Published as the cover story in THE NEWSLETTER OF SACRED SITES INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION SITE SAVER, Volume XI, Number 1, Fall 2000.

Saving Coldwater
by Susu Jeffrey

In Minnesota, between Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Mississippi River is joined by the Minnesota River around a triangle island in the middle of a broad river valley carved by glacier melt 10,000 years ago. Pike Island, where the two rivers become one, is the omphalos (emergence place) of the Dakota Nation whose people migrated here 400 years ago. They called it Mendota, the meeting of waters.

The island lies below the towering bluffs that line the Mississippi River forming the only true gorge on its 2300-mile length. Atop the bluff stands a bald prairie hill, a great prominence with a commanding view. Taku Wakan Tipi (Dwelling Place of the Gods, literally Something Powerful/Sacred Dwells Here) was the site of Dakota sky burials. Artist Seth Eastman painted a watercolor in 1847 depicting two native mourners near three platforms, with perhaps multiple bodies on each. The Dakota practice was to allow the birds to pick the bones clean, and after a year, the bones would be buried in Mother Earth.

Out of that hill Coldwater Spring flows at 144,000 gallons a day forming a creek, wetland and waterfall on its path down the gorge to the Mississippi. The hill and spring are typical of sacred landscape, a famous Western example being Glastonbury Tor in England, out of which pours Chalice Well near the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

Unk Te He is the name of the powerful Dakota water god who roams the mysterious underground waterpaths from the hilltop down to the river. The spring water is considered medicine and Unk Te He honored as a medicine god. There are stories of young men's initiation rites, their birth into manhood, using a tunnel in Taku Wakan Tipi that descends to the Mississippi.

Minnehaha Falls, a spectacular 53-foot drop, is just 2-miles upstream of the triangle island with Coldwater Spring between. This waterscape along the west bank of the Mississippi, from the falls to the spring to the confluence of rivers, became America's first state park in 1889.

"We know that the falls which came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, was a sacred place, was a neutral place, a place for many nations to come," Eddie Benton Benais, fullblood Anishinabe from northern Wisconsin and Grand Chief of the Mdewiwin Lodge (Medicine Society), said in court-ordered testimony (3/19/99). "Between the falls and that point (where the rivers meet) there were sacred grounds that were mutually held to be a sacred place. And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far.that there's a spring, near the Lodge, that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremony."

"It is difficult to even estimate when the last sacred ceremony was held inter-tribally there," Benais continued. "My grandfather who lived to be 108, died in 1942 (born 1834). Many times he retold how we traveled, how he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious, spiritual events. And that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place."

Benais identified the Anishinabe (Ojibwe) along with the Dakota Nation, the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie), and the Potowatamie as mutually using the land and agreeing "that it is forever a neutral place and forever a sacred place." For peoples of the upper Mississippi watershed the confluence was the natural trade and transportation hub, also the place were the prairie from the west meets the hardwood forest of the east. Coldwater is a remnant ancient sacred landscape, home of the gods, place of ceremonies, dramatic beauty, power and peace.

Coldwater is also the birthplace of Minnesota, home (1820) to the soldiers who built Fort Snelling at the point above the rivers, and attracted settlers who founded St.

Paul and Minneapolis. Across the bluff at the town called Mendota, a state archaeologist found a 9,000-year old flint spear point designed to bring down a bison twice the size of today's buffalo.

The top of Taku Wakan Tipi was bulldozed to accommodate the international airport. Planes rumble over Coldwater spring and reservoir. A new highway was cut through Minnehaha Park's prairie savannah dewatering some of the flow to the falls, possibly to Coldwater too, and destroying a historic stand of gnarly bur oak trees.

The Four Trees were the most precious of the urban grove of Quercus macrocarpa ("oak, big fruit") that stretched from the falls to the springs. Oak savannah that used to border the Mississippi River covered 10-percent of the state, now down to .02-percent. Bur oak has the largest leaves and nuts of the six species of oaks in Minnesota-and the sweetest fruit. You can eat bur oak nuts right off the ground (check for worms), you don' t have to soak the bitter tannic acid out.

The Four Trees were planted, experts agree, because they were unnaturally close together for a prairie tree with a huge root system. And these particular oaks were growing in the four cardinal directions.

In federal court (12/17/99) the state offered expert evidence that dated the four bur oaks at 137 tree rings, too young to have been used in burial ceremonies for Dakota people expelled from the area in the 1830s. The point is moot the lawyer said, because the trees were cut down (the previous Saturday morning after arresting nonviolent defenders). Exactly 137-years ago the Dakota Uprising of 1862 occurred resulting in a reported 644 white settler deaths. Native deaths were not recorded. Most Dakota people were forced to relocate west to Nebraska and South Dakota.

"Our people traditionally planted what is called 'marker trees' to identify sacred sites," said Bob Brown, chairman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. His ancestors were among the local "friendlies" who stayed as "squatters" on their traditional land and who do not have federal status. A decorated Maypole and other European-American pagan religious paraphernalia were quietly removed from the Four Trees when Indian people rediscovered the area.

The mysterious underground flow to Coldwater Spring (Unk Te He) pours on-even with a stormwater sewer cut into the bedrock under the entire length of the new road. However seeps along the bluff are drying up. (In winter seeps show as icicles growing down the Mississippi gorge.) Most threatening, a pump test for the proposed new highway interchange showed a fall in Coldwater's discharge.

