On Nov. 14, 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence and 40 years before Lewis and Clark trekked to the Pacific, an English army captain by the name of Jonathan Carver arrived at a bluff along the Mississippi River and made contact with American Indians near a “Great Cave.”
Now, Greg Brick, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and something of a cave enthusiast, is trying to get St. Paul and state officials to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Carver’s first contact at Wakan Tipi, the cave that is a key spiritual site for the native people who gathered here for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
He’s not having much luck.
“What gives?” Brick asked while standing outside the cave, just a short distance east of downtown St. Paul. Once known as Carver’s Cave, it was a tourist attraction, but is now blocked by locked steel doors. “This should be a big deal.”
It is a big deal, agreed Jim Rock, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side and whose father was among the last “full blood, first language Dakota speakers.” Wakan Tipi was a sacred meeting place, with animal petroglyphs on the inside of the cave walls. Those pictures were destroyed when the railroads blasted away part of the bluff more than a century ago to expand the rail yard.
So the significance is not because of Carver, Rock said.
“It’s kind of our cosmic belly button in Mother Earth. A place here on Earth that matches a place in the stars,” Rock, an Augsburg College faculty member and planetarium program director at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “For so long, we had white appropriation of our sacred sites — named and claimed. It is progress that we have moved away from Carver ‘discovering’ it.”
Carver, who was born in Massachusetts, came to the area after it was ceded to the British following the French and Indian War. He wrote about the cave in his 1778 book “Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America.”
Brick said he understands that officials today are loathe to continue marking history from a European perspective. But Carver’s journey to the Mississippi was significant and should be noted, he said.
“He traveled 5,000 miles by foot, by horse, by boat, to get here and back,” said Brick, who’s gone spelunking in the cave dozens of times.
St. Paul officials are aware of the anniversary but not planning to commemorate it. There will be a fundraising event on Nov. 16 by the Lower Phalen Creek Project, a partner with the city for the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Wakan Tipi is located in the sanctuary and officials hope to build an interpretive center nearby.
John Anfinson, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, said federal officials also are not planning to commemorate the date, noting “there is this issue of discovery and invasion. How does celebrating the anniversary of Carver play into that context?”
Still, Anfinson said, Carver’s descriptions of the petroglyphs, of Wakan Tipi and the area’s Dakota people help tell a story “we might not know if he had not been here.”
Rock, who has for 20 years helped officials clean up and reclaim the Vento site around Wakan Tipi, said he is pleased that people are finally beginning to recognize and appreciate the significance of the site.
“At least we’re softening the appropriation language,” he said. “Can we use the anniversary date to see the connectedness and stop the damage?”