A St. Paul neighbors group and a Native American-led nonprofit have hired researchers to study the possible cultural, historical and environmental significance of the former Boys Totem Town juvenile detention campus in hopes of turning it into a park or natural area.

Ramsey County, which has owned the lightly developed 72-acre tract of land for more than a century, has agreed to the examination.

The nonprofit Lower Phalen Creek Project is partnering with the grassroots Boys Totem Town Land Preservation Group to research whether the land may be significant to Dakota people, who lived in the area until their forced removal in the 1860s, said Maggie Lorenz, Lower Phalen Creek Project executive director.

The former Boys Totem Town site is just up the bluffs from the historic Kaposia Village and south of the sacred Dakota Burial Mounds and Wakan Tipi in St. Paul. There are rumors that former Totem Town staff had stumbled upon artifacts and mounds on the site over the years, Lorenz said.

“It stands to reason there might be some cultural artifacts and possible burial mounds at that site,” she said.

Ramsey County closed Boys Totem Town last year, and there’s been much community speculation about the future of the property. Both groups are advocating that the property, which includes an oak savanna, be used as a park or natural space that acknowledges and honors Dakota history.

“All of us would love to see it developed as a nature and interpretive center with trails,” said Patty McDonald, lead organizer with the Boys Totem Town Land Preservation Group. “It’s good for our health. It’s good for our community. It’s good for education. There are a ton of really good reasons to keep it as a green space.”

McDonald, a schoolteacher who has also worked as a naturalist, said her group includes about 40 families.

A Minnesota Historical Society Legacy Grant of about $10,000 has been awarded to research the Totem Town site in the Highwood Hills neighborhood. The study conducted by 106 Group, a cultural resource consulting firm, will examine literature and documents, including historic maps and photos, scholarly articles and historical records. It should be completed by year’s end.

If clues turn up, an on-the-ground archaeological examination could be the next step, Lorenz said. She said county leaders have been receptive to the study.

“My sense is they understand this site could provide the potential for more outdoor recreational space, add to the green capital we have on the East Side of St. Paul and be a draw for people to come to this community,” Lorenz said.

County leaders have been discussing the future of the property with neighbors and St. Paul leaders.

“We’re happy to participate by providing access to the Boys Totem Town site for this important research that supports the project team’s focus on the Dakota people,” said Commissioner Jim McDonough, who represents the area.

Lorenz said the same research process was followed in identifying the Wakan Tipi site in St. Paul.

Wakan Tipi is the Dakota name for a cave in Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

The cave, which once contained petroglyphs, is considered a sacred place by the Dakota people.

Lower Phalen Creek Project is partnering with the Prairie Island Indian Community to have Wakan Tipi listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The nonprofit and city of St. Paul plan to break ground on a new interpretive center that should open by 2022.

Ramsey County operated Boys Totem Town, originally known as Ramsey County Home for Boys, from 1908 until 2019.

The campus became known as Totem Town in 1957 after staff and teens began harvesting trees from the property, carving them into decorative poles and displaying them at the entrance.

“Totems are not part of Dakota culture. That’s a Northwest tribe thing,” said Lorenz, who has both Dakota and Ojibwe ties and is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.

“It’s kind of a big eye roll. It would be inappropriate in this era. It’s definitely antiquated.”

The county closed the campus last year after determining troubled teens were often best served at home in their communities.