The interchange includes a stormwater pond at a lower elevation than the outflow to Coldwater. Studies indicate the pond would reverse the flow of groundwater, draining a quarter of the water to the spring-43,000 gallons a day. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)-designed interchange would allow drivers to avoid a traffic light and save three minutes getting to the airport. A light rail transit line from downtown Minneapolis to the airport is planned to parallel the new road at a (constantly escalating) cost approaching $1-billion.

The airport has started dewatering for the first of 8-10 planned tunnels. This very controversial pumping underground water out of bedrock is affecting city lakes and Minnehaha Creek. One projection is to pump out 9,000-gallons a minute. Much of that area is on the west side of Taku Wakan Tipi, in the Minnesota River watershed. But surface water and (under) "ground" water do not always take the same path. Call it mysterious spirit or incomplete science, no one knows the source(s) of Coldwater. Since 1957 when the road was first conceived there has never been a hydrology study to determine the path of water to the spring. Furthermore there has been no discussion of the cumulative effects of the cuts into Coldwater's flow.

The birthplace of Minnesota and the Dakota Nation is federal land (former military reserve, now Bureau of Mines-Department of the Interior). Coldwater is "a dream archaeological site" according to Bruce M. White, Ph.D., historical anthropologist at the University of Minnesota . The historic state marker at Camp Coldwater only mentions white history. Dred Scott, the African-American whose suit for freedom was denied by the US Supreme Court in 1857, walked here. In fact Dred Scott based his reach for freedom on residency at Fort Snelling (between 1836-40) in the free territory that became Minnesota where slavery was illegal. The fort got their water from the spring for a hundred years. Water wagons hauled water in barrels until the well tower, pump house and reservoir were built after the Civil War.

The scars of the water wagon road are still visible dents in the land behind Coldwater. Between 1959-1991 it was a Cold War research facility, a military-university complex. The land can't be developed in the sense of riverfront condos. It's in the airport safety (read: sacrifice) zone-nothing above the treetops. The mayor of Minneapolis signed an agreement with the airport commission (11/98) which plans to purchase the 27.3-acre property and pave seven of the flattest acres near the spring for 850 airport employee cars. If MAC (the Metropolitan Airports Commission) buys the land the federally protected "conservation easement" would include only the steep bluff, not the source of the spring or the outflow.

The $6-million for Coldwater to the Department of the Interior (DOI) has already been budgeted: $3-million to Fish & Game within DOI, $2-million for a downtown St. Paul headquarters for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, $1-million for a downtown Minneapolis interpretive center in the old lumber-flour mills district, and somehow there would be $200,000 for an archaeological study of the Coldwater area. Details may change, native people may be offered special access for ceremonies inside the fenced, locked area, but this is the deal as of October 2000 .

MAC is flush with money, power and attorneys. They buy any land for sale in the vicinity of the airport-sometimes to use, sometimes to trade. Current airport expansion plans go 20 years into the future. Local political party machines dream of bringing the Olympics to the Twin Cities-Mall of America. Highway development killed the other major sacred spring called Great Medicine Spring which was frequented by Indian people "who came hundreds of miles to get the benefit of its medicinal qualities" Col. John H. Stevens reported in 1874. The place is still there in Theodore Wirth Park, but no water runs.

MnDOT offered to pump treated city water into the Coldwater reservoir. Unacceptable, Native American leaders replied. Without the spring, Coldwater is just a pretty view. The new highway 55 is being constructed with federal funds. Alan Steger, the federal Department of Transportation administrator in Minnesota, supports the Dakota people while denying the impact of the road on the spring. "Simply stated, the Dakota people are hoping, first, for a solution which preserves the site for future generations. That is paramount. Second, they wish to have access to, and use of, the site for ceremonial purposes..These seem to be rather modest and reasonable requests..The Federal Highway Administration has no formal role in the disposition process (of selling the land) since the property is not needed for, nor impacted by, the highway project." (2/14/00 copy of a letter to the author.)

Coldwater has been flowing five times the age of Christianity. After an intense four-year public education campaign by a coalition of neighborhood, small business, environmental and Native American groups, Coldwater is becoming too valuable to pave.

Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition opposes the sale of this historic public land. We advocate preservation rather than recreational development adjacent to a vast parking lot. We see Coldwater as a federally owned and protected site like Pipestone in western Minnesota or Mesa Verde in Colorado, with an interpretative center in the existing brick building. We envision cultural education for and about all Minnesotans. We know Coldwater as the last place in our county where we can drink the water directly from the earth. Eagles still fly here.

Please write and ask that a Traditional Cultural Property study be completed before Coldwater may be sold. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary, US Department of the Interior, 1849 C St. N.W., Washington DC 20240, and JoAnn M. Kyral, Superintendent, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, National Park Service, 111 E. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul MN 55101, 651-290-4160 x222;

Ask the federal highway administration to consider the cumulative effect of the road on the spring and to withhold federal funds until a hydrology study can ascertain the flow of waters to Coldwater so the spring may be preserved: Alan R. Steger, Division Administrator, US Department of Transportation, Galtier Plaza , Box 75, 175 East Fifth Street, Suite 500, St. Paul MN 55101-2904, 651-291-6100 x109.

Please send a copy to:

Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition's website is:

Every Monday at 2 PM a prayer and pipe ceremony is held at Coldwater Spring. For information contact the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (651)-452-4141.

Susu Jeffrey is a poet and activist. Her most recent collection of poetry is "Mississippi Mother," a spoken word DC on Oar Fin Records, Minneapolis.