Bill to transfer state park land to Upper Sioux Community clears two Minnesota Senate committees

The Minnesota Senate Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee moved the bill to transfer state park land to the Upper Sioux Community along to the Transportation Committee for further consideration on a split vote.

The Yellow Medicine River meanders just upstream of its confluence with the Minnesota River in this file photo in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

ST. PAUL — Legislation to return ancestral lands to the Upper Sioux Community near Granite Falls encountered some opposition in Minnesota Senate hearings in the past week.

The legislation would transfer more than 1,000 acres in the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community, and the park would close. The land would be transferred at no cost to the community.

A fiscal report released this week indicates the cost to the state for full transfer of the land and purchasing land for a new park is estimated to cost nearly $6 million.

There is no date for the park closing yet or for the land transfer to take place. It could take several years. The fiscal report does not include a discussion of the cost of developing facilities, roads and trails in a new park.

In a Tuesday hearing, the Minnesota Senate Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee moved the bill along to the Transportation Committee for further consideration on a split vote.


Andrew Lang, Minnesota Senate
State Senator Andrew Lang
Minnesota Legislature

On Friday, the Transportation Committee adopted an amendment appropriating $1.2 million in fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1.

The appropriation would pay for costs related to preparing for the transfer, including removing the Yellow Medicine River Bridge and a section of what used to be state Highway 67 near the park. The road has been damaged — resulting in the rerouting of a portion of Highway 67 to avoid the failed area — and the bridge is in danger due to ground movement in the area.

The committee referred the bill back to the Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee.

Upper Sioux Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold has testified at committee hearings about the land’s past as a site of starvation and genocide. When promised payments from the government weren’t delivered to the Dakota on time, people starved.

The park’s land was the site of battles in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The ancestral land has many burial sites and other locations that are sacred to his people, Jensvold said.

He said he’s talked about and asked for the land transfer for 18 years, since he became chairman.

The Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee hearing brought some pointed comments about the plan.


Many came from Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, who is familiar with the Minnesota River Valley, where the park is located.

Lang noted that some who use the park or live near it hadn’t heard about the legislation before it was introduced.

Lang said he heard about the proposed transfer from a local reporter, and he told Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, who represents the park.

“I have an issue with that, when it’s not done with full transparency,” he said.

He’d have preferred “you had come to me and said we worked with the city of Granite Falls, we worked with the agency (Department of Natural Resources), we worked with the tribe, and we’re all in agreement,” he said.

To the suggestion of Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston, that the park needn’t be replaced, Lang said, “I think it does have to be replaced.” Green had said he believed the state had too much public land.

DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier also said federal law would require that the recreational opportunities in the park be replaced.

Upper Sioux Agency State Park IMG_5057.JPG
The Upper Sioux Agency State Park is located at the confluence of the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota Rivers. A hiking trail in the park leads to this scenic view of the Yellow Medicine River.
West Central Tribune file photo

Lang said he understands the land’s importance to the Upper Sioux Community, but said the state would be giving up historically significant land worth $4 million.


Lang said he has spent many hours working with others to develop campsites and trails in the river valley, and the state has spent millions developing recreational opportunities there.

Land called the river valley a “gem” in southwestern Minnesota. “When you come from the prairie, and you look down in the river valley,” he said, “you don’t realize it’s there until you’re there.”

The bill’s author, Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said she was upset with Lang’s attitude toward the land.

“These are sacred lands,” she said. “If it’s a battlefield; honestly, should it be used for recreation? People died there.”

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Stephanie Chappell of Glencoe testified at the first hearing of the week and submitted a written statement for the second. She said she spoke on behalf of descendants of white settlers who also died in the 1862 war.

“That entire area is burial grounds,” she said. Hundreds of European Americans are buried in unmarked graves there.

If the land is turned over to the Upper Sioux Community, descendants may not be able to honor their ancestors on the land, she said.

A second note of opposition to the land transfer was in a statement filed with the Transportation Committee by Curtis Dahlin, of Roseville. He urged that “any and all burials” on the land be recognized and be accessible to people who wish to pay their respects.


“All graves are equally important, regardless of the race of the person,” he wrote.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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