In September 2006, an article appeared in several Twin Cities business and legal publications by Bill Clements of Dolan Media Newspapers about the role that John Anfinson, a historian, and Scott Anfinson, an archaeologist, had played over the years, in the decision-making of public agencies about the Dakota cultural and historical meaning of Coldwater Spring near Fort Snelling in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Illustrated with a photograph by Bill Clements of the two of them standing in front of the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines Twin Cities campus main building, the article was headlined: “Brothers in Arms: Scott and John Anfinson have been in activists’ cross hairs for years because of their stand on the controversial Coldwater Spring site.” [Italics added.]
This 2006 article is part of the record providing evidence of a pattern of bias and predetermined decision-making by these key government officials in gathering information and drawing conclusions about Coldwater Spring over the last ten years. The term bias is used here to convey the degree to which these officials reached what appear to be their common conclusions about Coldwater and its Dakota status as long ago as 1999 and have yet to re-examine those conclusions in the face of any evidence presented to them at any time since.
As uncovered recently through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Park Service, John Anfinson, historian with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was the key official in making decisions about Coldwater Spring. In early 2006 he decided to reject the conclusion of an independent contractor that Coldwater Spring was a place of traditional cultural importance for Dakota people.
What was not revealed in the FOIA information from the Park Service was that Anfinson had already reached his conclusions about Coldwater Spring seven years earlier, before he came to work in MNRRA, when he was a historian with the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul. It is not clear whether at that point he had actually done any research on the history or cultural meaning of the spring for the Dakota or anyone else, but he had already developed detailed opinions comparable to those he asserted in 2006.
A record of Anfinson’s thinking about Coldwater in November 1999 is found in a memo of Michelle Heller, then of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. This memo which has already been discussed on this site, was obtained in a FOIA request from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 2001. It recorded a phone conversation between Heller and Anfinson, in which they spoke about the-then contentious issue of Highway 55 and the claims made by a coalition of highway opponents who sought to stop the highway in its route through the Coldwater and Minnehaha Park area. These claims included the belief that four oak trees in the highway path and Coldwater Spring both had sacred and traditional cultural importance. This is how Heller or someone else at the Advisory Council summarized the conversation at the time:
Ms. Heller questioned Dr. Anfinson about his knowledge of the Highway 55 project and of the background of the area and tribes.
Dr. Anfinson explained that his brother Scott is an archeologist in the SHPO office [State Historic Preservation Office] and they have talked about the case. The Corps has not been involved as there have been no permit issues for the area yet. Dr. Anfinson has experience in dealing with Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs) since there are 28 tribes in his Corps district.
Dr. Anfinson provided some background on the history of the area. He then stated that there is no basis to argue for the four trees or anything in the area as a TCP. He said that the spring supposedly had traditional cultural association but expressed that written evidence needs to be compared to oral testimony in determining whether this is a political move on the part of tribes.
Dr. Anfinson has been using bulletin 38 in his determination of what constitutes a TCP though he believes that this bulletin needs to be reworked. He explained that what constitutes a community needs to be defined. For example he asks, “Do eight or ten people out of a tribe of 100 constitute a community?
He also questioned what would be considered as an adequate level of evidence and states that these things need to be defined by the National Register of Historic Places. He stated that the issue of the spring is a National Register question and suggested that we talk to Carol Schull [then Keeper to the National Register]. He believes that the evidence should be weighed to determine whether it constitutes a community interest to some Native American community. He doesn’t believe that the evidence is there to support them.
He further went on to explain that this issue has been embarrassing to the Native American community because of the large amount of protesting with the lack of evidence to support the claim.
As stated in this memo, John Anfinson not only rejected the idea that the trees or spring were TCPs, but also held that the same opinion applied to anything else in the area. He questioned the legitimacy of those making claims about the TCP status of the area and whether or not any tribal involvement had to do with “a political move on the part of tribes.” Furthermore, he questioned the legitimacy of Bulletin 38 of the National Register, published in 1990, the earliest government document to define the concept of a TCP in any detail. On each of these points John Anfinson’s opinions in 1999 forecast his opinions in 2006 when he made the decision for MNRRA and the National Park Service that Coldwater Spring was not a TCP for Dakota people or for anyone else.
