Sioux Community Reclaims State Park

Luís Escobar, online publishing coordinator

Photo of entrance to Upper Sioux Agency State Park on June 26, 2017, taken by Tony Webster; sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The Upper Sioux Community celebrates the return of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, making it the first time in Minnesota’s history that land ownership was returned back to an Indigenous community. The land in Grand Rapids is more than just a state park, but a burial site for their people. 160 years ago, the largest recorded mass execution in U.S. history took place in the same state park and it remained the final resting place of many of those who were executed. Now, the descendants and their community are finally able to reclaim their stolen land.

According to MNopedia, the 1862 Dakota war was a natural explosion after years of broken promises, treaties and inhumane treatment of thousands of Dakota people. After six weeks of fighting to survive, to live and find a better life for their people, the U.S. won the war with extreme punishments to follow. Originally, former president Abraham Lincoln sentenced 303 fighters to be executed. While 265 had their sentences commuted, on Dec. 26, 1862, 38 were hanged in the largest recorded mass execution in U.S. history.

For years, the Dakota people have been fighting for their land to be reclaimed since it was the final, and forced resting place for the Dakota 38. The land has since been turned into bikeways and a picnic spot, the recreational use of the land disregarding that this was a place of tragedy. Kevin Jensvold, tribal chairman for the Upper Sioux Community, says in a quote to NPR “This historic land was being misused and mistreated as recreational land when it’s a place of holocaust and genocide that was inflicted upon my mother’s ancestors.” Jensvold has been fighting for the land repossession for upwards of 18 years, inspired when an elder had told him that a park entry fee for each visit of their ancestors was unjust. “That land is more than just a piece of land. It was a place that was defended and protected by our ancestors,” said Jensvold

As stated previously, those who are a part of the Upper Sioux had to pay a fee to enter the site, despite them having historic claims to the land centuries ago. According to Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, this is the first time in Minnesota history that the state has transferred its land to the Indigenous communities. This is not the first time in U.S. history that a tribe has gotten their land back, but it is one of the few, following a pattern of Land Back actions. In the past, the California government has allowed 10 tribes of Northern California full jurisdiction of the land. Many community members are hoping that this transfer of land will not be the only one in Minnesota, and that lawmakers and legislators will continue to give land back to its Indigenous communities. 
According to AP News, after Democrats had taken control of the Minnesota House, they were quick to sign off on the repossession. By 2033, the park will be completely reclaimed by the Upper Sioux Community with about $6 billion in funds collected by a sweep of bills to pave the way for land reclamation. These large sums are for purchasing chunks of the land for state use, demolishing state projects such as roads, environmental repair and more. Wins for Tribes are rare in the United States, and this transfer is a huge victory for the Indigenous communities of Minnesota.