A major overhaul of the Hiawatha Golf Course, named after a fictional warrior from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, is again up for consideration by the Park Board after multiple failed attempts to reduce golf in order to restore the ecology of the floodplain where the course sits.
Now more Indigenous residents are weighing in, saying their views on the importance of wildlife and clean water have been sidelined throughout the past eight years of controversy between the Park Board and advocates of the golf course.
“Frankly, I don’t think that people care enough about Native people,” said Naomi Anywaush, who has a background in tribal historic preservation, including the protection of burial grounds, wild waters and rice beds. “I think a lot of people think that we are dead and gone as a people … and that reinforces not listening to Native voices.”
The Hiawatha Golf Course Area Master Plan calls for redesigning the course, which sits 4 feet below the level of Lake Hiawatha in the historical Minnehaha Creek floodplain, so that stormwater can flow more naturally through the grounds as the climate changes. The adjustments would allow for a storm sewer diversion and trash collection system in the northwest corner of the site, along with water-cleaning green infrastructure such as stormwater planters and tree trenches. The plan also proposes strategic removal of the golf course fence to allow greater access for non-golfers.
Golf course advocates have successfully blocked the master plan for years because it calls for reducing the 18-hole regulation course to nine holes. That is a nonstarter for some because the Hiawatha Golf Course was among the first five racially integrated courses in the Minneapolis park system. It continues to be home turf for many Black golfers.
For lack of a plan to decrease the excessive groundwater pumping required to keep the course dry and stop the constant flow of trash into Lake Hiawatha, the area’s environmental problems remain unresolved.
Lake Hiawatha — engineered out of the former Bde Psin, or Rice Lake — is sacred to the Dakota, who consider the region around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to be the genesis of their people, subject to fishing and ricing rights under the 1805 Treaty, said Anywaush. In about 1930, park planners dredged the lake — destroying what wild rice grew there — to create a fenced-in golf course.
“Because it’s been so polluted by trash, pesticides — a lot of it coming from the golf course — we’re unable to even practice our traditional ways with that lake,” Anywaush said.
The Park Board invited Chris Mato Nunpa, a genocide scholar with a Ph.D and an activist who has tested treaty rights on Cedar Lake, to present Indigenous perspectives on the Hiawatha area and golf course planning process.
“Guided by our traditional Dakota values re: animals and by a history of deliberate and sometimes hostile and deadly neglect for our Dakota issues and concerns, especially the history of non-consultation of Dakota people over the centuries, I am for clean and clear water,” Mato Nunpa said. “If it comes to a choice between a golf course and fun and games versus a clean and healthful environment for the animals, birds and fish, then I, as an 82-winters-old Dakota guy, choose to preserve a clean lake for the fish people, and a healthy environment for the survival of our animals and birds — our relatives.”
Also speaking at the meeting were Antony Stately of the Native American Community Clinic, who asked park commissioners to increase the green space at Lake Hiawatha Park where Native children are allowed to run and play, and Marisa Anywaush, who praised the master plan as a necessary compromise between those who want to preserve 18 holes at Hiawatha and those who want golf gone.
“What we need you to do, elected officials, is vote for the Hiawatha Master Plan so that the Park Board can finally take responsibility for the pollution it is knowingly allowing. Look to the original stewards who kept this land and water clean for thousands of years for your answers,” said Nicole Cavender, who lives near Lake Hiawatha, in a letter to commissioners. “The water seeping from beneath this golf course is evidence of the water returning the area west of the lake to its natural state: wetlands. That’s why we’re here. And you legally can’t throw dirt on this. It’s a flood plain.”
The last time the Park Board solicited the opinions of Indigenous park users on the golf course planning process was February 2019.
The Park Board ordered a public hearing to be held on the master plan. It is anticipated to take place Aug. 17, but has not been officially scheduled yet.
Commissioners Billy Menz, Alicia D. Smith and Becka Thompson said they will ultimately vote against the plan.