Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob Gets National Historic Designation

View from Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob today. No wonder it was targeted for development. (Photo: National Park Service)

Good news: Oȟéyawahe, or Pilot Knob Hill, a sacred Dakota burial site, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 14 by the National Park Service.

The site is in Mendota Heights on the east bank of the Mississippi River across from Fort Snelling. To white settlers, it was called Pilot Knob, an important landmark for riverboat navigation. The Dakota name for it means “The hill that is much visited.” It was “a burial place, and an important Medicine or Wakan Ceremony grounds,” according to the historic designation application filed by the Pilot Knob Preservation Association.

[Update: The hill has a magnificent view of Fort Snelling and both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. It is a great place to watch a sunset. In 2002, developers announced plans to build “The Bluffs,” high density housing on the hill. The late Bob Brown, then head of the Mendota Mdewakonton Dakota Community, first began alerting people to the threat. He reached out to the veterans of the Coldwater Spring protests to work in defense of the hill. Opposition eventually coalesced in the formation of the Pilot Knob Preservation Association.]

In 2003, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota called Pilot Knob one of the 10 most endangered historic places in the state. As will be described below, the housing development never happened.

It’s worth remembering that the Dakota people are the state’s original inhabitants. Other than areas connected to the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, the state has few places on the Historic Register that focus on the Dakota people and their culture, the application said. Exceptions are Maka Yusota (Boiling Springs) in Shakopee (2003), and Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul (2014). More typical are sacred sites destroyed by settler developments. “Taku Wakan Tipi or Morgan’s Mound is now covered with a Veteran’s Administration Hospital, a major highway, housing, and portions of the Twin Cities airport.”

Here’s what you need to know about Oȟéyawahe, or Pilot Knob, and why preservation is important.

Oȟéyawahe is a Sacred Site to the Dakota

Oȟéyawahe is near Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Bdote is central to the Dakota origin story. Darlene St. Clair, associate professor at St. Cloud State University and a citizen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, is quoted in a media release from Pilot Knob Preservation Association:

I am thrilled that Oheyawahi has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only because of its importance in Dakota and Minnesota history, but because Dakota people still cherish this place, as we always have done. I hope this new protective status will also usher in a time when Dakota peoples’ efforts to maintain our relationship with this place is supported by the wider community.

Oȟéyawahe is a Traditional Dakota Burial Site

According to the historical preservation application:

Many accounts describe Dakota burial scaffolds on high areas along rivers throughout the region. According to Samuel Pond … among the Dakota, after death, human remains were generally placed on such scaffolds or in the branches of trees for a period of time. The bodies were wrapped in skins or placed in coffins obtained from whites. On poles next to scaffolds, streamers of cloth or American flags were hung, as pictured in the paintings of Seth Eastman. … Food or other offerings were sometimes placed on the scaffolds. After a period of days, or longer if the ground was frozen, human remains were buried in the ground, two to three feet deep. The graves were marked with fences and posts, partly as a protection against animals.

Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob was one of these sites. In a March 2004 ceremony,  spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse named the hill Wodakuye Paha, or “Hill of Relatives” to honor the ancestors buried there.

Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob was the Site of One of Two 1851 Treaties

One of two Dakota treaties signed in Minnesota in 1851 took place on or near Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob.  In these treaties, the Dakota ceded millions acres of land in what would become Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota to the United States. This was the beginning of the end for the Dakota. They lost their land base and ability to provide for themselves.

The first and best known of the two 1851 treaties was signed at Traverse des Sioux near St. Peter. Until recently, a painting of this treaty signing hung in the Minnesota Governor’s reception room. It was a mythologized version of events, and public pressure helped get it moved to a new, less trafficked spot in the Capitol.

No one knows where the second treaty of 1851 was signed, except that it was on or near Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob. It is clear that Dakota people camped on Oȟéyawahe during negotiations.

The timing of the two treaties was no accident, according to historian William Lass. Government negotiators focused first on Dakota bands to the west because they had less experience negotiating treaties and were in dire economic straits following harsh winters. They would be more receptive to the government’s offer. Negotiating with them first also gave the government more leverage in getting the other Dakota bands to agree.

Past Development Plans for Oȟéyawahe and its Desecration

According to the historic designation application:

In the 1880s, … Thomas Newson, a St. Paul journalist, was part of a syndicate that sought to turn the bluff into a residential neighborhood that would rival St. Paul’s prosperous Summit Avenue, a “new suburban town,” a “charming suburb” with “charming homes” overlooking the “peerless landscape.” At the center of the eighty-two acres controlled by the investors would be a ten-acre park around the top of the knob, on which would be placed a forty- to fifty-foot-high statue of Henry Sibley… The plan fell through.

[Note: Henry Sibley was one of the key federal negotiators for the 1851 treaties. He profited financially from these treaties, and would go to become Minnesota’s first governor.]

In 1926, a Masonic group started buying land that eventually became Acacia Park Cemetery.

To achieve the desired landscape within this earliest cemetery parcel … it appears that as much as twenty feet of the top of the knob, adjacent to Pilot Knob Road, was removed at the time the cemetery was prepared for opening.
So to connect the dots, to improve the aesthetics for the settler cemetery, the Dakota burial grounds were dug up, hauled off, and desecrated.

Historic Designation Has Some Benefits, So Does Land Ownership

Listing on the National Register of Historic Places does not protect a site from development, but it helps. It triggers a historic review if federal funds are being used to support the development. It also is an honorific designation that carries weight of public expectations.

Probably just as important as the designation is who owns the land. In December 2006, the city of Mendota Heights bought eight acres of private land on the hill through a combination of grants from governmental entities, organizations and individuals. Then in 2008 Acacia Cemetery Association sold an additional sell 17 acres to the city. Together, these purchases secured the land as an open space. Prairie restoration is underway.

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