Mdote Minisota: A Public EIS

Part 1

-February 21, 2006-

A Journey through the Center of the Earth

A truthful, open, and ongoing environmental review process, carried out by the public for the public, is needed to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within the area of Mdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed, bit by bit, historic property by historic property. . . .

Mdote Minisota (or more accurately, Bdote Minisota) is a large area surrounding the mouth of the Minnesota River, including parts of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and several Twin Cities suburbs. Mdote Minisota is for Dakota people a cultural, historic, and sacred center, the place where the world began. It is also the center of Minnesota’s European-American history, the place where European-Americans first began to leave their mark on the Minnesota landscape. And now it is the center of development pressure that can only get more intense in the years ahead.

To visit Mdote, drive south along the new Highway 55 from downtown Minneapolis. As you pass over Lake Street you travel through a corridor lined with ornate street lamps, an imitation of a boulevard in a European town, though one with little use for pedestrians. At Minnehaha Creek, just above the mythic Minnehaha Falls, you pass through a tunnel just before the bridge crossing the creek. Then you see a tree-filled parkland to the left just beyond the freeway wall, at least what is left of the trees after the highway was built.

Just beyond 54th Street the VA hospital complex is up a hill on the right, a hill known as Taku Wakan Tipi, the dwelling place of the gods. On the left is the old Bureau of Mines site with its sacred Coldwater Spring. The road now joins Highway 62 and, in one of the most complex intersections in the state, passes over highways linking St. Paul and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Just beyond the airport is the former site of the Lincoln Mounds, destroyed in 2004 to build two new high-rise buildings called Reflections at Bloomington Central Station. Beyond that looming in the distance is the Mall of America.

When your car shoots out onto the Mendota Bridge, Historic Fort Snelling is just to the left. Directly below the bridge is the location of the tragic place where 1,600 Dakota men, women, and children were interned during the winter of 1862-63. Nearby the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi around Pike Island, in Fort Snelling State Park, where the Treaty of 1805 was signed. At the end of the bridge is the 150-year-old St. Peter’s Catholic Church, and on the right is Pilot Knob or Oheyawahi, a sacred hill. Down the road on the left is the Sibley House Historic Site, the home of Minnesota's first elected governor. The highway now rises as you head into the suburbs.

The place you have just passed through is the center of the earth. This is the way the Eastern Dakota viewed the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. Many still view it this way. It is also a good way to view the importance of this place in Minnesota history and culture, its importance for all Minnesotans not just Dakota people. It was here that the modern state of Minnesota began. This is a battered landscape, but in the trees, along the highways, and in between the modern buildings, are the remnants of that beginning, the sacred places of the people’s history.

This landscape is the way it is in part because Mdote Minisota is under the control of a dozen different state, federal, and local agencies, each with different priorities and different understandings of the wholeness and significance of this sacred and historic place. Over the years the various cultural resources located within Mdote Minisota have been the subject of some very specific and localized environmental reviews and impact statements. As it happens, one such EIS has been undertaken by the National Park Service for the site of the former Bureau of Mines, Twin Cities Campus, a 27.32-acre site that includes the historic and sacred Coldwater Spring. A draft EIS is now being written.

It is too early to evaluate fully how well the NPS-Bureau of Mines process is working. However public experience of the various environmental reviews in the past have provided some important warnings about the need for early and continuing public involvement in commenting on these projects and in contributing to and reviewing these environmental reviews.

In the 1950s, the Minnesota Highway Department put together a plan to build a new bridge and highway across the Mississippi River between St. Paul and Fort Snelling. If carried out as originally planned this would have destroyed the remains of Historic Fort Snelling dating back to 1820. Only as a result of public pressure led by the Minnesota Historical Society was this destruction prevented. Shortly after that, however, much of the site of the Indian Agency and other nearby historic properties were taken out by highway construction.

In the early 1980s an environmental impact statement was done relating to the reroute of Highway 55, a highway connecting Minneapolis to the southern suburbs. Although a few military sites were mentioned in the analysis of affected areas, the impact of the highway on the area of the early Coldwater settlement and on places of importance to Dakota people such as the spring, was not discussed. It was only when the highway began to be built in the late 1990s that public interest in these areas was expressed. Despite public objections the highway was built, but in the process public groups were able to obtain new protection for Coldwater Spring under state law. This protection would never have happened without the actions of those conscientious citizens sometimes called “protestors.”

