Is the National Park Service racist?

When a National Park Service spokesperson in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in St. Paul compared the interest of Dakota people in the historic and culturally important Coldwater Spring, located in Hennepin County, Minnesota, to that of “Wiccans, New Agers, more-traditional religious people,” and said that Native people like all these other groups had “latched onto” Coldwater Spring as a sacred place, was that racist?

The question of whether the statement was racist and whether that reflects any overt racism on the part of the National Park Service, is perhaps less important than the fact that it was biased and that the bias was entirely representative of the position taken by the National Park Service about the cultural and historical connection of Dakota people to this spring and to other springs in the region of the Dakota homelands in Minnesota.

The historic marker, which commemorated white settlement and the military history at Coldwater Spring, in 2009. Since this photograph was taken, the marker has been removed.

In an article published in St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, concerning efforts by the Park Service to obtain federal funding to remove structures near Coldwater Spring, John Anfinson, a “Park Service historian” with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was quoted as follows:

“It will be available to everyone,” Anfinson said of the spring and the spring setting. “It will be protected. A number of people latched onto it as a sacred place. Wiccans, New Agers, more-traditional religious people, American Indians. It is a magnet for all kinds of people looking for spiritual meaning. It is the oldest feature of Fort Snelling and one of the longest used.”

This statement is consistent with the approach taken by the Park Service about Coldwater Spring. The Park Service has stated on many occasions that the statements of Dakota people that the spring had an important place in Dakota history and culture are suspect and must be supported by documentation produced by European-American historical documents in order to be accepted by the Park Service. The Park Service has often expressed the opinion that Dakota people “latched onto” Coldwater for political purposes, and that the spring has no cultural or historical importance to the Dakota. The agency has also asserted that the main importance of Coldwater Spring was as a part of the military history of Fort Snelling. The Park Service has refused to acknowledge any connection of Dakota people to Coldwater Spring, which is located on federal land, which was first built upon by the U.S. military following a treaty with Dakota people in 1805.

All of this has been subject to discussion on for several years now. What remains to be seen is at what point the Park Service will disavow the biased statements made by John Anfinson on this question. At some point the Park Service will have to do that, because the importance of the spring to  Dakota people is one of the most significant aspects of the property, one that the Park Service has already announced that it will feature in the interpretation it plans to give to the property.

Furthermore, under law, the Park Service is not allowed to equate the beliefs of Dakota and other Native people with those of Wiccans. According to the statement attributed to John Anfinson, the Park Service also would like it to be known that it will protect Coldwater Spring for all American citizens, not just for Dakota people. No special consideration will be given for Dakota or other Native people. What is not mentioned is that federal law does require that special consideration be given to Native people in relation to cultural and historic properties such as Coldwater Spring. In particular, regardless of its refusal to accept what Dakota people say about Coldwater Spring, the Park Service must make special provision for any Dakota group that finds the spring to be sacred. There is no requirement that the agency to do anything similar for Wiccans, New Agers, and more-traditional religious people. So Anfinson’s statement including Native people along with these other groups does appear to be an intentional slight.

Racist,  simply biased, or innocent of any biased intention? I’m interested in other opinions. Let me know what you think.


Is the National Park Service racist? — 15 Comments

  1. Your description of the NPS stance sure sounds like what Marty Case calls the “boat or wagon” theory of history. It all begins when someone climbs off a boat or a wagon. sigh.

    I only know what I have been taught and what I feel at ceremony at Coldwater Spring. It is sacred. It is Dakota. It is a place of peace.


  2. Anfinson’s remark is definitely prejudiced and uninformedly so. His tone, set by the use of the words “latched on,” implies that the Dakota are “johnnies come lately” and have not utilized the spring prior to the formation of Fort Snelling. Clear documentation [archealogical and literary] exists that renders his comments moot.

    In addition to having no merit, Afinson’s words are racist in the habit of certain government policy that undeniably supports and enforces the concept of “manifest destiny.” This policy has been proved over and over again to be, simply put, a rationalization for domination of one group of people over another, specifically those of European descent over those peoples indigenous to the Americas.

    More succinctly, yes, Anfinson’s comments are, indeed, racist.

  3. Racism is about just that- RACE.

    Spirituality and religion is about BELIEFS.

    Whatever one’s position is on any groups particular beliefs, race may have nothing to do with it.

