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Pilot Knob, MN (Dakota) (2004)

The Significance of Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob
Oheyawahi, or Pilot Knob, has great historical, cultural, and religious significance for both Dakota people and other Americans. According to Chris Leith, a Dakota elder and spiritual leader at Prairie Island, Oheyawahi is a “sacred landmark” because of Unktehi’s appearance there as the Pilot Knob Burial Register suggests. Samuel Pond, who studied the Dakota in the nineteenth century, notes that according to Dakota oral history records, around 1800 Unktehi, a huge being (perhaps a mammoth) with great spiritual power, who created the earth in its present form, came down the Mississippi River, damming the water behind him. Then, Unktehi turned up the Minnesota River and disappeared. Unktehi’s appearence pushed up the bluff to its current height.
Traditionally, Oheyawahi was used by Dakota people for Wakan (Medicine) Ceremonies (in which they would pray to Unktehi), gatherings, and other religious ceremonies. Moreover, the bluff served as a sacred burial ground for the Dakota, who often interred their dead on high ground. Archaeological evidence supports Dakota claims that they buried their dead not only on the summit but on other parts of Pilot Knob as well, rendering the entire mound a burial site. The Dakota would wrap the deceased in a blanket or, after contact with white settlers, sometimes place the deceased in a wooden coffin, and set the body on a burial scaffold or in the branches of a tree. This tradition likely originated because it was impossible to dig graves in the frozen ground during winter and, until the grave could be dug, the body had to be kept out of reach of animals. Streamers of cloth or American flags were tied to poles next to the scaffolds, and food or other offerings were placed on the scaffolds. After several days, months, or even years, what was left of the body was taken down and buried two to three feet deep in the ground. These graves were then usually marked with stones or wooden markers.
In 1851, the Dakota signed a treaty on Pilot Knob ceding approximately 35 million acres of land in Minnesota and Iowa to the federal government. Eventually, most of Minnesota's Dakota were expelled to Nebraska in 1862, but some who were married to white settlers remained, and many who had left began to return in the 1880s. One motivation for returning was the presence of the graves of their ancestors on Oheyawahi. According to Ella Deloria, a Dakota anthropologist, one woman told her “we could not stay away so we managed to find our way back, because our makapahas [graves] were here.”
Oheyawahi continues to have cultural and religious significance for the Dakota. Michael Scott is only one of many Dakota people who go to the bluff to perform religious rituals, such as pipe ceremonies. Even Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the Nineteenth Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf, held a pipe ceremony on the bluff in 1999.
The site is also significant to many non-Native people because it was also once nominated as the site of the Minnesota territorial capitol and because it was significant to early settlers as a navigational landmark, explaining its name. Finally, Oheyawahi’s distinctive geography, the commanding view from the bluff and the view of Pilot Knob from below have made this site an important part of the landscape of Fort Snelling, the first American military post in this region, as well as “a public cultural resource of immeasurable value.”
The Proposed Development of Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob
Two individuals privately own approximately eight and a half acres of Pilot Knob. These private investors have been trying for at least twelve years to sell the land to a developer. One developer proposed building offices for the American Lung Association on it, but the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community (MMDC) opposed this development, and the Mendota Heights City Council eventually denied the proposal and zoned the land for housing. A project manager at Minnstar Builders claims that, in 2000, the MMDC proposed building a three-story office building with “gambling displays.” However, Bruce White of the Pilot Knob Preservation Association (PKPA) and Michael Scott, Chairperson of the MMDC, argue that the Dakota felt the only way they could prevent other people from using the land for non-sacred uses was to build on it themselves. In Scott’s words, “money rules,” and therefore the MMDC felt pressured to develop Oheyawahi to prevent a development that would have nothing to do with the significance of the land. At a city council meeting, the MMDC informally proposed a three-story cultural center that would include a museum, films about the site, and a store where the MMDC would sell the products that support their community financially. They also proposed creating trails and signs on the bluff to inform people about the significance of the land. Both Scott and White adamantly deny that any gambling was ever proposed for the building. Scott seems horrified at such an idea, because the land is sacred, and White points out the impossibility of such a proposal: the MMDC is not yet a federally recognized tribe (although they are applying for federal recognition and, therefore, could not build any sort of gambling establishment. Scott also remarked that during these initial negotiations, the MMDC did not know everything that they do now about the significance of Oheyawahi and now strongly oppose any development on the bluff.
