Minnesota Public-Land Transfer Stirs Historical Debate

Minnesota Public-Land Transfer Stirs Historical Debate

Relationships often sour once local, state, or federal authorities specify a parcel of public land to sell, swap, or transfer.

Until then, issues usually stay polite and generic enough to fit on bumper stickers, like “Keep it Public” or “Stop Public Land Transfers.” For instance, when some in the GOP supported transferring the West’s federal lands to individual states and made it part of the party’s 2016 presidential platform, foes voiced firm, sober warnings. The issue simmered until Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, tried making it law in January 2017. Grassroots outrage erupted into a hunter-driven firestorm that “persuaded” Chaffetz to rescind his bill a week later.

Things get equally complicated—and often personal—when land parcels have a name, price tag, decent size, and history that unites or divides people. Locals, especially, know the assets of nearby lands, including their histories, assessed values, surveyed boundaries, and ancestral conflicts. Efforts to sell or transfer public properties to individuals, companies, or private groups make neighbors choose sides as politicians convene meetings and appoint committees. Their constituents, meanwhile, accuse them and each other of disrespecting their thoughts, heritage, and kids’ futures.

It’s safe to say we seldom sell or transfer public lands without a fight. Richard Steffes spent 39 years with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, including 14 years as its real-estate director. Steffes said agencies are always cautious about selling or trading public land, no matter who or what group receives it. “It seemed to always be controversial,” Steffes told MeatEater. “Every parcel seems to have someone who uses it, and doesn’t want to lose access.”

60-Year-Old Park to Close

Southwestern Minnesota’s Upper Sioux Agency State Park is a 1,280-acre park that includes the confluence of the Minnesota and Yellow Medicine rivers. The state recently decided to transfer it to the Upper Sioux Community, a sovereign nation of the Dakota people who consider these lands the sacred death sites and burial grounds of many ancestors.

Minnesota established the Upper Sioux Agency State Park in 1963. Since then, its bluffs, marshes, meadows, grasslands, woodlands, prairie knolls, and scenic vistas have attracted 30,000 visitors annually. Among its attractions are a huge hill for winter sliding, and trails for horseback riding, hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling. Hunting isn’t allowed, but anglers fish its rivers for walleyes, catfish, bullheads, and northern pike; while birders watch for killdeer, spotted sandpipers and other shorebirds; as well as bald eagles, turkey vultures, white pelicans, and red-tailed hawks.

The park remains open this summer, and no closing or transfer date has been set, but on May 27, the Minnesota Legislature passed three bills approving about $6.5 million to transfer roughly 1,400 acres of park and surrounding lands to the Upper Sioux community. The legislation directs the state’s DNR to identify all possible barriers to the transfer, and report them and their solutions to legislative committee chairs by Jan. 15, 2024.

The bills also designate $250,000 to retire bonds used for previous park upgrades, $1.2 million to convey the lands to the Upper Sioux Community and remove a road and bridge, and $5 million to identify possible lands to replace lost recreational opportunities.

Because federal money from the Land, Water, and Conservation Fund helped buy the park lands, the U.S. Department of Interior must approve the transfer. In addition, state and federal funds paid for park improvements, and might require waivers or repayment. The land is to be transferred at no cost to the Upper Sioux Community. Gov. Tim Walz supports the transfer, as does DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen.

Valleys of Tragic Beauty

Despite the property’s myriad natural resources, the Minnesota DNR says the park’s creation 60 years ago was less about protecting ecosystems and more about preserving and sharing its place in Minnesota’s history and culture. Eastern Dakota tribes have lived in the region for roughly 10,000 years. From 1837 to 1858 they traded land for food and money in treaties with the U.S. government, a process that encouraged many tribal members from Iowa and Minnesota to move onto a reservation in the river valleys of the present-day park.

The reservation was destroyed during the 1862 Dakota War, a five- to six-week uprising in which Dakota warriors raided settlers and fought local militias and the U.S. Army. The war killed 358 settlers, 77 U.S. soldiers, and 29 volunteers, and ended Sept. 23 in the Battle of Wood Lake. Exact Dakota casualties aren’t known, but tribal members started starving and dying earlier that summer when supplies and payments owed from the federal treaties didn’t arrive from the East, where the Civil War raged.

