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 2½-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 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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; email@example.com
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send a copy to: email@example.com
Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition's website is: www.preservecampcoldwater.org
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.