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.
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place in Dakota history and culture are suspect and must be supported by documentation produced by European-American historical documents in order to be accepted by the Park Service.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 MinnesotaHistory.net 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.