To Crystal Norcross, the soon-to-be-realized opening of Wakan Tipi Center means her people will once again have a place to feel truly at home.

"It's hard not to have a place to belong in your own homeland," she said of a place she and others expect to become an epicenter for Dakota culture. "What I hope happens is that people see that we're still here. As Native people, we often get talked about in the past tense."

After years of wishing and fundraising, the $8.6 million center will soon become present tense.

Ground will be broken in September near the entrance to the 27-acre Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary at the edge of downtown St. Paul, thanks to a combination of state appropriations and private giving. Construction, including developing new trails throughout the sanctuary and a new parking lot, will take about a year, said Maggie Lorenz, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project and Wakan Tipi Center director. The center and revamped nature sanctuary should be ready to debut in spring 2023.

"It's really going to bring to the Twin Cities a place where the Dakota people feel at home in their homeland," said Lorenz, who descends from Spirit Lake Dakota Nation and is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. "We expect to have regular visitors from across the U.S. and Canada."

The site's importance as a spiritual and social hub to the Dakota people for hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of years was mostly overlooked by the white settlers who came to this area of bluffs along the Mississippi River. In 1766, a decade before the Declaration of Independence and 40 years before Lewis and Clark trekked to the Pacific, an English army captain by the name of Jonathan Carver arrived and made contact with American Indians near a "Great Cave."

To Native people, Wakan Tipi was a sacred meeting place. Animal petroglyphs adorned the cave walls. Later, after it became known as Carver's Cave, the site attracted its first tourists in the late 1800s and, later, more modern cave explorers. The petroglyphs were destroyed when the railroads blasted away part of the bluff to expand the nearby rail yard more than 100 years ago.

The entrance to the cave has since been closed, blocked by a sheet of steel. Lorenz said there has been talk of nominating the cave for historic preservation and protection.

The sanctuary, a short walk from downtown St. Paul, opened in 2005. The area was reclaimed after years of abuse as a polluted industrial site between the city's Lowertown and Dayton's Bluff neighborhoods.

The Trust for Public Land helped buy the land and then gave it to St. Paul to use as a park. Volunteers helped clean the site and planted it with native grasses and other plants. It provides habitat to eagles, herons and other wildlife.

But the sanctuary had no facilities.

That's about to change in a big way. Designed and programmed by Native people, the new center will highlight the centuries of significance of the area to the Dakota and other Native Americans — as well as attract new audiences, Lorenz said. She said the Native American-led Lower Phalen Creek Project hopes to raise another $1 million to help fund programming and staffing. A groundbreaking celebration is being planned, she said.

Juanita Espinosa is a Dakota elder and artist who lives on St. Paul's West Side. She said she is excited by the promise of Wakan Tipi Center — if still a little wary of getting too excited.

"Everything we are working toward makes it feel like we're coming home," she said. "But as with designing a house, so many things come into play. Will it be a place where we can come together? Or will it be too sterile?"

The fact that volunteers have been planting native plants and people are showing a commitment to returning the site to its long-ago identity "is a good thing," she said.

As a community member who plans to participate in developing Wakan Tipi Center, Espinosa said she wants it to be a place for her children and grandchildren to come and feel welcome. This area has always been home, she said. Wakan Tipi Center should reinforce that point.

"We have to create our own space for that," she said.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428