An invitation from the Park Service: “Sue us!”

The spring is the dwelling place of the undergods and is near the center of the Earth. The Spring is part of the cycle of life. The underground stream from the Spring to the Mississippi River must remain open to allow the Gods to enter the River through the passageway. The Spring is the site of our creation myth (or “Garden of Eden”) and the beginning of Indian existence on Earth. Our underwater God “Unktehi” lives in the Spring. These words were contained in an affidavit from Dakota elder and spiritual leader Rev. Gary Cavender for a lawsuit in 1998. Imagine that these words had been on the first page of the recently finalized Environmental Impact Statement for the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines Twin Cities Campus property in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Their presence would not have guaranteed a different result from the process, but the context for interpreting  the decision to keep the Coldwater Spring in the hands of the Park Service would have been very different.

The National Park Service’s Record of Decision signed on January 15, 2010, to keep the Coldwater Spring/ Bureau of Mines property in the hands of the Park Service, is an invitation to the Dakota people,  Dakota communities, and those who support their rights, to sue the agency. It is hard to find a more blatant rejection of Dakota history, culture, and treaty rights than is contained in the final text of the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines EIS.

The National Park Service has decided to keep Coldwater in federal hands for the long term because it can and because it had put together documentation that predetermined the result. There’s no way to sugar coat it. In responses to comments submitted to correct the historical record it had assembled, the Park Service said that what it had was “substantive enough.” Substantive enough for what purpose? It is evident now that the EIS was substantive enough to provide a justification for keeping the property in federal hands at the expense of Dakota people.

Below where the water comes from the ground at Coldwater Spring, March 2009

Imagine that the decision about final ownership had taken into account the central importance of Coldwater, Taku Wakan Tip, and Bdote, for the Dakota people. Imagine that the text for the EIS, instead of including several pages about prehistoric peoples named by archaeologists–peoples which were acknowledged by the Park Service to have no demonstrated connection to Coldwater Spring–had contained that statement from Dakota elder Rev. Gary Cavender in 1998:

The Camp Coldwater spring is a sacred spring. Its flow should not be stopped or disturbed. If the flow is disturbed, it cannot be restored. Also, if its source is disturbed, that disturbs the whole cycle of the flow. The spring is the dwelling place of the undergods and is near the center of the Earth. The Spring is part of the cycle of life. The underground stream from the Spring to the Mississippi River must remain open to allow the Gods to enter the River through the passageway. The Spring is the site of our creation myth (or “Garden of Eden”) and the beginning of Indian existence on Earth. Our underwater God “Unktehi” lives in the Spring. The sacredness of the Spring is evident by the fact that it never freezes over, and it is always possible to see activity under the surface of the water.

Imagine that the text of the EIS had contained a discussion of the Treaty of 1805, through which Coldwater Spring has been under uinterrupted federal ownership since that day. Imagine that instead of stating that there were no federal trust obligations toward Indian tribes regarding Coldwater, the EIS had stated that in Article 3 of the treaty, the United States promised “on their part 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, but those specified in article first” in the area of the treaty, which included Coldwater Spring. Imagine that the EIS had acknowledged that this, like other treaty rights, was federal trust obligation.

Such information was inconvenient in the context of a self-serving, predetermined decision by the National Park Service to give Coldwater Spring to the agency itself.  Now that the decision has been announced, and in such a short time after the completion of the final EIS, the process through which this all happened has been greatly clarified and exposed. It will be recalled that in December 2008, an official in the Department of Interior announced the Preferred Alternative for Coldwater Spring, which was that the land be treated as open space or park land, with buildings removed and restored vegetation, and that it remain in federal hands to be managed by MNRRA.

In February 2009 an open house was held, announced as an opportunity to give input on the restoration plans for the property and to get information about the Preferred Alternative. However, at this meeting federal officials were not interested in hearing about the long-term ownership of the property, only about the removal of buildings and the restoration of vegetation. Some Dakota people did speak at the meeting and make their wishes known about the ownership of the property. After that a subsequent meeting on the schedule was cancelled.

