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By Peter Callaghan, MinnPost

Shelley Buck is the head of an organization with a new name and big dreams for the area around the Mississippi River’s St. Anthony Falls.

But for the former president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, those plans can be illustrated by a seemingly smaller, yet symbolic, goal.

“There’s really no safe place to go down and actually touch the water,” Buck said during an interview last week. “I think that’s important. When people touch the water, she has the power to her. She brings life to people and a lot of people say that when they dip their toes in the water, in the river, they feel a sense of calmness.

“We just really want to bring that to the city, to the visitors and the people that live there to really feel that power that she brings.”

The nonprofit organization where Buck serves as president — Owámniyomni Okhódayapi — is seeking to restore the area now occupied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a way that restores, as much as is possible, an area that was a spiritual and cultural home to the Dakota people. Formerly known as Friends of the Falls, the organization was started to protect the falls from further hydroelectric generation and has since evolved to advocate for new uses if and when the Corps walks away.

It evolved again in early 2023 when the founders turned over leadership to Dakota members. Buck became president, and a majority of the board are Native American. Non-tribal members, including co-founders Paul Reyelts and Mark Wilson, are still involved in the natural restoration project that hopes to reach the development stage by 2028.

“We’re working to restore Dakota culture at the falls by restoring and healing the land,” Buck said. “The area itself is a significant and sacred area to the Dakota people, to my people. We want to make sure that people know that and understand that people have a connection to the water.

“I see this as a project that can help bridge communities and bring people together and be a commonality between all groups of people.”

Owámniyomni means “turbulent waters” in the Dakota language, Buck said. Okhódayapi translates “to be friends with, to be friendly, or to befriend.” The words are pronounced: Oh-WAH-mini-yo-mini Oh-KOH-dah-yah-pee.

“Mississippi” derives from an Ojibwe name for the river. There are various Dakota words, but Buck said she learned it as Haha Wakpa, which she said translates roughly to swirling or moving river.

The only major falls on the Mississippi were once more than 1,200 feet wide but are now one-third that width. They have been heavily engineered, first by mill builders seeking to power their timber-sawing and flour-milling businesses and then by the Corps to allow barges and towboats to ascend past the falls. While some electricity is still generated at the site, the mills are closed and the Corps closed the lock in 2015 to stop the migration of invasive carp.

The Corps is now conducting a disposition study to decide whether it should leave the site and what entity to give it to once it departs. As of now, the city of Minneapolis is the designated recipient. Owámniyomni Okhódayapi seeks to be the city’s designee to control the land, about five acres on the downtown side of the river now holding a parking lot, a gravel slope and the access road to the lock structure and below.

“The ultimate goal would be to have the four Dakota tribes take control of the site together,” Buck said. They are the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Upper Sioux Community, the Lower Sioux Indian Community and the Prairie Island Indian Community. While the nonprofit would take ownership, “all four have sent support for Owámniyomni Okhódayapi to take ownership of it, be the city’s designee and  partnership on the programming that happens there and the education that happens there.

“We’re gonna draw them in on all the decisions and just really truly have this be a joint project,” Buck said.

The Dakota creation story, the description of how tribal members first took human form, is centered on Bdote, the area at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. But other sites connected by water are also spiritually important — St. Anthony Falls, Coldwater spring and Wakan Tipi, known as Carter’s Cave, are three. St. Anthony Falls was also the site of Spirit Island, a limestone landform in the center of the river just downstream from the falls.

“The waterway meant a lot of different things to my people, obviously to the creation story. Water literally is life to us as Dakota,” Buck said. “It was also a trade route, the way our economy worked. It’s the way we traveled, it’s the way we did business. There were thriving communities and economies here, pre-contact. And I think that’s something a lot of people don’t understand. And the river played a huge part in that.”

A vital part of the story Owámniyomni Okhódayapi hopes to tell is what Spirit Island meant to the Dakota and how it was destroyed by white settlers, first to mine the limestone as construction material and then by the Corps during construction of the navigation lock. Only a stone jetty that points downriver from the entrance to the lock remains.

“It was a place where our people, the Dakota people, would go to give thanks and pray,” she said. “It would be a place where some Dakota women would go and give birth. Some people have died on either Spirit Island or there at the Falls. That area has the full circle, life and death, that they’re both combined there.

“It was changed irreversibly when they built the lock and dam and when they built the city of Minneapolis. They quarried her to build the city around her,” Buck said. “Our worldview is different than a lot of the main society. We see things as our relatives. We see the land, the sky, the water, the plants, the animals. They’re all our relatives. They all have a life force in the spirit. And when you look at things in that way, you tend to treat them better and care for them better.

“For us, that life force is still there,” Buck said. “She just doesn’t look the way that she once did. To be able to honor her in some way would be really significant and empowering.”

The destruction of Spirit Island is a physical manifestation of what Buck sees as a pattern of white settlers and residents to erase the presence of Dakota on the river. Helping to remedy that erasure was at the center of the decision by the leadership of what was then Friends of the Falls to ask Dakota people to take the lead. Previous ideas for a post-Corps falls included annexing it to the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area and creating an attraction for residents and visitors.

“They got into these engagements, community engagements, and heard a story and a history they hadn’t been told before,” Buck recalled. A Native Partnership Council was formed, and Buck represented the Prairie Island Community.

“‘Hey, let’s let the Dakota decide what happens here. Let’s let their story be told and their history be told,’” is how Buck remembers the transition by the previous staff and board. “And it’s just really cool to know that we went from that to now a Dakota-woman-led organization who has a majority Native American board. That’s just truly inspiring. And to see this switch is not something, as a Dakota, I see every day.”

As much as some might want, there are no plans to seek restoration of the falls to a natural state. The engineering that was built beginning in the mid-1800s stopped the erosion of the limestone ledge beneath the river. Without that construction, the falls would likely be gone now, replaced by a flat-flowing river. There would be no water power, no milling, no Minneapolis as it appears today. A state-funded study is under way to assess the condition of a Civil War-era wall upstream from the falls and buried beneath the riverbed to determine if it is endangered.

John Anfinson is the former superintendent of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area and board member of Friends of the Mississippi River, another group interested in the area’s future. He said that because the falls have moved over the years with the erosion of the limestone ledge, Spirit Island’s location in relation to the falls has also changed. It was upriver from the falls around 1600. As the falls receded and moved upriver, the island stood in the midst of the falls in around 1680 when Father Louis Hennepin saw the site. It appeared downstream from the falls by 1766 when English colonist Johathan Carver visited.

The Owámniyomni Okhódayapi organization is in the midst of hiring consultants to help navigate the federal process for decommissioning the lock and dam and disposing of the land. Buck said fundraising now supports that staff work and also preplanning for what might replace what is there now.

“It’s really great to see the support that we’ve had on this project, with our vision,” she said. “I just hope that support continues. I’m excited for what that place can be and how people can truly reconnect with the water and the land.”

Given that the physical dam and lock structures will remain, what would land restoration look like?

“We want to restore the land, plant trees and the native grasses and native plants that are important to our people,” she said. “We want to restore the flow of water on the site where it once was and bring back those species of life that once lived there that are no longer there.”

Final design is set for next year with fundraising for the project itself beginning in 2025.

“That’s when it becomes a really big deal,” Buck said.

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