The restoration of Native lands

Those who argue for the restoration of beautiful but damaged places–by making claims about their sacredness and importance to Native people– should look beyond trees and plants to consider a firmer commitment to the rights and values of Native people themselves. To make use of Indian history and culture as an argument against development and for preservation may be a valuable tool in battles for particular sites. But if advocates make such arguments without considering all the implications–including ownership by Native people who are very much alive today–they risk undermining not only future coalitions between Native people and preservationists, but respect for themselves and for the very beliefs of Native people that they use in their arguments.

When policy makers and citizens meet to discuss the restoration of places like Coldwater Spring, they seldom mean their restoration to the indigenous peoples from whom they were taken. Instead they refer to the removal of pollutants and buildings, and the restoration of vegetation, so that the site can one day resemble how it appeared at some amorphous time in the past. That officials and citizens do not think more seriously about restoring these places to Native communities, results from an odd romanticism and a persistent hypocrisy about the nature of the places and why their vegetation is worth restoring.

In other cases, where public land is involved–as in the case of the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines property in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which has been under federal ownership since the Treaty of 1805–mechanisms exist for the re-acquisition of the land by Native communities. These are opportunities that should not be ignored or rejected out of hand, especially for sites that have such clear connection to Native history and culture.

The process through which Native people were dispossessed of their lands in Minnesota is a harsh story, full of corruption involving government officials, traders, timber companies, and including some of the founding fathers and families in the state. It is a history that emphasizes why restoration of Native lands to Native peoples is so important. Sometimes, especially in cases involving private land, creating opportunities for the acquisition of lands by Native communities may depend on the willingness or ability of Native communities themselves to buy the land. However, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) through its Tribal and Native Lands Program shows how a partnership between conservation groups and tribes can benefit both by allowing “tribal governments to acquire and protect their ancient homelands.” TPL notes that “Tribes are proven leaders as natural resource stewards and restoring traditional lands to tribal ownership–or under public ownership where tribal values are afforded legal protection-assists native communities in meeting their land conservation, natural resource restoration and cultural heritage objectives.”

The idea of “restoration” in multiple senses is a primary theme in the preservation of many sites deemed important in recent years. Geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson, in a provocative essay on “The Necessity for Ruins,” notes that, whether it involves old farmhouses, neighborhoods, battlefields, forts, or sacred Native landscapes, Americans today value the sense of rediscovery of a neglected site and its subsequent renewal.  Jackson states that the approach to such sites is ritualistic, bound up with the idea that there was some kind of golden age in the past, followed by a period of neglect, and then rediscovery. Once renewed the place, the landscape, sometimes become “scenes of unreality, places where we can briefly relive the golden age, and be purged of historical guilt.” Jackson continues:

The past is brought back in all its richness. There is no lesson to learn, no covenant to honor; we are charmed into a state of innocence and become part of the environment. History ceases to exist.

The current process involving the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines site exemplifies the way the process works. For the purpose of “restoring” a romantic, “natural” space, Park Service officials have crafted a process of information-gathering designed to purge any historical guilt about the past. Knowledge about the colonization of the Dakota through trade and treaty and their exile from this region in 1863, and long term and continuing importance of the site to the Dakota, are all suppressed so as to construct a context for the future park or open space, in which Dakota and other Native relationships to this site are vague and only incidental.

In its Preferred Alternative for the Coldwater site,  “the federal government would demolish some or all of the 11 buildings and related infrastructure on-site and restore the property to a natural condition resembling an open space or park.” The focus of this alternative would be

the conversion of the Center property to open space and natural areas where the focus would be on restoration and use of the natural environment. The Center property would become a park or be used as open space. This could be accomplished by removing some or all buildings, structures, and roadways. Nonnative plant species could be identified and removed. Native vegetation could then be planted and the site naturalized to recreate the historic characteristics of an open oak savanna, prairie-type setting.

The result of this process will be a natural site in which Indian history is vague, colonized, and timeless, not specific or even very accurate. A report on this future park or open space, on Minnesota Public Radio, Dec. 14, 2009, gives the context in which the site’s Dakota history and culture will take its place:

The spring was used by Indian tribes before the U.S. Army built Fort Snelling nearby. In the 1820s, soldiers used the spring as a resource. In the late 1800s, a spring house and reservoir were built. As part of a final Environmental Impact Statement, the National Park Service recommends demolishing the buildings to make way for native prairie, oak trees and trails for people to enjoy nature and learn about the site’s history, said Alan Robbins-Fenger, a planning and land use specialist with the park service.