Complying with zoning regulations, the private owners tentatively sold their eight and a half acres to Minnstar Builders, Inc. for 1.65 million dollars to develop a 157-townhouse subdivision. In November 2002, Minnstar proposed this development to the Mendota Heights Planning Commission, a body appointed by the City Council, which rejected the proposal. However, the mayor of Mendota Heights at that time, Charles Mertensotto, strongly supported the proposal to broaden the city’s tax base. The City Council, made up of the mayor and four council members, decided to reconsider the proposal and, under Minnesota law, had sixty days (or 120 with an extension) to decide. Thomas Casey, the lawyer for the MMDC, Bruce White and Alan Woolworth, an emeritus historian and archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, submitted historical evidence of the significance of the site and created a petition that many people in Mendota Heights, both Dakota and non-Native, signed, asking the City Council to order an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) before approving the proposal. Under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which considers the impact of developments on sites of cultural and historic significance as well, the sixty-day rule does not apply. As long as the environmental review was being conducted, the timeline for a decision would be stayed. By the December 2002 City Council meeting, Mayor Mertensotto had lost reelection and had been replaced by Mayor John Huber who has been more interested in carefully considering the consequences of developing Pilot Knob. In January 2003, the Council ordered the EAW to be conducted at the developer’s cost.
In December 2002, members of the MMDC approached members of the Beth Jacob Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Mendota Heights only one mile from Pilot Knob, asking for their help in opposing the development. According to one congregation member, disturbing the burial grounds of anyone is inconsistent with Jewish teachings, motivating the congregation to get involved. Another member of the Social Justice Committee said that he felt motivated to support the MMDC because of their shared identity as religious minorities in Mendota Heights that have to cooperate to protect their sacred places. The congregation’s Social Justice Committee, which addresses issues of social justice in the immediate community, decided to spearhead the congregation’s action supporting the MMDC. Both the Social Justice Committee and the Congregation’s Board of Directors wrote letters to the City Council supporting protection of this sacred site.
In July 2003, residents of Mendota Heights, including White and Bring, decided to create a multi-faith, multi-ethnic organization dedicated to preserving Pilot Knob. In September, they incorporated the Pilot Knob Preservation Association (PKPA). In February 2004, the PKPA compiled The Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob Burial Register and presented it to the City Council to impress upon the Council the idea that the bluff is indeed a cemetery that must be left undeveloped.
White and Woolworth also decided to nominate Oheyawahi for the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places. To be eligible for listing on the National Register, a property must meet at least one of four possible criteria eligibility . Pilot Knob was nominated as meeting Criterion A: “Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.” It is important to note that the word “our” in Criterion A may apply only to the group for whom the property has “traditional cultural significance”-- in this case, the Dakota people-- and does not need to be significant to the rest of society. Furthermore, “history” includes not only written history, but also oral history. On the nomination, White and Woolworth describe the significance of Oheyawahi: "Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob is a traditional cultural property associated with Dakota Indian people as a landmark, a gathering place, a burial place, and an important Medicine or Wakan Ceremony grounds. It is also associated with European-American history as a geographic feature included in the physical and cultural landscape of Fort Snelling, the earliest American military post built in the region."
National Register guidelines also specify that the site need not offer physical evidence of historical importance to be eligible. Documentary and oral evidence suffice, making Oheyawahi eligible. Moreover, the National Register Bulletin specifies: "A property may retain its traditional cultural significance even though it has been substantially modified... Cultural values are dynamic, and can sometimes accommodate a good deal of change... [T]he integrity of a possible traditional cultural property must be considered with reference to the views of traditional practitioners; if its integrity has not been lost in their eyes, it probably has sufficient integrity to justify further evaluation." Therefore, despite any claims by proponents of development that Oheyawahi has lost its integrity because of Highway 55 nearby, other buildings on the bluff, and so forth, so long as the MMDC considers its integrity intact, theirs is the only perspective given highest consideration by the National Register.
