A Minnesota state park built on a notorious site of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 would be closed and transferred to the Dakota under a proposed state law.
The 1,300-acre Upper Sioux Agency State Park, composed of rolling prairies and wetlands at the confluence of the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota rivers, would be returned to the Upper Sioux Community that was forced out after the war. It would mark the first time in decades that the state of Minnesota relinquished a state park.
"There are points in time where we have the opportunity to do the right thing," said state Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids. "And this is the right thing, to return this land at this time."
The park was the site of the Upper Sioux Agency, a government-run complex responsible for paying the band of Dakota the money, food and supplies owed to them under the treaties that gave the United States much of what is now Minnesota.
Those payments were rarely made as promised, Kevin Jensvold, chairman of the Upper Sioux Community, told a House committee in March. When the Dakota tried to buy food and supplies from traders at the agency on credit, they were refused, even as they approached starvation, Jensvold said.
At the Lower Sioux Agency, 40 miles downstream on the Minnesota River, trader Andrew Myrick infamously told a federal agent that he would not sell on credit, saying, "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung," according to an account from the Minnesota Historical Society.
The desperate Dakota attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, and the war began. Myrick's body would later be found with grass stuffed into his mouth. Much of the Upper Sioux Agency was also destroyed.
The war largely ended near the Upper Sioux Agency at the Battle of Wood Lake. More than 600 settlers and soldiers were killed along with an estimated 100 Dakota warriors. The government hanged 38 Dakota men after they had surrendered, the largest mass execution in the nation's history.
Lawmakers created the Upper Sioux Agency State Park in the 1960s.
"Our women, our old people and our children starved to death at the Upper Sioux Agency," Jensvold told lawmakers. "Starvation is not an overnight process. I don't think it's righteous and just that there are picnic tables there."
"This is the ugliest moment in the state of Minnesota's history with the Dakota people," he told lawmakers. "None of us were there. I wasn't there. I've heard that many times, that we should get over it. But we're here today, and we can make it right and make it known."
Jensvold didn't return phone calls seeking an interview.
While closing state parks and historic sites is rare, lawmakers have done it before. In 2017 the state transferred ownership of the 112-acre former site of the Lower Sioux Agency to the Lower Sioux Community.
Upper Sioux Agency State Park gets about 35,000 visitors a year, significantly lower than most of the 66 state parks.
The proposal to close the park came suddenly and with little public notice, said Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls and chairman of the Friends of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.
"I know the idea has floated around for a number of years, but it it had just been an idea," he said. "We were really caught off guard by this."
The war unfolded seven generations ago, he said.
"Since then there has been an absolute lack of understanding of what happened, why it happened and how we go on from here," Smiglewski said. "I don't see how closing this park will accomplish any sort of healing. How do you replace this?"
The park would need significant upgrades to continue operating, according to the DNR. Its main road washed out several years ago. Campsites frequently flood, and an outdated visitor's center needs a nearly $1 million overhaul, according to the agency.
The DNR and Minnesota Historical Society support its transfer to the 550 tribal members of the Upper Sioux Community.
"They are best suited to tell their history," said Ben Leonard, senior director of historic sites and facilities operations for the Historical Society. "This site has a deep historical connection with the Dakota and Indigenous nations for 10,000-plus years."
Closing it would be a complicated, costly and yearslong process. The park was largely acquired and built up with federal dollars. The National Park Service, among other agencies, would have to approve it. As a condition of accepting federal funds, the state will also be required to spend what it is worth on public access projects.
The DNR estimates that could cost about $5 million, most of which would be spent either buying new land or upgrading other parks and areas in the state. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen told lawmakers that the agency would use the money locally, in the Minnesota River Valley.
But Smiglewski warned that there is no guarantee or legal requirement for the DNR to spend that money near Granite Falls or Yellow Medicine County. Visitors to the park contribute a little more than $1 million a year to the local economy, he said.