Judging by the final EIS and the historical report included with it, the amount of detail that visitors to the site will learn about Dakota history will be minimal. Park Service officials have made every effort and strategy to make Dakota details as sparse as possible, both in the EIS and in other contexts. In a February 2009 letter, MNRRA historian John Anfinson stated:

Although well-known as a site associated with Fort Selling’s history, the spring had not been recognized for any separate American Indian historic significance or associations until the late 1990s, when protests began over a nearby highway project. Protestors, including some American Indians, found Coldwater Spring on the abandoned Bureau of Mimes property, and it became a gathering place. Since that time the spring’s significance as a spiritual place for some American Indians and for various groups of non Indians has grown.

Anfinson draws the conclusion that because Dakota connections to the property were used as an argument for stopping the construction of the highway, and that the spring became a gathering place for highway opponents, this is evidence that the Dakota claims are suspect. However, whether or not non-Dakota preservationists have used Dakota history and culture for their own purposes, there was and is evidence of the Dakota importance of the place that could have been brought out at any time in the last 150 years and more. The controversy about Highway 55 in the late 1990s simply provided an opportunity for that information to be made more widely known.

Anfinson does have an point to make, though perhaps it is unintentional. It is clear that Dakota history and culture were used by some Highway 55 opponents for their own purposes. That effort has continued. Before and after opponents were successful in getting a highway redesign that better protected the flow of water to the spring, efforts to preserve the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property have often included references to it being a sacred site for the Dakota and a site of historical importance. Discussions of the rehabilitation of the property have included plans for re-vegetation to a time period in the past when the area was inhabited by the Dakota and other tribes. Plant choices have included suggestions of plants used by Dakota people.

But, oddly, when it comes to actual Dakota ownership or management of the Coldwater property, some advocates for preservation and restoration suggest that continued federal ownership is preferable. In the process, the emphasis on aboriginal connections to the property shifts not to the Dakota but to thousands of years of habitation by tribes whose names have been invented by generations of archaeologists.

Of course this is the same strategy employed by the National Park Service in its final EIS. The final report includes several pages of discussion of “American Indian History,” (pages 61-64) starting at 12,000 BP with Paleo-Indians, proceeding through Archaic and Woodland peoples, finally culminating in a brief discussion of the Dakota:

The Eastern Dakota, which included the Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahkpute, and Sisseton, inhabited much of Minnesota at the time of European contact. These people came to be known to the French as the Sioux (hereafter referred to as the “Eastern Dakota”). By the time of initial French contact in the mid-1600s, the Eastern Dakota had adapted their subsistence and settlement patterns to the prairie/forest border and occupied relatively permanent villages in forest areas. Following contact with the French, Eastern Dakota lifeways, material culture, and geographic distribution changed considerably. There is limited archeological knowledge about Eastern Dakota presence within the MNRRA corridor. The approximate locations of villages and other communities are known, but few sites have been recorded or excavated. Within the MNRRA corridor, communities where approximate locations are known include Kaposia, Shakopee, Pine Bend, Black Dog’s village, and the Little Rapids site. Additionally, a Dakota internment camp where some 1,500 individuals were held following the Dakota Conflict of 1862 is located in the river bottom below Fort Snelling, but has never been archeologically investigated (Anfinson 2003). Pike Island, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, was frequented by the Eastern Dakota, but has never been investigated (Anfinson 2003).

Dakota people are mentioned subsequently in relation to European traders, explorers, and government officials, including a short discussion of the Zebulon Pike’s Treaty of 1805 through which the lands at Coldwater and the entire Fort Snelling Reservation came under federal ownership:

Pike arrived at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers on September 21, 1805, and set up camp on the island that would take his name. The next day, Little Crow and about 150 Dakota men arrived to meet with him, and together they traveled up the Minnesota River to a Dakota village. On September 23, Pike negotiated a treaty with the Dakota for an area of land “nine miles square at the mouth of the St. Croix, [and] also from below the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Peters [Minnesota] up the Mississippi to include the falls of St. Anthony, extending nine on each side of the river, …” This land included the future Fort Snelling military reserve. In return, the Pike offered $200. Little Crow and Way Ago Enagee signed for the Dakota. (Coues 1987, pp. 24-26, 231.)

