Marjorie Pitz's regular strolls along the burial mounds and dramatic river bluff of Indian Mounds Park fill her with reverence for the ancient remains and artifacts that still lie beneath the ground.
But the city's plan to realign paths away from the mounds in an effort to treat the American Indian burial ground with respect goes too far, according to Pitz and other neighbors, and ignores those who want to preserve access to some of the more dazzling vistas of St. Paul.
"It's the power of the place that made those burial mounds be placed there," she said. "The power of the place should be available to anybody who visits the park."
Others say the changes, recommended by the state's historic preservation office and Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, are giving the mounds the deference they deserve.
Franky Jackson, compliance officer with the Prairie Island Indian Community, said he's seen people drinking alcohol and using drugs in the park, hidden by the trails that meander through the sacred mounds.
"In our community, Indian Mounds Park is a cemetery and should be treated as one," he said.
The $2.5 million trail reconstruction project is the subject of a public meeting Monday, at 5 p.m. at the Marian Care Center, 200 Earl St., St. Paul. And, while public comment is still being taken, construction on the trail that runs through the 111-acre park could begin next spring.
Established in 1893, Indian Mounds Regional Park is home to six Indian burial mounds high atop 450 million-year-old limestone and sandstone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. The burial site spans at least two American Indian cultures — ancient people known as the Hopewell and, more recently, the Dakota — and is just upriver from where the first historic Kaposia village site was once located.
Anthropologists believe the earliest mounds were built 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. At least 37 mounds once stood along the bluffs of the Mounds Park area. Only six remain.
Planning for the trail project began with the park's 2011 master plan, which identified needed improvements including trail segments that hug the river bluff that are in danger of eroding, said Brett Hussong, project manager for the city. At that time, plans also included putting in a splash pad water play area, he said.
But those plans were scuttled after Dakota tribal officials objected to a water park on sacred ground. More than $660,000 in state funding was reallocated to conduct a "cultural landscape study" to better understand the park's importance to Indians and to find ways to improve how it reflects Native culture.
"I think we are realizing the significance of the site to other people who were here before us," Hussong said.
That study continues, officials say. But recent scans of flat areas near the mounds prompted officials to make other adjustments to the trail.
"They found a lot more anomalies at this site than what has been identified," said Noah White, historic preservation officer for the Prairie Island Indian Community. Those anomalies could be burial chambers below ground or other associated burial features adjacent to the mounds that haven't yet been identified, he said.
The result: Plans now route most of the trail along Mounds Boulevard, far to the east of the bluff and mound area, with a couple of trail spurs for bluff access.
Neighbors who savor strolling along the bluff and through and among grass-covered mounds ringed by wrought iron fences aren't happy.
"I think they need to listen to a more diverse group of people," said Ann Gehrt, who lives nearby. She said the project could end up restricting park access in a neighborhood with a high concentration of poverty and households where English isn't spoken.
"No neighborhood needs a beautiful trail with stunning views more than one with poor and diverse residents," Gehrt said.
Lisa Record, another neighbor, said the plan didn't mention removing parts of the trail until a May 14 community meeting, blindsiding neighbors. "It saddens me that they're saying this is the new focus," she said, adding that neighbors cling to hope of finding a middle ground. "Just something. My real fear is that the decision has been made without talking to us."
But there is no way to put a new trail farther away from the bluff without disturbing vital areas around the mounds, said Maggie Lorenz, director of the Wakan Tipi Center in the nearby Bruce Vento Nature Center and a member of the trail project's advisory committee. She said she understands that neighbors are unhappy, but their desires don't supersede the law when it comes to protecting and respecting Indian sites.
"A lot of them enjoy using that trail and it's hard for them to relinquish that," said Lorenz, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. "Nobody's trying to make this harder than it has to be. We're trying to find common ground — where common ground can be found."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428