    There are different groups of the same race of people, who hold different beliefs about Coldwater.

    In order for it to be racism, one must hold the same view of everyone in that race, regardless of the individual’s beliefs.

    Further, the fact that Coldwater will be open for everyone doesn’t necessarily mean that “No special consideration will be given for Dakota or other Native people.” as Bruce has written.

    Nothing in the article says specifically how the park service will treat Dakota or other Native American groups or beliefs.

    However, since Coldwater has been declared a “Sacred Site” by the Lower Sioux, there is documentation as to how the park service must treat it specifically in regards to that legal status.

    For years people would talk about Coldwater being the place for all four colors of people coming together…but now that the area is indeed a place for all, the smallest of statements are magnified to be all encompassing positions of an entire government, in an endless search for “intentional slights”.

    Instead of talking about the neutral place, a place of peace, a place for all to come together, or a sacred place, I see Coldwater used on this site like a weapon, fanning the flames of “racism”.

  4. In the context of what has happened over the last few years, in the federal process of gathering information about Coldwater Spring and making decisions about what should happen to it, the statement attributed to Anfinson is, at the very least, insulting. To categorize Native people and Dakota people as merely another interest group, with no more claim to this property than Wiccans is biased, racist, or just downright stupid. What makes it even worse is the use of the phrase “latch onto,” as Lee Bruce points out.

    Throughout this process, in weighing the issue of whether or not Coldwater Spring was a traditional cultural property, Anfinson has refused to accept the evidence of the beliefs of Dakota people without written documentation from Europeans. In the regulations TCPs are to be defined by the beliefs of the people to whom they are important. But anything provided by the Dakota people throughout this process has been discounted. To me this is what makes the statement in the article and the stance taken by Anfinson and the Park Service fundamentally racist.

  5. Is it not possible that he simply disagrees?

    If a Federally recognized tribe declares Coldwater a “Sacred Site” Anfinson has no say about it anyway. They can totally go over his head if they so choose.

    Why has Lower Sioux been the only tribe to do so? Is Coldwater not as sacred as everyone has been saying? Or does it truly have different meanings to different tribes (which could be a very legitimate status)?

    Is it possible that if everyone is so afraid or offended by any questions that might reduce Coldwater in status from the greatest spring ever, maybe that fuels a skeptics view that people are hiding something, or making things up?

    Must the motives be racism?

    Do you think it makes people who disagree about the TCP think “Gee, I must be wrong, they are calling me a racist” or “I have questions such as does testimony from X speak for the tribal beliefs, and all I have in return is lot of silence from tribal councils, and individuals who have nothing more than a bunch of names to call me”?

    Do you ever stop to think that the tactics used by supporters actually significantly contributes to the doubt of the TCP status?

  6. Tom, understand that what this government official, who has power over a place of importance to Dakota people, has said is that Dakota people, like Wiccans and New Agers have “latched onto” Coldwater Spring as a sacred place. The fact that you cannot perceive the offensive nature of this statement, regardless of whether one might view it as racist, or merely biased or even inartful, makes me question your judgment.

    Beyond that, in your defense of the National Park Service, you are simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  7. Someone named JA, with a false email address sent some comments below. Since the author declined to give a real email address, I publish these comments with my own responses included. If you have confidence in your opinions why conceal your identity?–Bruce White

    JA writes:

    I agree that it is silly to suggest that the area held no importance to the Native American people. Of course it did. The area around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota was a meeting and trading place for years before the US Army arrived, not to mention the role it played in the fur trade.

    It is equally silly to think that every native habitation point was “sacred.” I think that belittles and oversimplifies the culture and history of native peoples.

    No one ever said that. Your statement belittles the evidence presented for Coldwater as a sacred place. I suggest you take a look at the cultural study about Coldwater Spring, which is mentioned quite a bit on this site. This is the study that the Park Service chose to reject.

    The history of the area and its people is a complex one. More than one native peoples held sway over it. I can’t recall a single mention of the Coldwater site as sacred in historical references, only in contemporary ones.

    Again, take a look at the real evidence presented for Coldwater as a sacred place. You are showing your ignorance. In any case, what constitutes “historical evidence”–written European history only?

    I suspect that the Dakota and Ojibwa had a pragmatic view of the area. That does not, however, denigrate the historical connection the Dakota and others have to it.

    Your point is?

