It is time for the National Park Service to leave Coldwater Spring in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The NPS, or its local branch, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), is unfit to manage this sacred and culturally important site which first entered federal hands through the Dakota Treaty of 1805. As reported in the last few days by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, MNRRA has largely completed the removal of the ruined Bureau of Mines buildings that marred the site for many years. Restoration of the landscape is continuing. Now it is time for NPS and MNRRA to leave this property and turn its management over to Dakota people for whom the spring is a sacred site and a place of traditional cultural importance.
Over the past six years the National Park Service has shown that it is completely unfit to be the steward for a site of such importance to Dakota people. Largely through the efforts of MNRRA Historian John Anfinson (as fully documented on this website), backed by his superiors in the Park Service, MNRRA has cut corners, stonewalled, and disrespected the requests of the Dakota people for a fair consideration of its cultural heritage. In 2006 the MNRRA rejected the finding of a respected consultant which supported Traditional Cultural Property status for Coldwater Spring as a Dakota site. This and many other aspects of MNRRA’s mismanagement of the traditional cultural status of Coldwater is described in detail in Chapter 5 of our new book Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota, newly published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. Here, for example is a section on MNRRA’s rejection of TCP status for Coldwater Spring in 2006:
Despite this report and the earlier testimony of Dakota people, NPS staff announced publicly in August 2006 that they would not accept the study’s findings about Coldwater Spring. By that point the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area superintendent had already written to Dakota communities, stating, “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.” The letter concluded by acknowledging that the spring had “significant contemporary cultural importance to many Indian people” and noting that “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 the “contemporary cultural importance” of the site to the Dakota and the significance of the site in Fort Snelling history, protections
would be recommended.
The condescending words suggested 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 the claim was based, the park service would try to protect the spring because it was 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.
In the years that followed MNRRA continued to forestall any fair consideration of the TCP status, standing by the self-serving and cursory 2006 finding rejecting the TCP status of Coldwater. Then, as described in Chapter 5 of Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota:
In January 2010, at the end of the environmental review process, the National Park Service announced it would retain ownership of the property for itself, to be used as a public park. The park service issued a press release: “The public’s interest in this site throughout this process illustrates the great significance that the Dakota and so many others attach to this special place . . . We are excited to be the caretakers, and to work with many partners to tell all the stories associated with this place. There are many layers of history associated with this site, from the Dakota to European settlement to 20th century mining technology.” Since the park service had consistently denied any historical or cultural connection of the Dakota to the property, the statement was surprising. Rejecting Dakota traditions and then using them in the agency’s historical interpretation appeared to add insult to injury.
Such statements also illustrated the hypocrisy of the Park Service’s entire environmental review process and the emptiness of its consultation with Dakota governments. Even today MNRRA continues to claim that it has consulted adequately with Dakota tribal governments and Dakota people. It lists the many letters it has written to various Dakota tribal groups. Unfortunately MNRRA can provide no comparable record of actual conversations that it has had with Dakota leaders or Dakota people or any case where it actually listened or learned from Dakota people. Consultation through one-sided correspondence is no consultation at all.
Clearly, from the beginning MNRRA had one goal only for Coldwater, to make itself the manager of a park. But MNRRA has shown through its cultural biases that it is unfit to manage a culturally significant and sacred place like Coldwater. The agency has finished its work of removing the ruins of the Bureau of Mines. Now it is time for MNRRA to leave.