Dakota County park plans to preserve Native American history

Erin Adler, Star Tribune
·3 min read

The first slide of a presentation on plans for Dakota County's Spring Lake Park Reserve shows a picture of rolling prairie and says simply: "This is a Dakota place."

The words aren't referencing the suburban county's name, but the cultural and spiritual significance of much of the park's 1,100 acres to Native Americans.

"There's no other place in our park system like this," said Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik. "This is the history that so many people in Dakota County don't know."

Plans for the park's future — including more paved trails, interpretative elements telling the land's story, habitat restoration and even a herd of buffalo — intend to honor that history, in part by developing formal relationships with tribal representatives and consulting with them as projects move forward and construction begins.

The reserve is located in eastern Dakota County and features bluffs towering 150 feet above the Mississippi River. A preliminary master plan is divided into a $4.9 million five-year plan, a $6.3 million 10-year plan and a $14.8 million long-term plan. Funding for the first phase will come from county, state and Metropolitan Council funds, said Steve Sullivan, the county's parks director.

A public comment period, during which residents can share thoughts on drafts of the park's natural resources plan and master plan, is open through April 4.

County officials met with Minnesota's four Dakota tribes six times to ensure the park's draft plans both protect and acknowledge the story of important sites in Spring Lake Park, including areas along the Mississippi River where Dakota people lived in villages, held ceremonies and buried their relatives for 8,000 years.

"We knew from our very first visit to Spring Lake Park that it was a very special place and that there were a lot of sites there that were previously undocumented," said Samantha Odegard, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Upper Sioux Community. "They have a history that goes back to [our] creation."

A survey completed by the Upper Sioux in September 2020 found even more "traditional cultural properties" than county or tribal officials expected, mostly on the park's eastern side, she said.

In addition to the park's significance to Native people, the Schaar farm property nods to the area's agricultural use after European settlers arrived.

The park's two main areas, Schaar's Bluff or Upper Spring Lake in the east and Lower Spring Lake to the west, are now connected by the Mississippi River Greenway Trail. Long-term plans for the Upper Park include expanded trails, more parking and picnic and play areas along with river access near Schaar's Bluff and an improved gathering center and trailhead near Schaar's farm. In the Lower Park, hike-in campsites, access to the river, outdoor classrooms and interpretative features are planned, including an interpretative center.

Habitat restoration is planned throughout the park and little development will occur in the middle besides a trail. Up to 15 bison from the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, a collaboration between the Minnesota Zoo and the DNR, will help manage the park's restored prairie.

Odegard said she appreciates the emphasis on habitat restoration and noted the Dakota people's "special tie" to bison. She said she favors their return as long as they're given the appropriate amount of space.

The Upper Sioux Community is receiving an increasing number of requests to review park plans across the metro area and state, Odegard said.

"I think Dakota County's doing a good job," she said. "They are setting a good example."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781