Center of the universe next to downtown St. Paul

The Dakota Indians call this cave Wakan Tipi and consider it sacred ground because it is part of their creation story. Indians 30 years ago demanded the St. Paul barricade the entrance to what white settlers named Carver cave in order to prevent further desecration. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)

The barricades covering this cave entrance near downtown St. Paul, protect what to the Dakota people, is the center of the earth or universe – Dakota makoce cokaya kin, in Dakota.

I had a tour of the site recently and you can hear the Minnesota Sounds & Voices radio report today as part of All Things Considered.

I’m always impressed with how quickly a piece of land changes character after it’s been cleaned up and plantings are allowed to regenerate. That was my reaction to my recent visit to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a 27-acre St. Paul park near downtown that is home to Wakan Tipi.

Jim Rock, who is Dakota, was born and raised in the Dayton’s Bluff and Mounds Park neighborhoods in St. Paul. They sit atop the bluffs on the eastern edge of the sanctuary. As we toured the site, he talked about using the area as a playground when he was a child. Others used it as the neighborhood dump, dropping off tires, appliances and much more.

You’ve likely passed over this piece of land many times as you drive along the elevated sections of Kellogg Boulevard or Interstate-94 that pass over it. For more than 100 years, the land was a rail repair yard and petro chemical transfer site. The soil held lots of pollution.

The land considered sacred by the Dakota was originally used as a living site with gardens. In the 1860s, railroad tycoons filled in the lowland with tons of earth to raise and level the area for train tracks.

Nowadays when you visit, you can still see and hear the street traffic above and the nearby trains. But a great deal of the sanctuary has been restored, starting with 50 tons of garbage that was removed beginning in 2003. They hauled out the polluted earth and brought in clean soil. Then, they planted trees and prairie plants, restored two brooks and built new biking and walking trails.

I’ll share a tip with you. This is a perfect time of year to visit and enjoy the changing colors.