The Prairie Island Indian Community has known for decades where the bodies of its Dakota ancestors are buried: within A.P. Anderson Park in Red Wing.
Thanks to a recent agreement with the city of Red Wing, the burial mounds in that park west of downtown on Hwy. 61 are on their way to being restored.
The city of Red Wing shuttered a dog park inside A.P. Anderson last week as part of a plan to reclaim the land for Dakota use. City officials are also in the process of tearing down old playground equipment built in the 1960s over an area where mounds are suspected, following state guidelines.
Red Wing Mayor Mike Wilson said the project is a natural extension of the work done over the past year to teach the community about its Dakota roots.
"It's been a very educational year," Wilson said.
It's the first step in a vision to make it part of an educational area for the community. Prairie Island officials envision a green space and potentially reconstructing the burial mounds, though revamping the park is likely years away.
"That's the conversation we can have when there's tribal voices at the table," Franky Jackson of Prairie Island's Tribal Historic Preservation Office said.
The project is decades in the making. The mounds were first recorded in 1885 by T.H. Lewis, the first archaeologist to systematically survey historical sites in Minnesota. Lewis surveyed more than 12,000 mounds throughout the state in the 1880s and 1890s.
There used to be about 3,000 mounds in the Red Wing area, but almost all of them have been lost over the years as the city was built over them. But the mounds that remain date back hundreds of years, some as old as 2,000 years, according to Jackson.
Area Dakota have urged Red Wing for decades to preserve the burial mounds at A.P. Anderson Park. There was some work done in the 1980s and 1990s to map out Dakota cemeteries, but the city didn't take action at that time.
The city and Prairie Island didn't come together on historical projects in the area until 2019, when the city moved to prohibit graffiti on He Mni Can (pronounced heh-meh-NEE-cha), a bluff along the Mississippi River.
Known to residents as Barn Bluff, the area is considered sacred Dakota ground. Since then, Red Wing and Prairie Island have partnered to recognize He Mni Can. The groups signed a memorandum of understanding in 2022 to preserve more historic and culturally significant spots in the community, including the burial ground at A.P. Anderson.
Michelle Leise, a community liaison for the city of Red Wing, said the city has failed in the past to respect Dakota land but the renewed relationship is bringing benefits to both sides.
"This is a different time, and so we just look at this differently than before," she said. "I can't really speak to the past but I do know the work that we've done over the past five years."
City officials knew the playground equipment obstructed some of the burial mounds in the area, but they only learned about the dog park issues in August. The city has put up a temporary dog park nearby and plans to install a replacement park sometime next year.
For Jackson, the burial mound project means a new opportunity for area Dakota to learn about their own history.
"We all have a greater responsibility to be better stewards," Jackson said.