With fundraising halfway there, Wakan Tipi Center planning is on

The future Wakan Tipi Center will be built to the southeast of the Kellogg Boulevard bridge in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. With more than half of a needed $6.7 million raised for the center, the Lower Phalen Creek Project has been holding meetings to work on community goals for the future facility. (courtesy of Google Maps)

Creating an interpretive center at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary has been a goal of the Lower Phalen Creek Project for more than a decade.

Now, as the organization is more than halfway to fulfilling its funding goals for the center and the project is becoming more real, it’s holding a series of community visioning sessions to establish the needs and goals the center will meet.


The 27-acre nature sanctuary is located below the bluffs that make up Indian Mounds Regional Park along the Mississippi River. It can be accessed from Commercial Street and falls within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

Before European settlers came, the area was a sacred to the Dakota people. It included Wakan Tipi cave, Kaposia Village and the burial mounds on top of the bluff, which make up the regional park. The sanctuary was also the floodplain where Phalen Creek and Trout Brook emptied into the river.

It was industrialized and part of Wakan Tipi cave was destroyed when James J. Hill, the St. Paul railroad baron, built rail lines along the river in the 1800s. The railroads partially abandoned the area in the 1970s and the land was left polluted, becoming a dumping ground. 

Dan McGuiness, a former executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and its current board chair, said that in 1997 the East Side and Lowertown neighbors came together to work to reclaim the land and create the nature sanctuary. 

The City of St. Paul in 2002 purchased the land from the railroads and adopted a community-created plan to restore the area. 

As volunteers worked to clean up garbage and plant native flora, the idea of an interpretive center started to form, McGuiness said, and it’s been a goal for the Lower Phalen Creek Project since about 2005. 

Early concepts for the center included rehabbing an old Standard Oil building that was on the site, though McGuiness said the renovations were too costly and the building was torn down in 2015. 

The organization is working to fundraise about $6.7 million using both public and private cash to create what is tentatively being called the Wakan Tipi Center, McGuiness said. Last year the project received $3 million in bonding from the state and another $1 million from a series of private donors, pushing the capital campaign over its halfway mark. 

With that milestone met, the Lower Phalen Creek Project is now working on more extensive community planning and has hired architect Sam Olbekson of Full Circle Indigenous Design and Cunningham Group to help envision what the center will actually look like. 


Looking to the community

During a May 23 meeting, the third of its kind, about 20 community members gathered at the East Side Enterprise Center in Dayton’s Bluff to learn more about the project. They shared their thoughts on what the nature sanctuary means to them and what purpose they see the future center serving. 

Maggie Lorenz, the interim executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and a Dakota community member, said the first two meetings focused on connecting with the Dakota community specifically and how the center could honor Dakota culture. 

As described on the Lower Phalen Creek Project website, the primary objective of the project is to “serve and involve the Dakota people,” because of the project’s location on ancestral Dakota lands and its proximity to the sacred site of Wakan Tipi. The center will fulfill that objective by creating a place that serves to educate about Dakota culture and the natural features of the sanctuary.

Barry Frantum, Dakota himself and a Lakota language teacher at Harding High School, gave a brief history of the site and explained what it means to the Dakota people. 

“Whatever was there that made it sacred is still there,” he said, adding he hopes the center will help the Dakota community reconnect to the place. “Instead of social justice, think of this as leaving something proper for your grandkids.”

At the end of the meeting, visitors cycled through a number of tables, answering a series of questions posed by architect Olbekson. They included how the center can honor the community and environment, what they believe are successful design features, how they want visitors to feel, what kind of activities they’d like to see and what their highest hope is for the center. 

Many of the answers carried similar themes — creating a space that honors and educates about Dakota culture, creating a peaceful feel for the center and having culturally specific programming led by native community members. Other themes included creating an environmentally sustainable building and using native flora to landscape around it. 

Responses also included a desire to make the center welcoming to all through accessibility for all types of abilities and an overall atmosphere of inclusivity. 

To stay up to date about the project or to learn more, go to www.lowerphalencreek.org.


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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