Red Wing, Minn. – The sign behind Art Owen said Barn Bluff, but the spiritual leader from the Prairie Island Indian Community told more than 75 people gathered around him last week that he was there to talk about He Mni Can, the Mdewakanton Dakota name for what's left of a massive promontory cradled between a bend of the Mississippi River and this city of more than 16,000.
Long before white settlers hacked away part of the hill for its limestone, the Mdewakanton Dakota revered it as a holy place, a lookout, campground and burial ground. In 1910, the city took over the land to save what was left and convert it to a park. But since the late 1950s, the most notable aspect of the bluff has been the broad rock face overlooking town, which proved irresistible to high school seniors who tagged it with their graduating class and other graffiti artists who turned it into a communal bulletin board.
After years of study and debate, the City Council voted recently to enforce its citywide ban on graffiti and move forward with a master plan that calls for $6.7 million in improvements. City and tribal officials joined together last Tuesday for a guided walk up the bluff in keeping with the plan's four guiding principles: heal, sustain, educate and honor.
"For us, this is more than just a rock. … It tells our creation story," said Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, speaking through a bullhorn. "It means a lot to us to have so many people come out and share this."
In the Dakota language, He Mni Can (pronounced, heh-meh-NEE-cha) means hill, water, wood. Owen said the bluff attracted ancestral visionaries who act as guides for the Indian community.
A buffalo heart is buried atop the bluff, he said, and he urged those making the climb to take a bit of that spirit back with them. The animal gave its life "to build a bridge, to tie us together," Owen said. "And what you bring down is an understanding and thought for all mankind. I would like you to carry that the rest of your life."
Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse told those gathered that they were celebrating a day of unity between the city and Prairie Island. He presented the tribe with a rustic wooden bowl that symbolizes He Mni Can. Turned upside down, it evokes the bluff, he said. The grain inside evokes ripples rolling through water; the wood material evokes the trees.
Dowse said later that the relationship between the tribe and the city has been "strained" in the past, but he's optimistic that will change. He said city officials want to work with the tribe on area projects, such as a bridge over the railroad tracks on the road to the Treasure Island Resort & Casino. Work must start within a year or the project will lose federal funding, he said.
As the crowd made its way up the bluff Tuesday, guides pointed out native plants that can be used to make tea or soothe the itch of poison ivy. "Anytime our community can come together like this, I think it's pretty cool," said Renae Exner of Red Wing.
Michael Diercks, a senior studying archaeology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, talked with Buck about burial mounds and early campgrounds. She welcomed his interest and praised his professor's scholarship.
On their way down the hill, Buck and Nicci Lehto, a member of the Prairie Island Tribal Council, talked about how their families have suffered at the hands of whites. Their grandparents were afraid to speak their own language, they said.
Asked what's next for the tribe and Red Wing, Buck said, "We just continue our meetings and work together on projects that benefit both communities." She said they're working on a new procedure where the tribe would be consulted on city projects. Although a state archaeologist surveys pending projects, she said, it's not enough. More than half a dozen mounds were destroyed on one road project that went through without tribal input, she noted.
"For me, the next steps would be changing the educational system in the state so they're teaching the true history," Buck said, noting that the term "redskin" was a reference to a bounty that was paid on dead Indians. "There's a lot of hurt and pain in our people for what happened to them years ago."