Group got the contract as principal investigators.

The report is on a fast track, with a completion timeline just a few months away. The city runs the risk of setting an expectation for this report that the report will not meet.

The Tuesday meeting was a good example of how this project will hit a deep nerve in Native communities and create expectations for an impact, at least greater public awareness and education. As one of Tuesday’s participant put it passionately: “Do you know what you are uncovering here? … The pain? The hurt? The atrocities? America has kept it hidden.”

However, like many official reports, it might end up buried on a shelf. Its impact will depend on the extent that people know about it and use it as a resource. It has the unfortunate bureaucratic title: “Native American Context Statement & Reconnaissance-Level Survey Supplement.”

Researchers will have a draft chapter ready for public review by early April so people can comment on tone and terminology, Smoley said. The overall report  should be ready for public comment by May. Once the staff updates the report with comments, it will be filed with the State’s Historic Preservation Office, located within the Minnesota Historical Society.

The next public meetings are set for Tuesday, April 12 at 1:30 p.m., and Saturday, May 21, 1:30 p.m. but the locations have not been set. We will post an update when we learn more. You can also check with the city’s Heritage Preservation website for updates. (Look at the “Upcoming Events” tab.) The project has no other current web presence.

If you can’t attend the meetings, you can contact Smoley directly: email john.smoley@minneapolismn.gov or call 612-673-2830. They are trying to identify sacred sites, important events, and important people to include in the research, which is focused on the physical boundaries of the city of Minneapolis.

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