Land transfer and closing of Upper Sioux Agency State Park draws a crowd, pleas for more communication
More information and communication were the issues at a large informational meeting about the closing of a Minnesota state park and the transfer of the land to the Upper Sioux Community.
GRANITE FALLS — A transfer of Upper Sioux Agency State Park land to the Upper Sioux Community won’t result in a loss of recreational opportunity in the area, state leaders said at an informational session Wednesday evening.
More than 200 people crowded into a room and the hall outside at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Granite Falls to hear state and tribal officials discuss the proposed transfer.
The session was hosted by Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. They said they hoped the meeting could answer people's questions.
The panel of speakers included representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Historical Society. Also on the panel were Dave Smiglewski, mayor of Granite Falls but participating in the meeting representing the park supporters’ group, and Yellow Medicine County Commissioner John Berends.
Leaders of the Upper Sioux Community for years have asked to have the park land, which is sacred to them, returned to the community, several state officials said.
Until this year, the discussion didn’t move beyond that. Now, legislation moving through the Minnesota House and Senate could lead to the land transfer.
Along with the land transfer comes the obligation, in federal law, to replace the land with a new park.
The original legislation required that “lands without restrictions” be transferred by September. However, in the first legislative hearing, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said there is very little land that would meet that criteria.
The DNR is to deliver a report to the Legislature by Dec. 15 detailing the barriers to the transfer and offering a plan for overcoming them.
Also in the bill is funding to remove the Yellow Medicine River Bridge and a section of highway past the park that was damaged by soil movement and erosion. That work will leave parts of the park isolated.
Minnesota Highway 67 through the park became impassable because of a sinkhole and has since been rerouted to avoid the failed area.
Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold explained that the community has long been interested in reclaiming the land. In the 18 years he’s been chairman, he said, it has always been an issue.
“That’s historical tribal treaty land,” he said. “We’ve been in this river valley 10,000 years.”
The land was the scene of battles in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and it contains graves and other locations that are sacred to his community, he said.
In addition to the highway and bridge problems, the interpretive center has been condemned, he said, and it makes sense to replace the park.
“As a tribe, we do not believe that that place should be viewed as recreational land,” he said. The 1862 war shaped what is happening now, he said.
The land transfer and park replacement will give all Minnesotans a new recreational opportunity, and justice can be restored to the Dakota people, he said.
About 20 people asked questions or spoke during the meeting. Most of them said they were in favor of the land transfer.
Those in favor spoke of reparations and trying to heal the wrongs of the past.
Several described the land as the site of a concentration camp where people starved and said it should be treated with more reverence.
Another general topic was what people at the meeting saw as a lack of communication before the legislation was introduced. One man said the informational meeting should have come first.
Many, including the area’s legislators, didn’t know the legislation was coming this year before it was introduced. The legislators were aware of the community’s request but had not yet agreed to carry the bill themselves.
Swedzinski said he and Dahms were “picking up sticks” after the bills were introduced. The bills were written by DFL legislators from other parts of the state.
One man said more communication is needed and asked, "Is this meeting just for show?"
Ann Pierce, DNR director of parks and trails, said the department is planning to reach out to the public to discuss next steps in developing other recreational opportunities in the area.
When someone asked who on the panel supported the transfer, Pierce said, “The governor and DNR think this is the right thing to do.”
The DNR’s job is to protect natural resources for public use, said Scott Roemhildt, DNR regional director. In the case of the Upper Sioux park, it’s protected “not because of natural resources; it’s because of what happened there.”
The legislators said they are still gathering information on the specifics of the legislation.
Later in the discussion, Smiglewski said he thought the park should remain available to all Minnesotans, “so we can learn, understand and heal from the tragic events that happened there.” If the land were replaced, he said, there's no assurance it would be in the Granite Falls area.
Berends did not express a preference, but he said he felt there was a danger of the topic creating division.
He addressed misinformation and disinformation in the area. “It’s not the duty of the Upper Sioux Community,” he said. “It is the duty of elected officials and state officials to keep us informed.”
Some speakers urged a joint operation of the park, and some said they have always used the park with respect and would like to find a way to continue using it.
When people asked how they could learn more about the 1862 war, David Kelleher, director of government relations for the Minnesota Historical Society , had a direct answer.
“Read,” he said. The historical society has information on its website and has published books about the war and the state’s history at that time.
The war grew out of desperation, Jensvold told a legislative committee last month. Promised government payments didn’t come, and the Dakota people were starving.
He called it “the ugliest moment in Minnesota history as it reflects upon the Dakota people.”