Center Planned to Honor Dakota People’s Sacred Site and Heritage: Take a Survey to Help Shape the Idea

Historic stereoscope of Wakan Tipi (Carver’s Cave). Wikimedia Foundation

A nonprofit group wants to build an interpretive and visitors center to honor the Dakota sacred site “Wakan Tipi” (House of the Spirits, also known as Carver’s Cave) in St. Paul.

The idea comes from the Lower Phalen Creek Project, a group whose mission is to strengthen St. Paul’s East Side and Lowertown communities by developing local “parks, trails, ecological and cultural resources, and by rebuilding connections to the Mississippi River.” It was the lead agency in reclaiming a once contaminated rail yard and transforming it into the 27-acre Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a site which includes Wakan Tipi.

Why is Wakan Tipi considered sacred? An MPR story quotes Jim Rock (Dakota) saying that for Dakota people: “we consider it as our birthplace.” The 106 Group Ltd. did research to get Wakan Tipi on the National Register of Historic Places. It notes the site is located at the intersection of roads connecting three large Mdewakanton Dakota villages, and also at the intersection of the Ho-Chunk, Anishinaabe, and Dakota tribes. Anne Ketz of the 106 Group writes:

According to Dakota elders that we spoke with, the presence of petroglyphs within [Wakan Tipi] indicates that the cave was a location for council meetings and sacred ceremonies. … While petroglyphs of men, birds, animals, fish, and turtles were recorded within the cave, the largest and most notable petroglyphs within
WAKAN TIPI were large rattlesnakes that appeared to be pointing to, or moving towards, a common point directly over the widest part of the cave. Chris Leith, a Dakota elder from the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota Community, and the Reverend Gary Cavender, a Dakota elder who lives in Shakopee, in separate interviews told us that the snake is an icon of healing, power and medicine and that the presence of the snake petroglyphs indicates that the cave was a place for healing ceremonies.

For reasons of safety and to prevent vandalism, the cave itself is closed to the public.

To offer your ideas for what you would like to see at the Center, click here to participate in a survey. The Lower Phalen Creek Project website offers the following description of the current thinking for the Center:

The Interpretive Center will – (1) Honor, accurately interpret and educate the community about the rich cultural and natural history and features of the site and Lower Phalen Creek Corridor. (2) Honor the significance of Wakan Tipi Cave as a Dakota sacred site. (3) Create a gathering place and visitor facility for the community and visitors from far and wide. The 10,000 sq. ft. building will feature a reception area, classrooms, exhibits, a small performance area and a gallery to showcase and expand the value of the sanctuary as a place for life-long learning and inspiration. The Urban Oasis Café – will serve visitors and community groups who rent the facility with an emphasis on providing food from local farmers and food-related vendors as well as augmenting the interpretive center by offering cooking classes and workshops focusing on the growing, preparing and serving foods that represent the many groups and cultures featured in the center.

As an aside, St. Paul Public Schools has developed an all-day field trip for fifth grade students to visit and learn about Dakota sacred sites. Wakan Tipi is one of those sites.

The Lower Phalen Creek Project is requesting $3 million in state support for the Wakan Tipi Center. (If you want to support the idea, here is an update on legislation as well as a design competition.) The Project plans do its own fundraising for the Center to raise an additional $3.7 million.

For more background, the Star Tribune also ran a story on the proposed Center.

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