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Behind the Lens: Sacred Minnesota

Navigating sacred spaces with ties to religion, culture, and neighborhood

May 21, 2021

By Kelsey Derby

Shana Sippy
Shana Sippy

People from all walks of life find and create sacred places in Minnesota. The term, “sacred” is often associated with religion, and these spaces do often derive from religious practices, but just as significantly derive from cultural and spiritual practices that exist in many different groups across the state. This spring, TPT worked in close coordination with Carleton College’s ReligionsMN project to create a series of digital shorts entitled Sacred Minnesota.

The series covers four separate stories: a sacred landscape called Bdote that connects contemporary Dakota people to ancestors and homelands, America’s largest Cambodian Buddhist temple built by immigrants fleeing genocide, home altars found within Mexican immigrant’s homes, and a Hindu temple in an old church that becomes a welcoming place for all. While this series provides a small window into these specific sacred spaces, it represents just a slice of how diverse communities make a place for themselves in Minnesota through sacred space.

Michael McNally
Michael McNally

We spoke with Shana Sippy, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Centre College and Michael McNally, the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College, who co-direct ReligionsMN. They have worked in partnership and conducted research with MN religious communities for over a decade. Through these shorts, they sought to convey the power and depth of their community partners’ stories. Exploring the history and tradition behind these sacred spaces, McNally and Sippy offer context for why they chose to partner with TPT storytellers to bring these narratives to life.

How it all started

Sippy and McNally met while in grad school at Harvard. They were both connected to a project mapping new religious diversity in the U.S. after the 1965 expansion of immigration to Asia, Africa, and Latin America and built their subsequent careers exploring Indigenous and diasporic traditions in the U.S. By happenstance, their separate journeys led them both to Minnesota’s Carleton College, teaching courses that involve students in public scholarship on religious diversity in Minnesota. Sippy says:

“Michael and I were both compelled by the idea of having students look at real life experiences and documenting them with some measure of depth. More than, ‘oh look there’s cultural difference and there happens to be people who are here and it’s just a happy little lovely story.’ We became really invested in the idea of looking at the complicated contours of religious life and the ways in which the history of colonization, of migration, of war—all of those things—inform how people make their place in Minnesota, or, in the case of Native communities, how they are working to protect important places that have been taken or desecrated.”

“This [production with TPT] grew out of the larger questions about the ways in which people make and preserve place and how they think about their relationship to different kinds of homes, communities, and the sacred.”

McNally elaborated on their focus saying,

“There’s a lot of celebration of our ethnic diversity and racial diversity in terms of culture, but making places sacred is, and has been, such a huge part of these communities. These are ways that they’ve made a place for themselves, often in the face of dealing with pretty hostile conditions. This isn’t about religion in any kind of wooden way, it’s really about the way that religious practices and religious traditions are, for Minnesota communities, a real resource for their well-being. Making a place and living here on their own terms.”


Sacred spaces are essential

The beauty of these shorts lies in drawing similarities from these four separate cultural traditions – with vastly different histories. As humans, we all find meaning, orientation, and comfort through place, whether it’s our homes, our churches, our temples, or our relationships to land. TPT could create hundreds of shorts surrounding this topic as sacred spaces exist within nearly every group in the state.

Bdote is Dakota Sacred Landscape from the series

What makes the practice of analyzing these spaces so interesting is the often-complicated purpose that these spaces serve. Sippy speaks about the Fourth of July celebration that happens each year at the Indo-Caribbean temple. In that festival we see the merging of American culture with Guyanese culture, which is a perfect example of how the community transforms their practices and conception of what happens in, and what constitutes sacred space. In the Bdote short, Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, a citizen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, describes how, for many Dakota people, Bdote is sacred in a way that is not contingent on it being pristine and pure, but is instead a matter of obligations to ancestors and future generations.

In taking the time to tell these stories, we uncover a rich background with layers of cultural influence.

A new sacred space

Both emphasize Minnesota’s specific role in these stories. McNally says, “we have a tradition of neighborliness,” and of course that plays to the common narrative of “Minnesota Nice.” Sippy also mentions that “because of Minnesota’s long history of Native peoples and its history of welcoming refugees and immigrants, we see examples of community engagement, cooperation and conflict that are unique to this environment.”

George Floyd Square
George Floyd Square in Minneapolis

McNally recalls the killing of George Floyd and how this global event happened right here in Minneapolis.

He says,“[Our neighborliness] has been really shaken by George Floyd’s murder. The sort of soul reckoning that Minnesota has had to ask itself while becoming the poster child for white supremacy around the globe. Minnesota has both of these things: we have incredible, incredible resources of neighborliness and goodwill, and we have these dramatic opportunity gaps and achievement gaps. For us, it’s important to create opportunities for people to hear stories across lines of religious and cultural difference and maybe use goodwill and neighborliness to inform our reactions and not to work against them.”

Sippy highlights the fact that there are remarkable efforts by leaders like Jeanelle Austin and other community stewards who are working to preserve the George Floyd Global Memorial. They have a remarkable story to tell, about how 38th and Chicago has been consecrated as a sacred space, and how it has truly become holy ground for communities doing this racial reckoning.

She says, “This public space of protest and pilgrimage has been a place of coming together, a place of pain, a place of trauma but also of transformation … On any given day [you can] see dancing and singing, and also crying and weeping. It is the Black community’s story to tell: how the sacred is constituted and reconstituted, sustaining people in the midst of profound grief and violence.”

Learn more

Sippy and McNally encourage you to learn more about these four profiled communities and dozens of others by visiting

If you haven’t yet, check out the four short stories on here. With the support of the Minnesota Humanities Center, Carleton and TPT will also release 7-8 minute versions of each short. Stay tuned for more information.

Support for the project comes from Carleton College as well as from TPT and wouldn’t be possible without TPT members. Thank you. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can support this important work, click here.

© Twin Cities Public Television - 2021. All rights reserved.


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