Beyond these brief references, the connection of Dakota people to the Coldwater site itself through specific historical accounts and cultural accounts linking them to it, are scrupulously avoided. As stated in earlier accounts on this website, the final EIS contains the statement that “no historical documentation of American Indian use of Camp Coldwater Spring has been found,” (repeated five times in the final EIS, beginning on page 72).

In comments submitted on the draft EIS, various individuals submitted comments intended to alter the historical account as given in the report, but these comments were ignored or rejected by the Park Service. In a table of comments and responses, the Park Service noted in one case (p. 372):

This and related comments added detailed information on the history of the area. We appreciate the additional information, but the intent of the EIS is not to be an exhaustive treatment of the history of the property, but to provide enough history to determine what is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and, therefore, subject to Section 106, and so that the general public can get a sense of the importance of the place over time. To that end, the description of the history of the Center provided on pages 71 – 82 of the Draft EIS serves that purpose. . . .The comments here reference the whole area once considered Camp Coldwater, not the spring specifically. The Camp Coldwater area encompassed far more the Bureau of Mines property and is beyond the scope of this analysis.

The response is a very odd or disingenuous one, as though officials are playing a shell game with information, since the historical sections in the EIS report itself are very general, discussing a great deal more than the actual spring, yet ignoring specific historical information relating to the area of the spring, much of which is actually part of the Bureau of Mines property. And a great deal of that information that is left out has to do with the presence of Dakota and Ojibwe people there.

Joseph Nicollet's map from the late 1830s shows the Coldwater Spring area at left, with the initials T.H., indicating Benjamin F. Baker's trading house located there. The map shows Dakota tepees at that location and at other typical camping places of Dakota people near Fort Snelling. In his comments on the draft EIS, local historian Robert P. Mosedale informed the Park Service about this map, but it was not included in the final EIS, which stated in response to Mosedale's request for the inclusion of more information: "The information gathered for the EIS and Section 106 process is substantive enough."

Others who commented about the draft EIS provided more information about the Treaty of 1805 with the Dakota. In response the Park Service did add a reference to the treaty, but did not include the words of the treaty and their possible meanings.  The final EIS, like the draft version, in reference to any trust obligations the federal government might have in regard to the Coldwater site, does not mention the Treaty of 1805 (FEIS, page 46):

Secretarial Order 3175 requires that any anticipated impacts to Indian trust resources from a proposed project or action by USDI agencies be explicitly addressed in environmental documents. The federal Indian trust responsibility is a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights, and represents a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. There are no Indian trust resources in the area of the Center, which is federal property and was, prior to the closure of the USBM in 1996, used for federal offices and laboratories. The lands comprising the Center are not held in trust by the Secretary of the Interior for the benefit of Indians due to their status as Indians. Therefore, the impact topic of Indian trust resources was dismissed from further analysis.

In response to an earlier version of that statement, the Lower Sioux Dakota community had passed a resolution pointing out that the Treaty of 1805 contained wording that referred to a specific ongoing right of the Dakota people to all the land contained within the Fort Snelling Reservation:

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, The Community Council hereby declares that Coldwater Spring and the land that surrounds it, is defined by the Treaty with the Sioux Nation of Indians-1805 and is part of the ancestral lands of the MN. Mdewakanton people.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, The Lower Sioux Indian Community demands that the United States uphold their “promise”…to permit the Sioux to pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of the said districts, as they have formerly done, without any other exception…” and recognize the cultural nexus that the Lower Sioux Indian Community has with Coldwater Springs and the lands that surrounds it.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, The Community Council hereby requests that the United States restore to it’s natural state-Coldwater Springs and the land that surrounds it and recognize the cultural and religious significance to the Lower Sioux Indian Community and that Coldwater Springs site be protected as a traditional cultural property.

In response, the Park Service wrote:

The rights asserted under the 1805 Treaty would have to be evaluated in a court of law, and the NPS cannot comment on them.

