(RNS) — At approximately 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, a white supremacist terrorist — motivated by a fear that whites were being “replaced” by immigrants and the growth of nonwhite Americans — massacred 10 people and injured three others in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. As this 18-year-old young man unleashed a deadly barrage of more than 70 rounds from an assault rifle with the N-word emblazoned on the barrel, I was sitting on a hill in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.
I was learning more about how central demographic and cultural replacement has been to white supremacy in this country — plainly evident in the systematic genocide and removal of Native Americans from their historic lands by white European settlers, backed by our nation’s military and government. You can see the violent logic of white replacement in the soil itself and in the competing names that have been assigned to that hill, a 350-foot-high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.
In documented history back to the early 1800s and in oral Native American traditions reaching much farther, this land was known as “Oheyawahi” (the place much visited). It served as a sacred burial and ceremonial space for the Dakota people. Early French fur traders acknowledged it as “La Butte des Morts” (hill of the dead). As white settlers increased in Minnesota in the mid-1800s, the place became known in English as Pilot Knob, because its geographic distinctiveness allowed riverboat captains, with their cargoes of goods and guns, to safely mark their position on their missions supporting white proliferation along the great rivers.
In 1925, most of the hill was purchased by the Masons and christened “Acacia Cemetery,” after a sprig used in Masonic funeral ceremonies. Early advertisements declared the land was to be “dedicated to the exclusive and perpetual use of Masons and their families.” An extensive landscaping and monument construction plan removed more than 20 vertical feet from the top of the hill, a process that conveniently cleansed the land of most Native American remains. Some bones, most of which likely belonged to Dakota people, were collected haphazardly in a vault at the periphery of the property when they marred the landscaping plan or trespassed on a purchased white burial plot.
After the tour concluded, I left Mendota Heights for a different kind of sacred space, George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.