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The land near St. Anthony Falls, the birthplace of Minneapolis and a sacred site to the Indigenous people who lived there before the arrival of Europeans, is once again coming under native stewardship.

The federal government is transferring 5 acres to local control, spurring a unique development process.

Owámniyomni Okhódayapi, a nonprofit formerly known as Friends of the Falls, has selected a design team guided by Dakota knowledge keepers to conduct a consensus-based ecological restoration.

"We're working towards 100% land restoration, bringing flowing water back, bringing back species of life where they once were," said Shelley Buck, president of Owámniyomni Okhódayapi and a former Prairie Island tribal leader. "People are really excited about this and willing to change how they do business normally to make sure that this site truly does give back to all of us."

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has long owned the St. Anthony Falls lock and dam and surrounding land, including a surface parking lot, has been trying to unburden itself of the properties for several years after Congress ended river barge traffic on the stretch of the Mississippi River in an effort to stem the spread of invasive carp. No public or private organization has taken up the offer of the lock and dam because it would require upkeep in perpetuity. But the 5 acres of surrounding real estate has intrigued the city, Park Board and Indigenous community because of its historical significance and prime riverfront location.

From 2016 to 2022, a community engagement process by the Native American Community Development Institute identified development principles endorsed by Dakota tribal leadership, and a rudimentary design was drafted showing winding paths, flowing water and gathering spaces encouraging Dakota people to return and use the site in traditional ways.

This summer, Owámniyomni Okhódayapi announced Seattle-based GGN was selected to be the project's lead design team. GGN would in turn consult with a group of Dakota knowledge keepers including Jewell Arcoren, Travis Bush, Vanessa Goodthunder, Erin Griffin, Samantha Odegard, Mona Smith, Ramona Kitto Stately, Cole Redhorse Taylor, Glenn Wasicuna and Gwen Westerman to complete the design in 2025, with construction slated for 2027.

The knowledge keepers were nominated by their families as people with a good grasp of Indigenous history and values through lived experience and oral history, said Barry Hand, Owámniyomni Okhódayapi program director. Hand has been leading site tours and will eventually oversee activities open to everyone, such as canoeing, snowshoe crafting and cattail weaving, upon the project's completion.

"What we wanted from this cross-section of age groups, gender identities and educational backgrounds, whether formalized or traditional, to be the eyes and ears and voices [of the community]," he said. For example, if someone wanted to install art on the site, the group would provide the gut check on whether the piece was appropriate.

Last month the knowledge keepers convened for a brainstorming workshop where they visited places of sacred significance. An elder member suggested they ask the land if tearing it up was what it wanted before moving forward with anything else. The member was making a point that authentic Dakota development would center restoration over building new monuments, said Hand.

"He had a very good point, and so we paused and we talked about that, and that talk lasted for hours and hours and hours," he said. "It threw the day off-kilter. But if we're going to look at things through this cultural perspective, sometimes you have to back up."

“Nature has found its way back,” says Barry Hand as a bird perches itself on the dam while he gives a tour of the land that will be restored to its original Owámniyomni (St. Anthony Falls) in Minneapolis.
“Nature has found its way back,” says Barry Hand as a bird perches itself on the dam while he gives a tour of the land that will be restored to its original Owámniyomni (St. Anthony Falls) in Minneapolis.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Knowledge keeper Taylor, an artist, said that as one of the group's younger members, he's more impatient to bring the project to fruition than others.

"But also, I understand that it was such a long battle just to even get to this point where we're able to reclaim this space," he said. "There were many hoops that everyone had to jump through to even have a say. I wish it could be done faster. I wish it could have been done a long time ago. But in the end, it's going to be taken care of."

The land ownership transfer is still pending. It will transfer directly to Owámniyomni Okhódayapi after the nonprofit is designated as the city's designee. This is expected to happen in 2025.

That legal process, requiring switching between secular concepts of ownership versus traditional principles of reciprocity with the land, has been awkward, said Sam Olbekson, CEO of the Indigenous architecture firm Full Circle Planning + Design, which is working with GGN.

"A developer given a site can charge straight ahead, do their highest and best use analysis, do a cost estimate, try to cut corners and this and that, but this is such an entirely different process that's going to end up something that's has a much bigger meaning to it," he said. "One of the ways I like to talk about it is, Indigenous values don't think of land as something that can be owned. It's a relative, and you would never sell a relative, you would never buy a relative."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly explain the land transfer process.