Aside from a lesson about public knowledge and participation in reviewing the environmental reviews, these experiences also demonstrated some important lessons about the scope of such studies. Environmental studies done under the mandate of federal and state law tend to look at narrow historic resources and narrow effects, without any understanding of the wider significance of distinctive places. For example, the fact that Highway 55 would interrupt the flow of water to a sacred spring was not initially considered significant because the highway was not going to be built on top of the place where the spring came out of the ground. The effect of the highway on the integrity of Mdote and the Fort Snelling landscape were given short shrift.

Government agencies often prefer to deal with the question of whether there are human remains, historic structures, or identifiable objects on a particular square inch of ground, rather than the wider question of the effect that a particular action has on a sacred area, a historic landscape, or the viewshed of a historic place. This prevalent attitude has created a Mdote Minisota crisscrossed with highways, managed by a dozen different government agencies, each with different management plans and different understandings of the wholeness and significance of this sacred and historic space.

Is it possible to change the way the valuable sacred, cultural and historic resources are treated in the Mdote area? It is unclear what can be done to change the culture and practices of some of the agencies involved, but change in the outcomes of environmental review processes can only happen if public pressure is exerted early enough to make a difference in the process. What is required is a truthful, open, and ongoing public environmental review process to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within Mdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed bit by bit, historic property by historic property.

Left to their own devices, few of the public agencies involved would ever undertake such an ambitious process. Instead the public must take the lead in carrying out such a review. In effect a process like this is underway involving the various groups which have worked separately to preserve Fort Snelling, Coldwater Spring, and Pilot Knob. What is lacking however is joint action by these groups and others, working together to protect the whole space of Mdote Minisota. In the long run, this is the only way that this sacred and historic area can be preserved and enhanced effectively in the years ahead.

It is the purpose of this online series to aid the efforts of existing preservation groups by recording the history and culture of Mdote Minisota in such a way that it is available to all. The series will also document and examine the decisions and actions of the government agencies that control the various properties in the area. In the long run it is hoped that by this means the public can do a better job of protecting all of Mdote Minisota, not just fragments salvaged from the whole.

Written contributions to, and comments about, this series are welcome. Send them to folwell@minnesotahistory.net.  Or write to Bruce White, white067@tc.umn.edu

A note on the spelling of the word Mdote

Recent scholars have pointed out that the word Mdote should be transcribed as Bdote, to convey more accurately the way the word is actually pronounced. The word Mdote is used here not as an assertion that this is the correct spelling of the word, but rather to avoid confusion among those not familiar with the Dakota language.

The words of one language are always difficult to transcribe with the alphabet of another. Even in English the spellings of words do not consistently convey correct prononciations. The missionary Stephen R. Riggs, in his Dakota-English Dictionary transcribed Dakota words using the English alphabet with the addition of a number of special characters and marks. Riggs wrote that the word Mdote means "the mouth or junction of one river with another (a name commonly applied to the country about Fort Snelling, or mouth of the Saint Peters)," the Minnesota River. He spelled the word beginning with the letter m, but he also noted that “some Dakotas in some instances, introduce a slight b sound before the m.”

Work is now under way to produce a new Dakota/English dictionary, as described by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, in her book Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2005. Wilson and the linguist and anthropologist Timothy Dunnigan of the University of Minnesota describe the new system of orthography, based on Riggs's system but making use of some new characters and marks. A special computer font was developed to record and display the new system.

It should be noted that Wilson also prefers the word Bdewakantunwan, referring to "Spirit Lake Village," a major Dakota community group once located at Lake Mille Lacs in north central Minnesota, instead of Mdewakantonwan, the spelling given by Riggs and many other earlier writers. Both Wilson and Riggs use English letters to indicate all the sounds in the word except for the n, which is actually an n with a hook on its right leg, a special character known as an "angma," indicating the nasalized sound of the preceding vowel.

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