Indian Mounds: A Sacred Burial Place

by Brenda Williams, FASLA

Indian Mounds: a sacred burial place
The cemetery is sacred to living Dakota people whose ancestors are buried here. / image: Quinn Evans

The American Society of Landscape Architects recently announced the 2021 ASLA Professional and Student Awards, including the project highlighted here: Indian Mounds Cultural Landscape Study and Messaging Plan, winner of a 2021 Professional Honor Award in the Analysis and Planning Category.


The Indigenous burial ground that is currently called “Indian Mounds Regional Park” has been a sacred burial ground for over a thousand years. It is significant to living Indigenous Peoples as a cemetery where their ancestors are buried. It is a place of reverence, remembrance, respect, and prayer. When the City of Saint Paul established a park in this location in 1892 with the purpose of protecting the historical setting and spectacular views, connections of contemporaneous Indigenous Peoples to the sacred site were not understood, considered, or valued.

Over the last century the condition, name, and use of the landscape as a park have become beloved to the surrounding community. Yet many non-Indigenous people have wondered about this powerful landscape without understanding its importance to tribes. Through public gatherings with generous sharing by tribal representatives and members of the public, we learned that the power of this place affects the people who interact with it, and there is a strong desire to protect it as a sacred site.

Indian Mounds is part of B’dote and Dakota homeland.
Indian Mounds is situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River on the eastern side of downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. An 1840 painting illustrates the Dakota village of Kap’oza and the burial ground on the bluff above the river. / painting: Seth Eastman; water color: Ten x Ten


The collaborative team applied a cultural landscape approach and emphasized inclusion of diverse advisors, collaborators, and stakeholders to develop a vision and goals for the project. Careful attention was placed on building strong relationships between people culturally connected to the landscape and the city who maintains it. Listening to people whose passionate connections to the landscape established a basis for understanding significance. The sacredness of the site is communicated through a variety of changes to the landscape and sharing of messages that build respect and restore dignity.

Western culture applies edges as cues communicating the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Rigid boundaries also indicate land ownership, another concept not aligned with Dakota worldviews. Cross-cultural expressions are essential tools to communicate alternate perspectives. / watercolor: Ten x Ten

Historical research utilized primary and secondary sources to develop a rich account of physical change in the landscape beginning with its geological formation through its current condition. The report includes a detailed chapter recounting the history of the site, with diagrams illustrating landscape conditions at key time periods. The tradition of mound building in Minnesota was initiated during a time when people became less mobile and larger communities came together to live in semi-permanent camps. People continued hunting and gathering and supplemented this with harvesting wild rice and gardening more intensively. Burial mounds were often located on elevated bluffs near major bodies of water, while villages were often located to provide access to wild rice. The Mississippi River valley was a regional center where people came together for ceremonies and events to reinforce communal ties and forge alliances.

The B’dote (confluence) area of the Mississippi River Valley contains many sites significant to the Dakota. / image: Google Maps with Quinn Evans overlay

Interviews and collaboration with descendant American Indians contributed a broad understanding of the meaning of the landscape to their communities today. Representatives of the associated communities were included throughout the project process to ensure their cultural perspectives informed recommendations for changes in the landscape.

A thorough analysis of integrity was conducted based on federal guidelines for cultural landscapes. The site is part of Mni Sota Makoce, Dakota homeland, and Bdote, the area surrounding the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers that is significant to many Dakota people as a place of origination, where the Dakota emerged. Dakota individuals come to the site to pray.

The US government used treaties to obtain Dakota homeland and open it to development. The eastern portion of the cemetery was reshaped into a park and western mounds were leveled for development of streets and buildings. Recreation replaced reverence. / image: Quinn Evans
Historic period plans from 200 BC-1837, 1837-1891, 1892-1928, and 1929-1980 / image: Quinn Evans

The vision for acknowledgement, care, and use of the site is informed by, and respectful of, it as a sacred place. The vision is guided by Mitákuye Ows’in, reflecting the interconnectedness of people, land, water, sky, animals, and plants, to provide a place for reverence, remembrance, and healing in a way that protects, honors, and acknowledges the sacred place of burial. Goals focus on:

  • protection of the sacred site;
  • identification and preservation or restoration of important characteristics;
  • guidance toward the desired condition of the mounds;
  • increased understanding and respect of the sacred burial ground, relatives, and ancestors who are here;
  • identification of appropriate experiences; and
  • establishment of a partnership between the city and tribes to guide use and care of the site.
A Bluff Section Diagram showing the concept of Mitákuye Ows’in / We Are All Connected. Dakota people are taught that “all” includes “everything seen and unseen” – animals, plants, humans, rocks, earth, waters, spirits. For many, a shift in thinking is required to see all of creation as our relative and not as objects or property. / image: Ten x Ten


The treatment identifies strategies addressing partnership, experience, messaging, and condition, to ensure that the vision is consistently applied across the site. The integration of native and culturally significant plants, physical messaging cues, benches, artful interventions, and signage are designed to bring deeper understanding of the place.

