The ancients who began building them at least 2,000 years ago knew the spot at the crest of Dayton’s Bluff overlooking the majestic bend in the Mississippi River was special. And holy.
But then came the European settlers, who saw the curious mounds of earth scattered on the promontory as an obstacle to otherwise prime property with panoramic views of St. Paul.
“Mound bulldozed to improve view,” reads one planner’s cold notation.
It has taken long and sometimes painful decades for a shift in attitudes toward the burial sites at Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul. But finally, they have been afforded a full measure of official respect: The mounds recently were placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.
“It’s really just a recognition of their historic significance, that they are worthy of preservation,” said David Mather, who is the National Register archaeologist with the Minnesota Historical Society, which long pursued formal approval for the listing.
The mounds, a remnant of thousands clustered in groups along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers lost to settlement, and the last left in the Twin Cities, were regarded as historically important and eligible for the register as far back as the early 1980s.
“We thought it was past time to do that,” Mather said.
The new status affords the mounds a small measure of federal protection, he said, but a state law passed in 1976 — the Private Cemeteries Act — goes far beyond that to prevent any further harm to the sites.
The six remaining burial mounds are part of an original group of 18, and only one has never been disturbed. Another group of 19 mounds located farther to the northwest, according the Historical Society, were obliterated before becoming part of the park, which was developed in the 1890s.
While mostly being an important symbolic step, the listing of the burial mounds on the register also has some practical advantages for the city as it works to implement plans for park improvements drawn up in 2012, said Ellen Stewart, landscape architect with St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation Department. Even though the park is not part of the historical designation, the listing of the mounds could open up access to grant money that would otherwise be unavailable.
“We appreciate the fact that we’ve got this wonderful historic site in one of our parks,” Stewart said, adding that the mounds define the park. “We want to protect them.”
Jim Rock, a Dakota Indian who grew up in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side and was steeped in the traditions of his ancestors, hopes the designation brings new appreciation for what the mounds mean.
He and his wife, Roxanne Gould, who is Odawa/Ojibwe, often lead groups of other indigenous groups — like Maoris from New Zealand or Basques from the region between Spain and France — on tours of the mounds. The story of the mounds, and how the spiritual values of the descendants of mound builders were cruelly shunted aside, resonates with them.
“It seems like, locally, people don’t see it in that global context,” Rock said.
The profound mix of pain and anger, expressed best by Rock in Dakota, over how the burial sites have been treated can only be understood against the backdrop of a Dakota spiritual tradition bound in the notion of people being in harmony with the Earth’s natural elements, such as trees, rocks and rivers.
The natural features where the mounds are located helped explain the origins of the Dakota people, he said. The region around the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, known as “bdote” in Dakota (giving the city of Mendota its name), is where Rock’s people first descended from the stars, the center of the Earth.
“When we see the mounds, we think of death, but we also think of birth,” Rock said.