Land transfer to Upper Sioux Community clears first step in Minnesota Legislature
Sacred, ancestral lands could be returned to the Upper Sioux Community under legislation heard Wednesday in a Minnesota Legislature committee. The transfer would close the Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls.
ST. PAUL — A bill to return ancestral lands in a state park to the people of the Upper Sioux Community is likely to become law this year.
The bill would return state-owned land in Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls to the community, thus also closing the park.
Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold spoke to the Minnesota House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Jensvold and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen explained the transfer to the committee, which voted to refer the bill to be included in an omnibus bill before the end of the 2023 session. Committee Chairman Rick Hanson, DFL-South St. Paul, said the costs associated with the bill are yet to be determined.
Strommen said the bill is only the beginning of a longer process. Public meetings will be planned later this year to discuss recreational needs in the Granite Falls area and where to provide them.
The legislation calls for unencumbered land to be transferred by Dec. 1, and a report on land with restrictions to be sent to the state by Dec. 15.
Strommen said there likely isn’t any land that isn’t restricted in some way.
An incomplete story
Jensvold, who has been chairman for 18 years, said the transfer of about 1,400 acres is the culmination of his asking three governors’ administrations to return the community’s original lands under the Traverse des Sioux Treaty of 1851.
“It truly is a story that is 160 years in the making,” he said. He said he was speaking for current tribal members, those who are yet to be born and for the ancestors who lived on the Upper Sioux Agency in the beginning.
His ancestors “engaged in a war with the United States when the terms of a treaty were no longer viable,” Jensvold said.
The treaty led to the formation of the Upper Sioux and Lower Sioux agencies. The Dakota gave up their land and agreed to move to the agencies, and were promised annuities and support, he said. They became dependent.
The Dakota people saw the treaty as a sacred commitment to their Creator. However, annuity payments were “lost in transit,” he said, and food was scarce.
Old people and children were starving to death, he said, and the community went to war in 1862 “because of desperation.” He called it “the ugliest moment in Minnesota history as it reflects upon the Dakota people.”
History has had two versions of the Battle of Wood Lake in the area of the park, he said. The Indigenous version is of people traveling along a trail, digging up rotten potatoes to try to feed their families, and the European version speaks of soldiers thwarting an ambush.
The state park land has many burial sites and contains sacred sites of prayer, courtship, celebration and death, Jensvold said.
Europe treats sites of genocide differently, he said.
“I don’t believe it’s human nature to dance upon the graves of a vanquished foe or to celebrate and commercialize those things,” he said. “I don’t think it is righteous — and just that there are picnic tables where people will go on a Sunday, and it’s good they have a good time — but there’s never been an accurate interpretation.”
Interpretive information about the 1862 war has been “sanitized” in the park, he said.
The Upper Sioux Community's website says the Dakota Oyate (Nation) have called the area home for thousands of years.
"We have always occupied this area bordering the Minnesota River Valley, with the exception of a short period of time in the late 1800s following the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862," the website's history page states . "At that time, the Dakota were either exterminated, forcibly removed to reservations located somewhere else, or voluntarily fled to avoid harm."
The page says the community's total land base today is 2,325 acres and membership stands at 547.
A state park in disrepair
Strommen said the DNR is proud of the state park system, and doesn’t take it lightly to give one up. The park was developed to tell the history of the area, but the story it tells isn’t complete, she said. It was also meant to provide recreational opportunities.
The current Upper Sioux Agency State Park facilities are in disrepair. The visitor center needs to be repaired or rebuilt. Campgrounds along the river flood.
In recent years, Minnesota Highway 67 through the park has become impassable because of a sinkhole and has since been rerouted.
There are other places in the area the state can offer recreation, and public outreach will help find replacement areas for recreation, according to testimony offered Wednesday.
The National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Interior will also be involved in removing potential barriers to the land transfer.