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Future, past of Indian Heights Park examined

Future, past of Indian Heights Park examined
Barb Hudson talks with Gary Boardman about wildlife they had seen while walking through Indian Heights Park.

It's strange, how a site containing one of Rochester's highest points should also be an often-overlooked and widely unknown city park.

But that's due to change, with a citizens steering committee taking testimony and holding discussions to recommend future uses for Indian Heights Park.

The 36-acre park, covering a wooded hillside between Assisi Heights and the Crenlo plant, came into public discussion after a group of neighbors objected to plans by the Rochester Active Sports Club to build new mountain-biking trails through it.

Neighbors' wishes, to preserve the park as a natural refuge of oak savanna with rare, fragile flowering plants, first caught the Park Board's attention. Development of the bike trails was put on hold.

Then, an examination of the park's history uncovered a strong likelihood that Native Americans buried tribal members' remains and held ceremonies there. That would make areas of the park a sacred site, in Native Americans' view, and perhaps worthy of special preservation under state and federal laws.


The steering committee, headed by Park Board member Larry Mortensen, began twice-monthly meetings in the fall, to "take a look at the park and develop what I would describe as a long-term plan for the park," Mortensen said.

The group includes members from the neighborhood group, RASC, and the Native American Center of Southeast Minnesota, and its mission, at least in the early going, was "let's gather the facts as best we can," Mortensen said.

Meetings have included presentations from all of the interest groups, including environmentalists, archaeologists, neighbors and bicyclists. The committee is starting to compile that testimony and, after more talk and debate, will send a recommendation to the Park Board as soon as June.

Around the same time the committee began its work, a neighborhood group, Friends of Indian Heights Park , formed, with the aim of preserving the park as a natural area for Rochester residents and visitors to enjoy.

The group published a website — www.foih.org — that includes park maps, a history of the park, and lists of bird and plant species that can be found there.

The park "is really a jewel," said group President Barb Hudson. "Five minutes in there, you'd swear you're 20 miles outside Rochester."

"We've spent a lot of our own money and time ... trying to get the word out," Hudson said. "That we don't want people in our backyard — that is so far from the truth."

"People are yearning to reconnect with the earth, get away from the speed of life," she said. "It is just so healing."


But off-road mountain biking, allowed in Indian Heights Park since 1992, is destructive to the hillsides, causing erosion, Hudson said.

"It's been small enough where it's been a nuisance, but we've tolerated it," she said.

Jeff Robertson, who represents RASC on the steering committee, says engineered trails are built to prevent the kind of environmental damage Hudson describes.

"We've tried to educate people more that a mountain-biking trail is really no different than a walking trail when it's built correctly," he said. "It's really no difference on the environment."

The group offered a scaled-back version of its trails plan before the steering committee began its work.

"We would still like to have additional mountain-biking trails in Rochester," Robertson said. "Over time, we've lost a lot of mountain bike trails we used to have. We just seem to be going backwards."

The Active Sports Club's purpose is a healthy one, Robertson said.

"Any way we can get kids more active is, I think, an important thing," he said.


Sports activity is not compatible with a sacred site, in Native Americans' view, said members of the steering committee at a meeting Tuesday.

"We basically want the place to be left alone," said Jim Wilson, chairman of the Native American Center of Southeast Minnesota and a member of the steering committee.

"Commune with nature, pray, whatever you want to do, as long as you're not damaging anything," he said.

Historical records state that as recently as 1854, the land was used as a burial ground. It was also perhaps a site of spiritual ceremonies, such as vision quests, was a hunting grounds and perhaps a lookout site, Wilson said.

Whether any human remains are still buried on the hill is not yet known, but there are some "targeted locations" awaiting further archaeological study that should be protected, said Valerie DeCora Guimaraes, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a Dakota descendant who attends the steering committee meetings.

The Native American presence in the park "fell into obscurity, and that's unfortunate," Guimaraes said. "Now that we know it's here, we can preserve a very important piece of history."

The Native American Center plans to reinstitute ceremonies at the park, starting with a "Healing Earth" ceremony, later this year, Wilson said.


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