Report: "High potential" of uncovering American Indian artifacts at Boys Totem Town

Shannon Prather, Star Tribune
·3 min read

There's a "high potential" of uncovering archaeological evidence of centuries-old American Indian life at the now-shuttered Boys Totem Town campus on St. Paul's East Side, a new report concludes.

A St. Paul community preservation group and the Lower Phalen Creek Project, an American Indian-led nonprofit, hired outside researchers to study the possible cultural and archaeological significance of the former juvenile detention campus in hopes of turning it into a park or natural area. Ramsey County, which has owned the lightly developed 72-acre tract of land for more than a century, agreed to the examination.

According to the carefully worded 48-page report completed by the consulting firm 106 Group, the potential for "archaeological resources" is high due to the "extensive use of the entire Mississippi River channel by the Dakota." Specifically, the report indicates that a higher-elevation spot on the property near a long-rumored burial mound has high potential of containing archaeological artifacts.

The report describes the site as a "rare gem" and "one of the last mostly undisturbed places along the Mississippi River in Ramsey County."

Maggie Lorenz, Lower Phalen Creek Project executive director, said the report is a good first step that should fuel more investigation and possibly some archaeological work.

"The preliminary findings indicate there is something there worthy of more investigation," said Lorenz, who has both Dakota and Ojibwe ties and is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. "We would like to continue to engage the community, the city and the county about the findings and see what we can do with our next steps."

The former Boys Totem Town site is just up the bluffs from the historic Kaposia Village and south of the sacred Dakota Burial Mounds and Wakan Tipi in St. Paul. There have long been rumors that former Totem Town staff stumbled upon artifacts and mounds on the site over the years, Lorenz said.

The report also highlights the potential historic significance of the detention campus, which includes buildings that date to the 1930s.

County leaders have been discussing the future of the property with neighbors and St. Paul leaders for years. Commissioner Jim McDonough, who represents the area, has said he welcomes the research of the site.

Ramsey County operated Boys Totem Town, originally known as Ramsey County Home for Boys, for more than a century. The campus became known as Totem Town in the 1950s after staff and teens began harvesting trees from the property, carving them into decorative poles and displaying them at the entrance. Totems are not part of Dakota culture.

The county closed the facility in the Highwood Hills neighborhood in 2019 after determining that troubled teens were often best served at home in their communities. Some want the site to remain a natural and historic site, but others see it as an opportunity to build affordable housing that could serve the community once most likely to be detained at Boys Totem Town — youth and families of color.

A Minnesota Historical Society Legacy Grant of about $10,000 was awarded for research at the Totem Town site. The report relies on documents, including historic maps and photos, articles and historical records. Researchers also took a brief site tour but did no digging or on-the-ground testing.

Patty McDonald, lead organizer with the Boys Totem Town Land Preservation Group, said the county shouldn't squander this opportunity to preserve the property, given its history and natural attributes — a portion of the property is an oak savanna, she said.

"We will never get this back," said McDonald, who is working to raise awareness of the property and its potential. "Once it's gone, it's gone."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037