New Brighton state senator talks support for Upper Sioux park transfer

ST. PAUL — The land that is now part of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park is more than just a park, state Sen. Mary Kunesh said.

“I think the first, most important thing is to acknowledge that these are sacred lands,” said Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton.

Kunesh is the chief author of one of the bills in the Minnesota Legislature that would start the process of transferring ownership of Upper Sioux Agency State Park lands to the Upper Sioux Community.

Kunesh spoke with the Independent about how she came to carry the bill in the Senate. Kunesh said it wasn’t appropriate for the Upper Sioux Agency lands to be used as a recreational area.

The proposed park transfer was a topic that drew a large crowd to an informational meeting in Granite Falls earlier this month. Speakers at the meeting, including Upper Sioux Community Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold said land included in the park was both sacred, and part of historic treaty land.

At the meeting, area legislators pointed out that the park transfer bills moving through the legislature were authored by lawmakers from other parts of the state.

Kunesh represents state Senate District 39, which covers parts of Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. However, as a legislator she has also been active on issues that affect Native Americans.

“I have a lot of background on these issues nationally, locally and statewide,” she said. Kunesh is of Native descent. As a Minnesota state Representative, she was part of efforts that led to the creation of the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office. As a Senator, she also authored a bill strengthening the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act, which was passed this spring.

Kunesh said she was asked about carrying the Upper Sioux Agency State Park transfer bill early in January. But, she said, “This is not new information, from what I understand.”

The Upper Sioux Community and Chairman Jensvold had been talking with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Historical Society about a possible land transfer for a number of years, Kunesh said.

“It did not come out of the blue,” she said.

At the public information meeting in Granite Falls, DNR Southern Region Director Scott Roemhildt also said Jensvold had repeatedly asked that the park lands be returned to the Upper Sioux Community.

Kunesh said she didn’t think returning the park lands to the Upper Sioux Community would be setting a precedent. There have already been other pieces of land returned to Native American tribes, she said. In some cases, tribes have also bought land back.

Kunesh said so far, other state legislators have shown interest in hearing about the park transfer.

“The legislators are very receptive. They’ve asked me a lot of questions,” Kunesh said.

The companion bill on the park transfer in the Minnesota House of Representatives also received support from Native American legislators, Kunesh said. Among the 11 authors of the House bill are Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead; Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville; and Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, DFL-Duluth. All three are Native American.

“This bill is likely to happen,” Kunesh said of the land transfer proposal.

But there would still be a lot of work to do, she said. The park transfer bills require the DNR to identify any possible obstacles to the transfer, along with possible solutions. Funds were also being requested to create a replacement recreation area for the park.

Kunesh said it was important for neighboring community members to learn more about the issue.

“It’s a good time to start to learn and understand both sides of the issue,” she said.


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