Winding scenic byway in Frontenac State Park

Road Trip to Native American Cultural Sites in Southern Minnesota

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Autumn at Frontenac State Park / Flickr user evilfoo, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Road Trip to Native American Cultural Sites in Southern Minnesota

By Cheyanne St. John

Southern Minnesota, from Welch in the east to Granite Falls in the west, offers some of the state’s greatest educational, cultural and recreational sites, including some that are extremely important to my people—the Dakota.

Linking them all is our state’s namesake river, Mni Śota wakpa (the Minnesota River). On a recent weekend, I set out to explore various Dakota and scenic spots along the astonishing 300-mile Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway.

Dancer at Prairie Island Indian Community Wacipi

A dancer at the Prairie Island Indian Community Wacipi / Barb McLean

Tinta Winta, the Prairie Island Indian Community

My pilgrimage began in Welch at the Dakota Nation called Tinta Winta, the Prairie Island Indian Community. First up was the tribe’s summer wacipi (powwow). Here, I found myself surrounded by some of the best indigenous dancers, singers and cultural art vendors in the region, along with Native and non-Native audiences sharing in the celebration. The vibrant colors of the feathers, beadwork and ribbons were mesmerizing.

I spent most of the morning and early afternoon watching competition dancing while chomping on an Indian taco—a fluffy frybread with taco toppings. By afternoon, I felt the call of the breathtaking Mississippi River Valley and headed out for some rambunctious activity of my own.

At Frontenac State Park, about 15 miles south of Red Wing, I hiked the 2.7-mile Bluffside Trail, which led me to the park’s unique geological feature, Inyan Tiopa (stone entry). As a site of traditional ceremony and burial, it’s quite significant to the Dakota people. I took a moment to center myself and breathe in the scenery before completing the trail loop.

A pottery demonstration at the Lower Sioux Historical Site

A pottery demonstration at the Lower Sioux Historical Site

Canśayapi, the Lower Sioux Indian Community

The next day, I drove 125 miles eastward to a second Dakota Nation–the Morton-based Canśayapi, or Lower Sioux Indian Community–and took a quiet stroll along the Lower Sioux Agency historic site’s trails. The views of the tree canopy above the Minnesota River were gorgeous!

Afterwards, I toured the Lower Sioux Agency interpretive center, which showcases a tumultuous period in U.S.-Dakota relations, as well as a present-day snapshot of the Lower Sioux. I leaned into the virtual reality exhibit, hands-on learning trunks and the giftshop’s pottery by Lower Sioux artists.

Redwood Falls in Ramsey Park

Redwood Falls in Ramsey Park

Following my exploration of Lower Sioux Agency, I stopped in Ramsey Park in Redwood Falls where I hit the trails and admired the Dakota-language park signs. The park is within the corridor known to the Dakota as Canśayapi (“where the trees are painted red”). Historically, Dakota people marked hundreds of traditional and sacred places in Minnesota in their language, and the five new park signs extend that tradition.

I simply couldn’t leave without checking out the buffalo, elk and goats in the park zoo and watching the incredible Redwood Falls tumble toward the rocks below.

Signboard at Upper Sioux Agency State Park

Upper Sioux (Yellow Medicine) Agency Historic Site / Tony Webster, shared under CC BY-SA 2.0

Pezutazizi, the Upper Sioux Community

Finally, I headed to the west end of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway corridor and the trip’s third Dakota Nation—Pezutazizi, the Upper Sioux Community. I spent the day exploring the natural and historic sites of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, the location of the original agency lost in the Dakota War of 1862.

I walked the Terrace and Raspberry loop trails, then toured the two on-site historic structures—the duplex and annuity building. My journey ended with a visit to the tipi campgrounds inside the park’s tipi demo, where replicas of traditional Dakota tipi items were on display.

National Eagle Center

National Eagle Center, Wabasha

Extend Your Trip

In Prairie Island, enjoy a grab & go iced latte at Tradewinds coffee and snack bar inside Treasure Island Casino and Resort.

Stop by the National Eagle Center in Wabasha for a dose of history, culture and wildlife.

In Morton, visit Birch Coulee Battlefield, Renville County Museum, the Morton canoe landing, Jackpot Junction Casino Hotel and Lower Sioux Agency's June powwow.

In Granite Falls, stroll through the historic downtown area, home to breweries, pubs and coffee shops. Don’t miss Upper Sioux Community's annual powwow in August and Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort.


Cheyanne St. John

Cheyanne St. John is the oldest granddaughter of Ernest Wabasha, sixth generation Hereditary Chief of the Mdewakanton Dakota. She is the director of the Cansayapi Cultural Department and the tribal historic preservation officer for Lower Sioux Indian Community.