On the question of Dakota beliefs about Coldwater Spring, as stated earlier, what is not clear is the degree to which Anfinson, in 1999, had actually done any research to reach his conclusions. A fair student of the history of the area might at least have noted the importance of Bdote, the sacred center of Dakota culture, located around the mouth of the Minnesota River, the boundaries of which had yet to be determined. An unbiased student of Dakota history and culture might have noted that springs were important to Dakota people and that the water spirit so important in Dakota cosmography resided in Taku Wakan Tipi, an area of uncertain boundaries of which Coldwater Spring might be said to be adjacent, overlapping, or coterminous. Yet none of these thoughts appeared to have been part of the conversation between the two officials in 1999. And as it turned out these topics were given short shrift in the text of the 2006 draft EIS.
Where then did John Anfinson get his information or the detailed opinions that made him so certain about the illegitimacy of Coldwater Spring as a TCP? Given the cast of characters who were part of the events that unfolded in 1998 and 1999, and details in the Heller memo itself, the logical conclusion is that John Anfinson got his information in discussions with his brother, the archaeologist Scott Anfinson.
Though he is now Minnesota State Archaeologist, Scott Anfinson, in 1999, was the National Register Archeologist with the Minnesota SHPO, a federal program within the Minnesota Historical Society. Anfinson was in the very middle of things throughout the Highway 55 controversy of the late 1990s and early 2000s. There is evidence to suggest that Scott Anfinson came to his own beliefs about Coldwater Spring because of its association in his mind with what happened during the Highway 55 controversy. Both Anfinson and a government archeological and cultural resources consultant Berger and Associates concluded that the four oak trees were not a TCP or a place of traditional burial. However, Anfinson parted ways with the consultant on the issue of Coldwater Spring. After studying the history and culture of the Fort Snelling area, Berger stated in a report the belief that Coldwater Spring might be eligible for the National Register as a TCP.
Documents available from that time period indicate that Scott Anfinson would have none of it. At this time he had a role in overseeing Berger’s work and commenting on it in his role in the State Historic Preservation Office. A record of Anfinson’s comments is found in the notes on faxed copies of Berger report drafts from April 1999. For one thing, he noted that the eligibility of Coldwater as a TCP not a proper issue for consideration because Highway 55 would not affect Coldwater Spring. He was also skeptical about the arguments presented for eligibility of the spring. When the Berger report authors referred to the importance of springs as wakan, or sacred, he wrote in the margin: “All springs?” and later to a reference to the importance of water he wrote: “So lets nominate all oceans!” When the authors referred to—and drew conclusions from—the Dakota origin myth and to the record of the missionary Gideon Pond that Dakota believed a passageway used by the Dakota water spirit existed under Taku Wakan Tipi, he asked that this information be eliminated from the report. When the authors referred to testimony by an Ojibwe elder about the importance of Coldwater Spring as a meeting place for Dakota and Ojibwe, including participants in the medicine ceremony that both tribes shared, he wrote, referring to a waterfall a mile or so away: “Could it have been M[innehaha] Falls?” About the same elder, writing on a separate sheet, Anfinson wrote: “If oral account is accurate—Why no newspaper accounts?”And finally when the authors of the Berger report suggested a full Traditional Cultural Property analysis for Coldwater Spring, he wrote “Not your problem.”
Even after it was determined that Coldwater Spring would in fact be affected by the highway and that it would be necessary to alter the highway’s design to help preserve the spring, Scott Anfinson appears to have maintained his opinion that Coldwater Spring is not a TCP for anybody. The basis for this aversion to Coldwater seemed to have to do the fact that the oaks and the spring were linked in his mind by those who argued for their importance.