    I think the NPS was off the mark in their comments. It didn’t help, however, when some well-meaining but poorly-infomed people claimed some trees to be sacred that dated only to the highway construction of the 1960s.

    As I’ve said many times. The question about the sacredness of Coldwater Spring has nothing to do with the issue of the oak trees.

    All told, I’m happy to see the area get the attention it deserves. I just hope what’s important doesn’t get lost in all the finger pointing.

    I’m glad you are so happy. If you were a Dakota person would you be equally happy that your beliefs were equated with those of Wiccans and New Agers?

  8. I fully acknowledged that people are offended by what Anfinson said.

    Anfinson equated virtually all religions. His statement included “Wiccans, New Agers, more-traditional religious people, American Indians.”

    Yet on at least separate 4 occasion in this page, you only pick out Wiccans and New Agers specifically in the comparison to the Dakota.

    What is it about Wiccans and New Agers that you keep picking them out in particular?

    Anfinson didn’t do that.

    And when it comes to what Anfinson discounted, did he discount official tribal positions or individuals he was unable to verify if they spoke for the tribe?

    I know you question my judgment, and probably find me to be offensive.

    But try and read what people write, instead of reading into what you think they mean in your responses.

    • Tom,

      1. Anfinson stated that Native people and others “latched onto” Coldwater Spring as a sacred place. There is no way to make that into a benign statement. Does it make it any better that the groups to which he equated Native people included not only Wiccans and New Agers but more mainstream religious people too? No.

      2. In gathering information about places of importance to Dakota people it is not required that the information come only from tribal governments, as I have pointed out time and time again. We can argue the case for Coldwater Spring as a TCP once you have actually read all the evidence for it.

      3. I read exactly what people say and I put it into the context of everything else they have said. This is what historical research is all about. Your own response suggests that you would like to rationalize the offensive nature of Anfinson’s statement by looking for some possible innocent aspect of a few words here and there. I would have thought that after all the years you have spent in company with people from the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community you would have more sympathy and understanding for what Native people in Minnesota have had to put up with for 150 years, all the bias, the racism. Apparently not.

  9. This exchange proves how as a historian, you read exactly what people say.

    Why is it unsympathetic to try and move beyond the racism charge?

  10. Whether intentional or not, Anfinson’s language diminishes the significance of the connection of the Dakota to this particular place.

    Anyone involved in the preservation of this site is well aware that the Park Service, and bureaucracy in general, was reticent to accept the Dakota cultural connection to the Springs throughout the entire process, despite the overwhelming evidence.

    Coldwater Springs didn’t become “sacred” to any of these other spirit questing groups until after the Dakota revealed this place was sacred to them.

    What if it had been a Christian church we had saved from destruction… would we then turn around and claim it as our own… as everyone’s. And Wiccans, new agers, et al will determine how Christians should use that space.

    So no, Tom. there is not equal claim of co-religionists to this place and that is supported by federal law.

  11. Why is it unsympathetic to try and move beyond the racism charge?

    Because that racism charge has not been adequately redressed by the Park Service. They have discounted the Dakota cultural claim to this place from the beginning and continue to do so and need to be called on it every time.

  12. Cher, thank you for making my point- maybe people will listen to it coming from you…

    You state the NPS needs to be called “every time” on discounting Dakota cultural claims.

    Here’s an example of people NOT doing what you suggest;

    March 19, 2001, the Iowa tribe of Oklahoma declared Coldwater Spring a sacred site.

    The NPS has asked for either more info, or even a restatement of this position, why hasn’t it happened?

    It’s not like Joe Blow on the street asked about it…Like it or not, a lack of response to the NPS is a statement of it’s really not that important, or they don’t really want it restated as an official position.

    People may find the situation to be racist or offensive etc, but being offended is a sorry excuse to not continue to hand out info to the NPS.

    What if it was a Christian church as you compare?

    1. Do you think Wiccans, New Agers and traditional Dakota religionists would help to save a church, or lobby for it to be torn down?
    2. If for example someone other than Christians did save a church, then yes, I would expect that they would want to use it for their own purposes as well. I can think of numerous churches where this has actually happened.

    But Coldwater is different. It is part of the park system and a declared Sacred Site. It ALREADY HAS SPECIAL STATUS. The Lower Sioux tribe ensured that by actually responding to the NPS.

    It’s important because of so many unanswered questions on what Coldwater is and means.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.