Blufftop landscapes along the Mississippi River were once ecologically rich Prairies, Hardwood Forests, Oak Savannahs, and Oak Barrens. The ancestors buried here and their living relatives have direct ties to this land that can be strengthened by ecological interventions. / image: Quinn Evans

Three phases build toward the long-term vision for the landscape and relationships associated with it. Each phase establishes changes to the physical landscape, strengthens relationships, and conveys the message that “this is a sacred burial ground,” through a stepped approach to build understanding of the sacred site and inspire people who come here to behave with respect. Recommendations for each part of the site address care of places of burial, natural resource management, and facilities and operations. Key to the transformation of the landscape are the establishment of a threshold of native plants and messaging cues to acknowledge the sacred site, conversion of mown areas to native plant communities, removal of impactful elements, and reduction of pavement and vehicular access.

The Threshold of Cues evolves over time as the public adjusts to changes. Starting as a clear band of Dakota-identified healing plants bisected by paths of stepping stones, the plantings are gradually expanded, establishing prairie across the site. / image: Ten x Ten

The Messaging Plan presents Key Messages of Respect + Honor, Mitákuye Ows’in, Dakota Land, Power of Place, Geologic Time, and Ecosystems of Imnizska, to build a better understanding of this site. The messages are integrated into the landscape in a variety of ways (sculptural features, signs, paving interventions, cultural and native plantings, media, furniture and material changes) and help connect people to stories, sensory experiences, and new perspectives, embracing a world view where edges, hard lines, and delineations do not exist, helping to dissolve the idea that the place of burial ends where the neighborhood begins. They are a reminder that this is not a park, it is a sacred place. Site-wide messaging is delivered through three strategies: Immediate Acknowledgment, a Threshold of Cues, and Digital Media.

Three strategies direct site-wide messaging: Immediate Acknowledgement, a Threshold of Cues, and Digital Media. / image: Ten x Ten
Features are added to the landscape to create powerful impressions to shift perceptions of this place for non-Indigenous visitors and help Indigenous people feel more welcome. / image: Ten x Ten

Immediate acknowledgment is underway and includes signage across the site and digital media tied to signage, with recordings of Dakota people telling stories about the significance of this land. The City of Saint Paul is forming a partnership with the tribes to guide future decision making. The City and tribes have indicated the project has great value to direct the future of the landscape and has been a successful first step in bringing together tribal representatives and city staff in development of an appropriate vision for the future of the site.

A critical value of the project is in forging a path forward for the transformation of the landscape from a recreational site to a place of acknowledgement and respect for the Indigenous People buried there, as well as their living descendants.

The threshold is a consistent band of messaging spanning across the site. Here native planting, benches, steppingstones, plant markers, and flag signs share messages of Dakota Land and honor. All proposed features are self-supported to avoid disruption of the ground. / image: Ten x Ten

Additional Information:

For more about Indian Mounds, a story map is currently under construction and can be viewed here: Indian Mounds: a sacred burial place.

The City of Saint Paul website includes a link to the Cultural Landscape Study and Messaging Plan.

Project Team:

  • Project Lead: Quinn Evans (Brenda Williams, FASLA, Stephanie Austin, ASLA, Shelby Scharen, ASLA, Heather Courtenay, MLA)
  • Client / Owner: City of Saint Paul Parks & Recreation Department (Bianca Paz, ASLA, Ellen Stewart, ASLA, Alice Messer, ASLA, Brett Hussong, ASLA)

Additional Project Credits:

Consulting Team:

  • Ten x Ten (team included Maura Rockcastle, ASLA, Katie Kelly, ASLA)
  • Allies LLC, Mona M. Smith, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, media artist

Tribal Representatives:

  • Prairie Island Indian Community (Franky Jackson, compliance officer; Noah White, THPO)
  • Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources)
  • Upper Sioux Indian Community (Samatha Odegard, THPO)
  • Lower Sioux Indian Community (Cheyanne St.John, THPO)
  • The Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin (William Quackenbush, THPO)
  • The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska (Lance Foster, THPO)

Brenda Williams, FASLA, is the Director of Preservation Planning and a Principal at Quinn Evans. Throughout her 30-year career as a landscape architect, Brenda has focused her passion and empathy for understanding human connections to landscapes, developing methods to support, strengthen, and adapt significant landscapes for the people to whom they are meaningful. Her work has a strong emphasis on landscapes in the public realm, where she champions appropriate access, recognition, preservation, adaptation, and interpretation of culturally significant sites. Recognized as a national leader in the conservation of cultural landscapes, she has developed award-winning design, planning, and stewardship solutions for significant cultural landscapes at National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and sites of regional and local importance throughout the United States.

One thought on “Indian Mounds: A Sacred Burial Place

  1. see2deep December 13, 2021 / 5:26 am

    Thank you for addressing the fact that mounds are sacred sites and not parks. However, as a descendant of mound building Natives, I want to ask that you and other European scholars stop erasing my ancestors by trying to make Plains natives into mound builders. The mounds existed in the area before the Dakota arrived. Plains Natives were not builders of the mounds. They have their own distinct cultures as do the Natives of tribes commonly referred to as mound builders. We still exist. We are not extinct. It would be great if European scholars and government officials would also acknowledge this fact instead of writing us out of history and existence as if we just disappeared. The erasure of Indigenous Americans is a huge problem that European colonists and their descendants have yet to correct. We are sacred too and our voices deserve to be heard.

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