Throughout this time Park Service officials stated that the time had not yet come when it would be appropriate to discuss the long term ownership of the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property. On April 7, 2009, Steven P. Johnson, an official with MNRRA explained that the time to comment on the long term ownership of the property would come after the final EIS was published:

Publication of the FEIS triggers a 30-day written comment period in which it will be appropriate for individuals and organizations to comment on the Department of the Interior’s preferred alternative for future management of the site. Autumn, you will want to resubmit your petition at that time. All comments received during that 30-day period will be forwarded to the Department of the Interior, which will evaluate the FEIS and the comments received before making a final decision. The Department of the Interior’s final decision will be announced in a document called a Record of Decision.

The defaced historical marker at Coldwater Spring, as seen in April 2009

Little of this statement was accurate. The publication of the final EIS did not trigger a comment period. The Park Service did not seek comments. It is not likely any comments received were read. The final decision would be made regardless of any comments.  All it would take would be to make a few tweaks to the Record of Decision which was likely already drafted. It took less than four days to get the Midwest Regional Director of the Park Service to sign.

What is clear now is that the process should have been viewed in the following way:

1. Draft EIS for Coldwater is completed. Comments are sought.

2. Intense lobbying occurs within the Park Service over a period of two years to determine the disposition of the Bureau of Mines property. Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service quarrel over which will get the property. Park Service wins. In December 2008 the Preferred Alternative is announced, including the decision for MNRRA to keep the property.

3. In February 2009, MNRRA has an open house and 30-day comment period on carrying out Preferred Alternative to clear and restore the property. People object to the decision to keep the property in federal hands, but they are told their comments are out of order.

4. In the spring and summer, the EIS for the property is revised to provide basis for Preferred Alternative and for keeping the property in federal hands. In fact it is likely that the EIS was in final form in 2008. No information that does not lead to the preferred result is included in the final EIS narrative and analysis.

5. Just before Christmas 2009 the final EIS is released. Nothing happens for thirty days, until January 11, 2010. Four days after that the decision already reached prior to December 2008 is announced as the final decision.

In retrospect Steven P. Johnson was correct in saying that last winter or spring was not the time to make statements about Dakota ownership of the property. But January 2010 was only the right time from the point of view of MNRRA which did not want to hear opinions on that score anyway. The right time to make a difference was actually in 2006, 2007, and 2008, when the decision was being made inside the Park Service. Only at that time could intense lobbying have altered the result.

The cynicism of this process may seem surprising to those who have not followed the actions of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area over the last ten years. MNRRA does not actually manage parks. Instead it is bureaucratic player which specializes in interacting with other agencies, sometimes telling them what they can and cannot do regarding changes to the historic or environmental character of their properties within the Mississippi corridor. The way it has managed the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines process has shown MNRRA’s expertise in bureaucratic game playing, but it has not demonstrated that MNRRA can be a positive force in the management and stewardship of property.

Now that MNRRA will be managing the 27-acres of the Coldwater property, can the agency change? Now that it will be in a position to interpret the history and cultural meaning of Coldwater Spring, will it change its practice of excluding historical and cultural  information when they decide that information does not contribute to MNRRA’s self-serving aims? Can MNRRA be a positive force rather than a negative one?

In what Dakota people, historians, and anthropologists have written over the years about Coldwater Spring they have made a case for Coldwater as a historic, cultural, and sacred place for Dakota people. The fact that the Park Service decided to ignore that record in their information-gathering and decision-making does not take away from the value of that record.

Ultimately the  the truth of that history and culture will have to be acknowledged. However, whether it provides a basis for Dakota people to lay claim to the place depends on Dakota tribal governments and their interest in making Coldwater an issue. Perhaps Dakota tribes are perfectly happy with the federal government managing sites of such importance to them. Perhaps they will be content that the Park Service views Dakota people on par with spiritualists and people out for a stroll, all of whom will receive equal access and equal consideration.

The only good outcome of this process is that the buildings and pollution will be cleared from the Bureau of Mines property at federal expense. In the meantime, the effort to get the land back for the Dakota can continue. A lawsuit may be nice, but continued lobbying is still important.

Finally, though this is not my final discussion of Coldwater Spring, I have a few words of advice for people who will deal with MNRRA in the future: Trust, but only if you verify.

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