Finally, there could be a question as to whether the site is culturally significant or only religiously significant. Religious properties, as such, are not usually eligible for listing on the National Register. It is important to understand, then, how the National Register distinguishes between a “traditional cultural property” and property “used for religious purposes.” According to the National Register Bulletin 38: "A ‘religious property’...requires additional justification (for nomination) because of the necessity to avoid any appearance of judgement by government about the merit of any religion or belief... Conversely, it is necessary to be careful not to allow a similar judgment to serve as the basis for determining a property to be ineligible for inclusion in the Register. Application of this criteria consideration to traditional cultural properties is fraught with the potential for ethnocentrism and discrimination. In many traditional societies, including most American Indian societies, the clear distinction made by Euroamerican society between religion and the rest of culture does not exist... Some traditional cultural properties are used for purposes that are definable as religious in Euroamerican terms, and this use is intrinsic to their cultural significance... Applying the ‘religious exclusion’ without careful and sympathetic consideration to properties of significance to a traditional cultural group can result in discriminating against the group by effectively denying the legitimacy of its history and culture." Thus we see Oheyawahi is eligible as a traditional cultural property even though it has religious significance, for the Dakota do not distinguish clearly between religion and culture.
White and Woolworth sent their nomination to the Minnesota state review board, which recommended the site for listing to the Keeper of the National Register in Washington, D.C. which, in turn, approved the site as eligible for listing on the National Register in late 2003. However, the landowners indicated their opposition to the listing on the register proper. This means the site has been determined to be eligible but is not listed, offering the site some protection, because a “site considered eligible for the National Register must be given the same consideration as sites already on the National Register, even if they have never been nominated for the Register.” However, even the listing on the National Register only requires this status to be considered in “planning for Federal, federally licensed, and federally assisted projects,” but those undertakings may still be carried out after such consideration. Moreover, eligibility does nothing to prevent private landowners from carrying out any projects that may alter sites they own. Still, the bluff’s eligibility does offer the City Council more incentive to deny any development proposals on the land and might encourage a historic association or government agency to buy the land and preserve it, a goal for which the PKPA is working.
In November, 2003 the EAW was completed and the issue was opened up for a thirty-day public comment period. The City Council received 226 letters, emails, and faxes, all but one opposing development on Pilot Knob. The Council then unanimously voted to order the developer to pay for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), an undertaking that would have cost the developer more than $100,000. Minnstar legally had thirty days to contest this ruling in court, but it did not.
Minnstar wanted to avoid such costs, having already paid for the EAW and, on January 29, 2004, sued the city of Mendota Heights, asking the judge for a writ of mandamus to order the council to approve the development and award damages. The company and the landowners claim the sixty-day rule should have applied despite the EAW. In May 2004, however, the judge overseeing the case decided in favor of the petitioners, denying the companies claim.
Meanwhile, the PKPA is planning to get Christian churches involved in supporting the MMDC and protecting this sacred land. The association also hopes to create a task force that would come up with a long-term plan to preserve Pilot Knob. Such a plan would likely involve convincing a government agency or historic association to buy the land and protect it from development. After all, as Michael Scott of the MMDC says, “money rules,” so someone has to put up the money to the private owners to prevent development on the bluff.
Opposing Perspectives
A spokesman for Minnstar Builders. insists his company has no interest in building on a cemetery. However, he maintains there is no scientific evidence that any human bones remain in the bluff. He points out that, in the 1920s, the top twenty feet of the bluff were removed as reported in a Mendota Heights City Council Meeting in January 2003 and leveled to build Acacia Cemetery on the summit, and the bones found in the earth were removed. Furthermore, a motel and a gas station were once built on the site where Minnstar wants to build. White, however, argues that the motel and gas station were at the lowest spot on the proposed building site, leaving much of the site intact. The Minnstar spokesman also claims that approximately the top thirty feet of soil were removed from the proposed building site to use in the construction of Highway 55, so there could be no bodies left in the site. White again disagrees, saying that not much dirt was actually taken from the bluff. Rather, he claims, most of the dirt used for the highway came from a trench, and the historical photos of the bluff show little difference in appearance from the bluff now.