In the weeks after the Dakota War, the U.S. Army charged about 400 Dakota combatants for war crimes. When the trials concluded Nov. 6, Army judges sentenced 303 tribal men to death. President Abraham Lincoln commuted all but 38 of the sentences, condemning only rapists and those who participated in civilian massacres. The mass hanging of the 38 men in nearby Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, is the largest one-day execution in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, when the trials ended, the Army marched nearly 1,600 Dakota elders, women, and children in a four-mile-long procession to Fort Snelling near St. Paul, 150 miles to the northeast. Guards interned the Dakota noncombatants for the winter inside the fort, where disease and living conditions killed up to 300 of them by April 1863.

Tensions and retributions continued throughout the region, forcing most Dakota to flee. The Daily Republican newspaper in Winona noted in 1863: “The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every redskin sent to Purgatory. The sum is worth more than all the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the (Minnesota-North Dakota border) are worth.”

About 75 years later, the state returned 746 acres to the Dakota, giving birth to the Upper Sioux Indian Community. The community has since received 1,579 more acres, gained status as a sovereign nation, and today has about 550 members. Eleven years ago—roughly 150 years after the Dakota War—Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton formally apologized, and declared Aug. 17, 2012, a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.” Likewise, the city councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared 2013 “The Year of the Dakota,” and described the region’s historical violence as “genocide,” a term still debated by some residents.

Defining Issues

Given that historical backdrop—and the size, popularity, and rich natural resources of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park—it’s not surprising that controversy erupted this spring as state lawmakers detailed their intentions to close the park and transfer its lands to the Upper Sioux community.

In such matters, word choices and definitions matter, and not just “genocide.” The Dakota community, for example, would strike “transfer” from descriptions of the deal, and insert “return” or “give back.” In their view, Minnesota illegally canceled their treaties in 1863 and never held legitimate title to the parklands. They’ve resented paying admission fees to visit their ancestors’ graves, and disapprove of visitors playing and picnicking on lands they liken to Holocaust sites such as Dachau and Auschwitz.

But descendants of dead settlers contend that closing the park will prevent them from honoring their ancestors buried there in unmarked graves. Current park users contend they, too, revere the park, treat its land and legacies with respect, and question how people can fully appreciate that history if public access ends.

During a packed town hall meeting April 5 in nearby Granite Falls, a trail guide for horseback riding at the park urged tribal members to keep the land accessible. “We might not go to your people’s gravesites, but we’ve learned about the park and its history by riding there,” she told the crowd of over 200 people. “Just because we are white people doesn’t mean we don’t respect the park and the land. …Closing the park closes off that communication and that way to learn the history.”

Still others attacked the motives of lawmakers outside the area who wrote the legislation, and said the DNR, lawmakers, and Upper Sioux leaders didn’t keep them informed.

Kevin Jensvold, Upper Sioux tribal chairman, told the town-hall crowd that “the truth just sits there” waiting to be read in books about tribal history. He said it’s everyone’s responsibility to stay informed, and to not rely on social media. He said horrendous acts that took place on park lands in 1862 fit the definition of genocide, even if newspapers won’t use the word. “To not acknowledge it only continues it,” Jensvold said.

He also bristled at claims by elected officials that they didn’t hear about efforts to transfer the park until two weeks before the April 5 meeting.

“I’ve been requesting this since taking office in 2005, 18 years ago, and I’ve brought it to three straight governors,” Jensvold said. “Sixteen months ago we met with Rep. (Chris) Swedirski (R-Ghent, and local Assemblyman) to carry this bill on our behalf (but he declined). … I felt saddened that he wouldn’t represent us. I thought our arguments had merit and a good thing to do. … None of us is responsible for what happened there 150 years ago, but all of us can be responsible for what happens moving forward. You can have new recreational opportunities, and see justice restored for the Dakota people. This is historical tribal treaty land, we’ve been in this valley over 10,000 years, and we can be trusted to take care of it.”

Reduced Hunting Access?

Nick Amunrud, vice president of the Minnesota Bowhunters Inc., told MeatEater that he sees the transfer as a challenging land-access issue. Even though the state must replace the park’s long-enjoyed recreational opportunities, Amunrud thinks they’ll struggle to do it.

“The river valley between Granite Falls and New Ulm is incredible,” Amunrud said. “It’s very scenic and littered with granite outcroppings. How will the agency find nearby lands to replace the park’s scenery and recreation? … There are few properties over 1,000 acres left along the river, and I doubt the state will have an easy time convincing private landowners to sell, especially after watching the state give away over 1,000 acres.”

