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.”

Spiritual symbolism

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.

The mounds symbolize pregnancy, or the womb. Below the mounds is a closely linked cave the Dakota called “wakan tipi,” or “spirit house,” that the Europeans later called Carver’s Cave after explorer Jonathan Carver. From this cave, its walls covered in ancient drawings, was the genesis — the birth — of the Dakota.

From the mounds, the dead were to return to their place in the stars. When a mound is destroyed, Rock said, that spiritual transition is disrupted.

“It cuts us off from that star-Earth connection,” he said.

The cave is now part of the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary adjacent to Indian Mounds Park, a 27-acre former ­industrial area undergoing its own transformation. The cave is sealed over, and part of it was blown up to make room for rail lines operated by James J. Hill, whose mansion, perhaps ironically now, also is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rock, an astronomer who has worked on projects for NASA and, like Gould, an educator, is hoping a planetarium explaining the Dakota ­cosmology will be part of the sanctuary’s plans.

Cloaked in mystery

Though the Dakota are known to have added to the burial mounds, it was their predecessors who first built them, said Mather, the archaeologist.

The exact age of the mounds is difficult to determine, but the best guess is that the first sacred earthworks were built atop the 200-foot cliff around 200 B.C. The oldest mounds were created over the next 500 years. The excavations since show they continued to be used into at least the 18th century.

Mather cringes at the thought of how the first excavations were done — unacceptable by today’s standards, even if they were to be allowed. They were done hurriedly and sloppily, mostly by digging a simple trench. The artifacts, however, most of which remain at the Historical Society, are the only glimpse of the people who made them.

The listing process was valuable in adding to that historic record, Mather added. Ground-penetrating radar was used to study the mounds without disturbing the earth, and some of those discoveries added to the understanding of the mounds.

“That was exciting,” he said. “And it’s going to help the St. Paul Park and Recreation Department in terms of their long-term stewardship of the site into the future.”