Similarly in response to another comment on the Treaty of 1805, the Park Service responded:

The resolution of treaty claims concerning this or any other property is beyond the scope of this study. While it may have bearing on the ultimate disposition of the property, treaty rights and resolution of claims have a long and complex history and do not appear to be close to a final solution. The intent of this study is to disclose the impacts associated with the transfer of the property. The intent is not to resolve these complex issues.

An engraving based on a painting by George Catlin of an Ojibwe camp at Coldwater Spring, in 1835. That year, as in previous years, 500 Ojibwe came to the site to trade, dance, and meet ceremonially with their hosts, the Dakota. The image was part of a comment to the draft EIS, to which the Park Service responded: "Comment noted."

Clearly a discussion of any current meaning for the Treaty of 1805, involving a binding agreement of the federal government, is inconvenient in the context of a Coldwater Park that gives a sense of being an Indian place but has no living Indians. In this context, rather than responding or correcting the deficits in the draft EIS, the responses to comments about those deficits included a dogged defense of the sparse historical sections in the EIS. Sometimes the responses not only rejected the comments but by extension the statements in the EIS, to which commenters were simply trying to amplify or use to make their own points. In the draft and final EIS, as noted above, the Park Service begins its historical account discussing Indian people in the immediate region 12,000 years ago. One commenter referred to the use of the spring by Indian people for 10,000 years and stated “Your study is well written but so incomplete. For thousands of years natives from many cultures would have found their way to this spring and enjoyed the stunning waterfall that we all seem to forget about.”

In response, the Park Service was quick to reject the comment and the clear implications of their own historical account:

Neither the archeological record nor the ethnographic study provided any evidence that American Indians used Coldwater Spring for thousands of years. American Indians most likely used the spring when in the area, but simple use of a spring would not give it any special significance.”

The comment makes clear the purpose of the Park Service in the crafting of its EIS: To acknowledge Indian presence in the general region but reject it in relation to the spring, prehistorically, historically, and culturally. Throughout the report the only grudging acknowledgement of a Dakota claim to the spring comes from a reference to “ritual.” The final EIS states: “Camp Coldwater Spring and Reservoir are culturally important to some Indian people for ritual and ceremonial reasons.” All references to the historical nature of the rituals and ceremonies and their connections to Coldwater, are erased, as are all historical connections to the spring.

The effect of this denial of history and the meaning of Dakota culture makes possible a kind of romanticized Native and vaguely Dakota connection of the Coldwater site, but a denial of any claim the Dakota themselves might have to the place. As a result the Park Service can create a restored park or open space at Coldwater with an exotic suggestion of Indianness without having to give Indian people a special claim to the place.

In the Park Service’s view Indian people are just one of a number of people who have a claim to the place. Page 151 of the final EIS states:

Visitors to the [Coldwater/Bureau of Mines] Center include American Indians, spiritualists, environmentalists, and residents of the nearby neighborhoods. The alternatives presented in this EIS along with the scenarios present differing levels of access to the Center by the public for continuing the personal rituals and meditations as they currently exist.

Clearly the Park Service will want to accommodate Native people, spiritualists, and people out for a walk, all of whom have varying “personal rituals and meditations.” From this point of view, Dakota people can best be accommodated if the Coldwater Spring property is a public space, a park or open space. A response to one individual’s comment on this question states (p. 353): “The Final EIS has been clarified to note that conveyance to an entity that did not keep the property open to public use would be detrimental to use by American Indians.”

In making the point that a public space at Coldwater is the best way to accommodate Dakota people, the Park Service found an ally in one of the Coldwater preservation advocates, who stated recently: “Coldwater Park . . . . respects the 1805 Dakota-Pike treaty guaranteeing all Dakota people the right to ‘to pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of the said districts, as they have formerly done.'”

Judgments about whether the preservation advocate is correct in the statement about how a public park open to everyone is a fine way to accommodate Dakota treaty rights is something that Dakota people and tribal governments must make. But one thing is perfectly clear: To argue for the restoration of places like Coldwater, by making claims about their sacredness and importance to Native people, without also showing a commitment to the rights and interests of Native people today, is hypocritical. It is important to look beyond the trees and vegetation toward a commitment to the restoration of Native lands to Native people.


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