Amunrud also said the region has some amazing state natural areas, wildlife management areas, and aquatic management areas, but converting any of them into a state park might ban hunting where it’s now allowed. “If that happens, we'll lose some great hunting access,” he said. “I have nothing against the tribal members, but we're looking at losing access to a lot of public land owned by everyone, including the tribe.”

Ann Pierce, the Minnesota DNR’s director of state parks and trails, told MeatEater the agency will address those challenges during public meetings this summer and fall before reporting to the Legislature in January. “We allow hunting in many of our state parks, but we’re still early in the process of identifying possible options,” Pierce said. “The bulk of the $5 million to transfer the park covers the work we’re doing to engage all communities in identifying new opportunities. This will be a very public process. We’ll probably discover more than we know are out there.”

John Berends, commissioner of Yellow Medicine County, said many residents opposed the legislation, but it’s time to participate in the process to find those new recreational opportunities in the area.

“We want to make sure people have their voices heard ... try to get people involved in it,” he told the West Central Tribune of Wilmar, Minnesota, on May 27. He said local politicians want to be involved in the DNR’s plans because “people aren’t feeling like they’re being represented.” Berends told the newspaper he is concerned the area has spent over 150 years healing from events of the 1860s.

“I thought we were getting to a pretty good place,” he said, and hoped the issue won’t set back community relationships.

Unfortunately, conflicts inherent to public land disputes aren’t easily resolved. In his book “In Defense of Public Lands,” author Steven Davis notes: “By any measure, for any one of a number of reasons, privatizing public land is a spectacularly bad and harmful policy that will enrich the few at the expense of the many.”

But does “privatize” apply to a sovereign nation of Native Americans numbering less than 1,000? Sovereign nations, no matter their size, aren’t required to make their lands public. And in the case of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, Minnesota’s lawmakers didn’t require it in the three bills passed in May.

Meeting in Courts and Capitols

And although this case is unusual, it’s not unique. The U.S. government and individual states continually march into court and capitol buildings to settle treaty obligations honored or broken the past 200 years with Native Americans. After all, the nation’s public lands are vast — 201 million acres in state ownership and 635 million acres in federal — and history’s best intentions often wreaked harsh outcomes.

As Davis notes in “In Defense of Public Lands,” creating the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, the Antiquities Act of 1906, and the National Park Service in 1916 helped establish a vast system of national parks, forests, forest reserves, monuments, wildlife refuges, and other public places. But securing those lands often removed Native communities while forsaking compensation and long-term impacts.

Davis, however, trusts the nation’s collaborative approach to solve its public-land conflicts, writing: “Despite its flaws, shortcomings, and abundant failures, our imperfect system still manages to keep faith with the public interest in that it is essentially open, responsive, and accountable, unlike the alternative model of private ownership.”

Davis also notes that public-land disputes are better than indifference, which could loom in the decades ahead as hunter numbers keep declining and U.S. society keeps shifting indoors, away from rural landscapes. He sees Native Americans playing an increasingly vital role in protecting public lands. As a 2022 study by the Outdoor Stewards of Conservation Foundation reports, 72% of Native Americans feel connected to their ancestry when out in nature, and 81% see nature as part of their heritage. Those feelings aren’t as strong elsewhere, with 39% of other Americans saying nature connects them with their ancestry and 50% claiming nature as part of their heritage.

Davis wrote: “Despite losing their ancestral homes to the establishment of the public domain, many Native Americans are steadfast opponents of privatization, as public lands, at their best, can act to protect sacred sites, resources, and landscapes, with at least some accountability and accessibility for tribes.”


Critics note that transferring the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Dakota people will end public access to those 1,400 acres. But Jensvold said those specific acres are sacred to his community, and a fraction of what they lost in 1863 when the U.S. government canceled all treaties with them.

“That land represents 7-100,000ths of 1% of the 21 million acres reserved for the Dakota people forever (in an 1851 treaty),” Jensvold said at the town-hall meeting. “In my 59 years, I’ve tried to explain our mothers’ perspective to other people, including many friends in this room. At the end of many of those conversations, the comment was, ‘Yeah, but …’ and they try to find an alternative, more comfortable narrative. It’s hard to make that history comfortable. That’s a perspective I want to share.”

Feature image via Minnesota DNR.

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