Many who believe that Dakota claims about Coldwater Spring were merely a ploy to stop highway construction or for some other purpose, point to Jim Anderson, a member of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, a non-federally recognized Dakota community in Minnesota, a state in which many Dakota have not been allowed to become members of existing communities. They allege that Anderson invented both the oaks and the spring as issues to stop highway construction and as part of some circuitous plan to achieve federal recognition for the Mendota Dakota. For those who hold this set of opinions, Coldwater Spring as an issue will always be suspect, no matter how many federally recognized Dakota people state that it is an important traditional cultural place and no matter how much historical information is presented to support the argument.
The problem of identifying Coldwater Spring with Jim Anderson is that he was not responsible for the statements of many Dakota elders and communities about the spring, nor for the historical record about Dakota cultural beliefs about springs and about the area. In a recent conversation I asked Anderson about the whole issue and he recalled that when he obtained testimony about the importance of the area to try to stop highway construction: “I brought the elders together so they would talk about the oaks. But all they wanted to do was talk about the spring.” In doing so they spoke eloquently, in testimony and in legal affidavits, about the significance of the spring, historically and culturally. No matter what questions one might raise about the traditional cultural importance of the four oak trees, there is no getting around the statements made by Dakota elders and spiritual leaders at that time and later about Coldwater Spring. Their statements appear to have had little effect on the views of either Scott or John Anfinson.
It should be noted that while Scott Anfinson appears firm in his beliefs about Coldwater not being a TCP, he has supported other properties for nomination as Dakota TCPs, particularly some in which Jim Anderson has not been the prime advocate. In 2005, he became the State Archaeologist, a job which has as a primary responsibility overseeing burial sites within the state. He is known to be knowledgeable to some degree about Dakota ethnography and has often sought out the views of Dakota elders on particular sites, including at least one Dakota elder, the late Gary Cavender, whose opinion on Coldwater Spring his brother John appears to have found suspect. My own opinion is that Scott simply has a blind spot when it comes to Coldwater Spring that prevents him from treating the issue fairly.
As for John Anfinson, in 2000 he went to work for MNRRA. Since then, at various times over the years, while he sought to find a future owner for the Bureau of Mines property, starting with the Metropolitan Airport Commission, Anfinson expressed public skepticism about the TCP status of Coldwater Spring. He often said that the just wasn’t enough documentation, but that he had an open mind about the issue, if someone would just bring him the information necessary. He did not, however, frequently explain in any detail what it would take to convince him.
In 2005, as the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines Twin Cities Campus environmental review process geared up, John Anfinson oversaw the work of a contractor hired to study the eligibility of Coldwater Spring as a TCP. According to several documents released this year under a FOIA request from MinnesotaHistory.net, the reason a contractor was hired to do the study was that the Park Service officials including Anfinson did not have time to do the study themselves. Evidence suggests that Anfinson may have sought to influence the result of the independent study or at least that he informed the authors of the study about his disagreements with their conclusions at various points in their work. A few memos between Anfinson, an ethnographer named Michael Evans and other Park Service officials suggest that by March 2006 neither Evans nor Anfinson agreed with the conclusions drawn by the independent contractor. Anfinson wrote at the end of March 2006 about how to deal with their disagreements with the conclusions of the independent contractor:
Ideally, I would like them to rewrite it again, based on face to face discussions. I believe they simply do not understand the TCP and National Register guidelines. I also do not know how they can defend their conclusions. . . . Unless we ask them to revise the report again, I would go beyond the normal disclaimer. I would say something to the effect that not only does this report not reflect the position of the NPS, the NPS disagrees with its analysis and conclusions.
Exactly what disagreements Anfinson had with the report and the independent contractor’s interpretation of the National Register and TCP guidelines is not clear from available memos or other documents from that time period. Anfinson does not appear to have kept any memos or emails recording his interactions with anyone about the decision he would reach on the TCP status of Coldwater. Notably, even though some of Anfinson’s emails survived in the possession of the ethnographer Michael Evans, Anfinson’s own copies of those or other emails he sent or received were not forthcoming in the recent Park Service FOIA documents.
