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Upon the White Cliffs of Kaposia

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

As I research various topics for these history columns, I look to my everyday life for inspiration. While working, going for a bike ride, or running errands, something always catches my attention. This week, I found that inspiration at grad school. One of the classes I’m taking is focusing on various types of sacred places, and a local example that was recently discussed was Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul. Let’s take a look into this often-overlooked park that has served as an important site throughout the history of the land we call home.

Long before the city of St. Paul would acquire the land to make it into a park, it was used by many Native Americans as a sacred burial site. Starting around 200 B.C.E., people used this high bluff, now known as Dayton’s Bluff, to perform ceremonies and bury their dead. These people were associated with the Hopewell tradition. One of the cultures that was included in the Hopewell tradition would eventually branch off a thousand years later to form the Mississippian culture, with their most prominent city being Cahokia, near modern day St. Louis. At its peak in the 13th century, Cahokia had a population of roughly 40,000 people, which made it the largest city in the world with London coming in at second, and the largest city to have existed in the U.S. until the 1780’s when Philadelphia grew to over 40,000. From Florida to Ontario, and New York to Kansas, the people in this large area of North America were all connected via trade routes. Because of this, all these cultures shared goods, ideas, and spiritual beliefs. A popular tradition for those cultures that lived in major river valleys, such as the Ohio and Mississippi, was building burial mounds for those who passed away. The 19 mounds at Indian Mounds Regional Park represent the northern most mounds on the Mississippi River.

A painting by Seth Eastman Little Crow's Village on the Mississippi from 1848.

Not much is known about the people who started this tradition of burying their dead in mounds on Dayton’s Bluff, but we do know that their spiritual successors, the Mdewakanton Band of Dakota have continued this tradition. When the Mdewakanton people first called Imniza-Ska, or “white cliffs,” their home, they established the village of Kaposia. The Mdewakantons were a migratory people, travelling between various locations throughout the seasons. Those who went to Kaposia every year also established a chief, who would go by the name of Little Crow. The most famous of these chiefs is Taoyateduta, who led the Dakota in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He is also first cousins with Miniyuhe, who is my 9th great aunt. The first European-American to befriend the people of Kaposia was Captain Jonathan Carver, who explored the area in 1766. He noted that the people return to this site every year because of a burial site on the bluff above Wakon-teebe Cave, or “Dwelling of the Great Spirit,” now known as Carver’s Cave. In a later archaeological study over 100 years later, it was noted that there were 11 different sites of Kaposia along the banks of the river, which highlights the importance of this area and the burial mounds.

In most religious and spiritual beliefs throughout the history of humankind, the closer you are to the sky, the closer you are to heaven or the afterlife. Much like the Cathedral of St. Paul is located on the highest point of Summit Hill, the burial mounds are located on the highest bluff that overlooks the river valley. No matter where you are on the river, you will see the mounds. No matter where the Mdwakantons placed their village of Kaposia, they would see the mounds. All it takes is a visit to the park to realize why Native Americans have considered this area sacred land for over 2,000 years.

Postcard from 1900 that faces south.

Unlike most instances of settlers moving West and claiming land as their own, there has always been interest and respect for the burial mounds, but not everything can be perfect. Archaeological digs have been conducted numerous times in the 19th and 20th centuries to attempt to further understand the many cultures who visited the site. To preserve the mounds, the city of St. Paul began to acquire parcels of land in 1892 that would eventually make up the park. Unfortunately, as the city developed the park, they also leveled many of the mounds to make way for paths, open lawns, a pavilion, and other amenities.  During the Winter Carnival of 1987, one of the medallions was hidden somewhere in the park, which gave the public the idea to dig into the remaining mounds. Because of this, fences were installed around the mounds to prevent further destruction in 1990, and shortly after, a ceremony took place where repatriated remains of 61 Native Americans were reburied in the park.

A modern day image of the burial mounds at the park.

All in all, of the 19 mounds that were originally recorded, only 6 remain. The land may look different, but the natural beauty remains. From the people of the Hopewell tradition who originally saw the sacred power of the bluff, to the Mdewakanton Dakota who continue to honor those who walked the land before them, the white cliffs of Kaposia have been and will continue to be a spot of memory, serenity, and tranquility. Trees will grow, and new paths will be paved, but this area on Dayton’s bluff will always be one of Minnesota’s most important historical, spiritual, and naturally beautiful places.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at

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