The Minnstar spokesman also points out that the land owned by the Acacia Cemetery on which Minnstar wants to build is on the back of the bluff where, he claims, the Dakota did not bury their dead. Finally, he cites an archaeological survey performed by the 106 Group as part of the EAW that found only fragments of eroded bones that could only be identified as mammalian. He believes this study confirms his conclusion that there are probably no human remains left in the earth on the site of the proposed development. Public comments, however, criticize this conclusion, arguing the survey was inadequate. The survey involved digging approximately two feet deep at fifty-foot intervals on only one portion of the proposed site. Critics claim this survey would not have found bones buried deeper than two feet or in portions left unstudied.
The Minnstar spokesman also claims that an EIS was already done before building Highway 55, rendering the current order for an EIS unnecessary. He says that EIS found the highway would not damage the site. He also claims the site was considered for the National Register of Historic Places and rejected in the late 1990s. However, the Minnesota Historical Society included Pilot Knob on its 1975 Minnesota Inventory of Historic and Prehistoric Places, which was expected to be the initial list of sites eligible for the National Register. According to White and Woolworth, the site was not earlier nominated for the National Register, because residents believed such protection was unnecessary owing to the presence of Acacia Cemetery on the summit. For example, a 1966 Fort Snelling State Park Association and Minnesota Historical Society report states, “Pilot now a cemetery and is not expected to be changed or industrialized... [It is] in good hands and [its] preservation now seems assured.”
The Minnstar spokesman also believes the previous building of the gas station, the motel, and a few private homes, as well as the proximity of Highway 55 have damaged the integrity of Pilot Knob, rendering it no longer a “pristine historic site.” However, White argues we should not abandon the historic resources that do remain simply because there have been some changes to the bluff. Moreover, Scott considers the entire bluff to be sacred, regardless of moved soil or buildings.
Likewise, the spokesman, who agrees the dead should be left to rest in peace, does not believe the development would disturb any remains and, therefore, would not damage the site. He claims there is no scientific evidence of human remains in the area where Minnstar wants to build, and developers could not build anywhere if they refrained from building where there only might be human remains. White believes the oral history and settlers’ accounts of burials are enough evidence to warrant preserving the site as a burial ground. But most importantly, Scott explains that the sacrality of the burial ground cannot be reduced to the presence of bones in the earth. He understands the whole bluff to be sacred in the same way a burial mound is sacred. He believes his ancestors are “in the dirt” regardless of the removal of bones from the site, due to the decomposition of their flesh and bone fragments. Moreover, even if the soil where his ancestors were likely to have decomposed has indeed been removed from the bluff to build the cemetery and the highway, he still feels his ancestors are in the bluff. He explains, “It’s like dropping one drop of water into a glass of water.” Once his ancestors were buried in Oheyawahi, the entire bluff and even the spot on the earth on which the mound sits became sacred, regardless of which parts may have been altered or removed.
Furthermore, the Minnstar spokesman does not totally believe the Dakota’s claims that the land is sacred to them. He claims they wanted to build on the land themselves and suspects they only want to oppose this development to keep the land available for their own financial gain. He also contends the Dakota became interested in the land only after other parties began proposing developments. He believes they would have tried to buy the land while it sat on the market for twelve years were the land actually important to them. However, Scott adamantly denies any wishes on the part of the Dakota to make money off the site and explains that the Dakota did not try to buy the land simply because they did not have the financial resources to bid on it.
Finally, the Minnstar spokesman emphasizes the rights of the landowners to get a return on their investment. He asks how a privately owned plot of land can be declared unusable without scientific evidence. His argument rests on his belief in the importance of personal property rights. This perspective is in contrast with that of the MMDC, who do not consider property rights to outweigh their religious and cultural rights to maintain the sacrality of the land and to continue to perform religious rituals on the bluff. When asked what would happen if the land were developed, Scott replied, “It would be really, really hurtful inside. It would tear me up inside.” The Dakota would be hurt by watching their ancestors’ graves be disturbed and would lose their ability to practice their religion on this sacred land if private homes were built on it.
Up to date information about Pilot Knob and the struggle surrounding it can be found at: The Pilot Knob Preservation Association
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Originally drafted by Carrie Cox
Updated on October 4, 2004