The difficulty with interpreting Anfinson’s critique of the independent contractor’s analysis of eligibility is that back in 1999, as noted in the Heller memo, he disagreed with the guidelines on TCPs included in Bulletin 38, suggesting that they needed to be revised. In 2006 was Anfinson really objecting to the fact that they contractors did not understand the National Register or was his problem that they did not have the same critical view of the National Register and TCP guidelines that he had? Without a record of detailed analysis kept by Anfinson during this period it is difficult to know.
While he had made his decision in the spring, Anfinson did not write any detailed explanation of the decision until after the fact, midway through the draft EIS comment period in October 2006. His co-respondent on the issue, the ethnographer Michael Evans himself wrote a two-page memo on the question possibly in spring 2006 but it does not appear to have been used by Anfinson in his decision-making. However both the Evans memo and the October 2006 Anfinson memo will be discussed in detail in a later article.
After Anfinson made the decision that Coldwater was not a TCP in the spring of 2006, the MNRRA office now sent out copies of the independent report with the warning label on it stating that the Park Service rejected the independent report’s conclusions. In May 2006 MNRRA sent a review copy of the Ethnographic Study to Stanley Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and, possibly, to other Dakota communities. JoAnn Kyral, superintendent of MNRRA stated in a letter to Crooks:
The study offers substantial background information about Dakota Indian Life around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers and about Dakota traditions related to springs and water. However, little evidence is provided that relates directly to the site specific use of the Center [BOM-Twin Cities Campus] property or Coldwater Spring. After thoroughly reviewing the evidence provided in the report the National Park Service has concluded that neither the Center nor Coldwater Spring meet the specific criteria in the National Register to designate the area as a TCP. However, it is clear that the spring has significant contemporary cultural importance to many Indian people, and the spring is already a contributing element to the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark and the Fort Snelling National Register of Historic Places District. In recognition of this contemporary cultural importance and the contributing element factors, an alternative will be included in the EIS that would provide protections for the spring and reservoir (Ethnographic Study, Appendix B).
Once again, the issue of a disagreement about criteria was raised, but without much more detail, nor any detailed response to the independent report. And as I said in 2006, Kyral’s other words were condescending, suggesting that although the federal government rejected the Dakota communities’ claim to the spring as a historical and cultural feature and in the process rejected the history and cultural traditions on which it is based, the Park Service would try to protect the spring because it is part of a site important for, among other things, its role in colonizing Minnesota and sending the Dakota into exile in 1863. The area’s place in Dakota history was not significant; its white history was. The irony of this juxtaposition was evidently lost on MNRRA.
As amply recorded on MinnesotaHistory.net over the last four years, the draft EIS on the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property was issued in August 2006. It contained the warning label about the independent TCP report, but with no further analysis of the basis of the decision. On September 13, 2006 I wrote an article on this website criticizing the decision and questioning its basis.
It was shortly after my analysis was published online that the Clements article on the Anfinson Brothers appeared in Twin Cities newspapers. The article told of the Highway 55 struggle seven years before. Scott Anfinson mentioned the satisfaction he had in not being part of the controversy now that he was State Archaeologist and had no real decision-making role on whether or not Coldwater Spring would be recognized as a TCP. He was amused in part by the criticism that his brother was receiving, which he said was similar to the vilification he felt during the Highway 55 controversy. He mentioned a court appearance in which Coldwater preservation supporters made disparaging remarks to him after his testimony. This caused court officials to show him a side door so that he could avoid passing through the crowd on his way out. (My own recollection of a Hennepin County court appearance was that it involved one last attempt to stop highway construction in 2000. Scott was there to testify in support of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. And my recollection is that the person who addressed Anfinson in a mildly disparaging way was Jim Anderson of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community.)
As for John Anfinson, the Clements article reported his belief that
the historical evidence just does not support Coldwater Spring receiving the TCP designation. Conferring the status on Coldwater would set the wrong precedent . . . Are we in danger here of creating Native American history? I don’t think it’s a good idea. Once we get words locked into our white man’s history books, they are there forever. . . . I’d caution people to make sure we get this right.
