Comment: Bruce White, historian, anthropologist, and author of “Mni Sola Makoce: The Land of the Dakota”

The following text has been slightly adapted from an April 1, 2015 letter from Bruce White in response to public comment on the Afton Wastewater Treatment Facility. The original letter and Bruce White’s CV appear below.

The proposed Afton Wastewater Treatment Facility project has the potential to cause significant adverse effects on important archaeological and cultural resources.

The history of the Dakota people is connected to many locations throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, including the St. Croix River, which was a place of Dakota residence over thousands of years, including, in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was the hunting grounds of the Kapoza or Little Crow band based in present-day St. Paul. The St. Croix River is known to the Dakota people as Hogan Wanke Kin, or “the place where the fish lies,” a reference to a Dakota legend connected to, among other places, the well-known sandbar known as Catfish Bar which stretches three quarters of the way across the width of the river from a point in Wisconsin parallel with the city of Afton (see General Land Office, 1848 survey plat map for T28N, R20W, section 23; also Westerman and White, Mni Sota Makoce, 73-74). The Dakota legend, a record of the Dakota’s long presence in Minnesota, the state which bears a name given by them, concerns young man who turned into a giant fish and survived as the sandbar now knovm as Catfish Bar. We noted (on page 73): “The association between the presence of the Dakota in this area of the St. Croix and the legend that provided their name for the river is all the more significant given that there was effigy mound located at Afton on the bank opposite Catfish Bar.” The archaeologist

T. H. Lewis located the Afton effigy mound in June 1883. He suggested that the mound, located along a railroad track–now a walking trail–was in the form ofa rattlesnake (see Lewis, “Snake and snake-like mounds in Minnesota,” Science, April 22, 1887; Winchell, Aborigines ofMinnesota, 271). Lewis also located a number of smaller round mounds adjacent to the larger effigy mound. In Mni Sota Makoce. we also noted that although archaeologists in the 19th century described the shape of the effigy mound as representing a rattlesnake “the mound’s location and the legend associated with the site suggest instead that it is intended to represent a powerful underwater animal such as those recorded in many Dakota and Ojibwe myths and legends. According to modern Dakota sources, snakes were associated with Unktehi, the powerful underwater spirit.”

Although it might have been assumed that flooding, house construction, the construction of a railroad adjacent to the site of the Afton effigy mound and any later grading to turn the railroad bed into a walking trail might have destroyed its integrity, a 1956 Stillwater Gazette newspaper article, found recently in the Afton Historical Museum, recorded that Afton resident D.J. Peabody was at that date protecting remaining portions ofthe mound, particularly the head, located at the north end, west and southwest of the present-day marina. The newspaper noted that Peabody and his father in law Frank Squires, also a long-time resident of Afton, believed the remnant of the mound was “the head of a 150foot- long fish-shaped burial ground,” a belief in keeping with Dakota interpretations of the site. Peabody, who had a long association with the town of Afton, noted that human remains and artifacts had been found at the site, although there is no record of an archaeological study. To care for the site Peabody planted grass on the mound and kept it mowed.

Lacking evidence of a full archaeological survey of the site of the Afton effigy mound, it is difficult to determine what effect the Afton Wastewater Treatment facility might have on the mound, however the point must be made that the area of Dakota cultural significance around Afton is much larger than the mere site of the mound. It also includes Catfish Bar and it may include areas with and adjacent to the treatment facility. Sewer construction in the area of the Afton mound and adjacent smaller mounds is likely to have severe effects on remaining archaeological resources and human remains. Further, what effects might the increased flow of water into the St. Croix immediately above Catfish Bar have on this important cultural resource, the one that helped give the Dakota name to the St. Croix River, “the place where the fish lies”? Furthermore, are there other Dakota archaeological resources within the precise boundaries of the wastewater facility? And what damage would the project have on an important Dakota cultural area? Without further study, as well as consultation with Dakota elders and spiritual leaders and Dakota communities, it is impossible to fully determine the exact environmental and cultural effects of this project. As it stands now, the project does have the potential to cause many significant adverse effects. which have yet to be considered fully. Consequently, it is my strong recommendation that an ElS be ordered to answer these questions.


Download a PDF of Bruce White's submission & CV