Artist Andrea Carlson remembers sacred Spirit Island, destroyed for St. Anthony Falls' lock and dam

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Spirit Island, which once stood downstream of St. Anthony Falls, didn’t fare very well under the stewardship of white settlers and industrialists. Once a sacred site of the Dakota people, the island became eroded by the work of lumber barons and limestone miners over several hundred years.

It was eventually blown up by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1960 to make way for ships passing through to the new lock and dam, which opened in 1963 and closed in 2015.

This weekend, Anishinaabe artist Andrea Carlson pays tribute to the island in a four-screen film that will be projected on the now-closed lock and dam.

The piece looks at the past as a way to envision new futures. “A lot of people might be sentimental and sad and lament the decommissioning of the lock and dam, but I’d rather lament the loss of a beautiful natural structure,” she says. “Everyone used to canoe out to it and have their picnic lunch on the nice sandy beach. Eagles nested in the trees. It was beautiful.”

She hopes that the work will encourage people to think about alternative histories. “When you have any type of history, you have other histories,” Carlson says. “There’s a lot of people that don’t know what tribes are indigenous to the land they live on.”

While she is not Dakota herself, and doesn’t believe the story of the island is hers to tell, Carlson did want to create a piece of solidarity between Dakota and Anishinaabe people.

“We’re in this together,” she says. “Divide and conquer is what happened to us… It’s something we relate to and something we share in common as far as our history.”

Carlson thinks about Spirit Island every time she’s in the area. “Whenever I go across the Stone Arch Bridge, I don’t look in the direction of the lock and dam, I look in the opposite direction,” she says. “I just imagine that island, and I try to imagine where it was, what it looked like, and how tall it was.”

Carlson first learned about Spirit Island while she was in undergrad at the University of Minnesota. “I remember somebody saying there used to be this beautiful island right off the Stone Arch Bridge,” she says. “So I did some digging to see what it would have looked like.”

Last spring while working with Northern Lights, she brought up the history of Spirit Island to executive director Steve Dietz. When an opportunity came for artists to propose projects for the lock and dam, Dietz suggested a piece about the island.

“That’s exactly what I would do anyway,” Carlson says. “It kind of came about very organically.”

For the film, Carlson has created images based on photographs from the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as historical maps. The photos document the island in various stages of collapse. Text of Dakota and Anishinaabe words and phrases, such as “You are on Dakota Land,” overlap images.

It’s all part of a project organized by the Mississippi Park Connection, the National Park Service, and Northern Lights MN. The event kicked off last weekend with an installation by Aaron Dysart. Visitors can see Carlson’s piece next weekend.


“Illuminate the Lock: Andrea Carlson, the Uncompromising Hand”
8-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sep. 29-30
Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock Visitor Center
1 Portland Ave., Minneapolis