To this, apparently, according to Bill Clements, Scott Anfinson agreed. Despite having no legal role in the decision, Scott, who was described in the article as a “national expert on TCPs,” commented, apparently interrupted occasionally by additional comments from his brother John:
The distinction that needs to be made that while Coldwater can be a sacred site to American Indian tribes that doesn’t mean it qualifies as a TCP. “The evidence just isn’t there.” In fact, John says , “My job would be phenomenally easier if the evidence were there.” “Why would we dispute it if the evidence were there? Scott asks. “We wouldn’t,” John adds.
Reading this article, which of course one or the other of the Anfinsons may now want to question in terms of accuracy, one is nonetheless led to ask a question that is not merely rhetorical. Just who made the determination for the National Park Service that Coldwater Spring was not a TCP, was it John or Scott, or was it both of them together? Just when did they make their decision that Coldwater was not a TCP and would never be one? Was it in 2006 or 1999 or 1998, or at some earlier time?
This record of information-gathering and interchange of opinions between John and Scott Anfinson about Coldwater Spring calls into question the actions of MNRRA about the Dakota claims to Coldwater Spring all the decisions that have followed from that decision.
There will be more discussion of this issue soon on MinnesotaHistory.net.
A Personal Note
Over the years I have known and respected John and Scott Anfinson for their knowledge and intelligence. I knew John Anfinson when he was in graduate school and when he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. We ate lunch together in downtown St. Paul occasionally over a period of years and he was helpful to me in some of my research projects. When he went to work for MNRRA I wished him well and over the many years that followed offered my help in providing information about Coldwater Spring based on the research I had done and was continuing to do on the entire Fort Snelling area. At one point I offered to do a historical study of the Bureau of Mines property for the Park Service but did not get that opportunity, something that upset me at the time, but for which I did not blame John. Later without any compensation from anyone I submitted information to expand the historical record in the EIS on Coldwater Spring and the Fort Snelling area.
Throughout the last few years, I began to have a growing sense that no historical or cultural information that I or anyone else could supply to MNRRA or to John Anfinson—aside from information from the reports of contractors with which John Anfinson agreed—was of the slightest interest to anyone in the MNRRA office. In the end not a single piece of historical information I supplied to MNRRA made its way into the final EIS, not even information that contradicted historical statements in the draft document. All of this had made me question the nature of the very process through which the Park Service reached its decision on the property. The result has appeared biased and predetermined, especially in relation to the TCP status of the spring. The idea that the determination of the TCP status of Coldwater was open throughout the environmental review period, and continues to be open for discussion, as the “White Paper” claims, is entirely contradicted by the lack of attention or review or discussion that MNRRA has given to any information about the TCP or Native status of the spring supplied to it at any point since the summer of 2006. Instead the actions of John Anfinson and MNRRA have given proof to allegations of bias and predetermination.
As for Scott, he is an archaeologist and I am a historical ethnographer. We both received PhDs from the University of Minnesota’s Anthropology Department. Since then we were on vehemently opposite sides on questions involving Highway 55, but we worked together on Oheyawahi/ Pilot Knob. When, in 2003, Alan Woolworth and I wrote the nomination of that site as a TCP, Scott was extremely helpful in suggesting revisions to the nomination and getting it approved by the state review board, which led to a determination of the hill as eligible for the National Register. Later on he and I were on the same side of other important issues. While I respect Scott, I believe that on the issue of TCPs he sometimes feels he knows more about them than anybody else in Minnesota, including the Native people for whom particular TCPs are important. I think he sometimes feels that he knows more about TCPs than Tom King, who was the co-author of Bulletin 38. On the issue of Coldwater Spring I feel that Scott has a large blind spot and that he is incapable of dealing with the issue fairly. Whether he shares this blind spot with his brother John one would have to compare John’s actions on Coldwater with those in other situations involving TCPs. So far I have not obtained a full enough record of John’s involvement with other TCPs to draw any conclusions. Perhaps John could convince me of his lack of bias in making the decision for MNRRA on Coldwater. For now, I have to say, there just isn’t enough data to offset the record discussed here.