History and Sacredness
He Mni Can-Barn Bluff, the City of Red Wing’s most famous landmark, began forming over a half billion years ago as part of the floor of a shallow inland sea; taking its current form as the result of raging glacial melt waters, which carved the Mississippi River Valley. He Mni Can-Barn Bluff and its nearby neighbor, Sorin’s Bluff, withstood most of the powerful erosion and became islands in the river.
Northern Trading Terminus
Prehistoric humans lived in the area and built burial mounds on top of the bluff. About 800 years ago, the Mississippian culture thrived in the Red Wing area and archeologists believe that the many sites in and around Red Wing served as a northern trading terminus.
Sometime around the year 1815, the Bdewakantunwan Dakota, led by Tatankamani (Walking Buffalo) also known as “Red Wing” by early Europeans and Americans, moved their camp to a place they called Khemnichan (Hill, Water, Wood) – close to the bluff. The Bdewakantunwan used He Mni Can-Barn Bluff as a lookout for approaching enemies and as a place of safety for women and children in time of war.
Explorers and Visitors
Explorers and visitors including Zebulon Pike, Major Stephen H. Long, Henry Schoolcraft, and Henry David Thoreau climbed the bluff and remarked about the beautiful scenic views He Mni Can-Barn Bluff offered of the Mississippi River valley.
Red Wing’s early Euro-American settlers used the bluff as a lookout each spring in anticipation of the arrival of the first steamboat of the season. During the great immigration period of the 1850s to 1880s, thousands disembarked at the base of Barn Bluff to begin a new life on the frontier.
From the mid 1800s to 1908, stone from He Mni Can-Barn Bluff was used as a building material, rip-rap by the railroad, and for the production of lime. Although the stone industry was important to the local economy, residents protested the resulting defacing of the bluff and eventually saved He Mni Can-Barn Bluff. Several abandoned quarries and the G.A. Carlson Lime Kiln (at the northeast corner of the bluff) remain as reminders of Red Wing’s limestone industry.
People from all walks of life feel a strong connection to the bluff, and each person has his or her own story, memory, or feeling about this place. In 2016, as the City worked on the plan for the bluff’s future, we learned — and finally began to understand — how sacred the bluff is to the Bdewakantunwan Dakota people of the Prairie Island Indian Community. This is a crucial fact that must not be ignored any longer.
The bluff has already been harmed extensively by quarrying in the late 1800s and early 1900s, rebuilding the bridge in the late 1950s, and constructing and removing stairs on the western side of the bluff from downtown.
The Dakota and other tribes have long held ceremonies and rituals on the bluff and consider it sacred ground. Dakota feel the same way about this bluff as western cultures feel about their cemeteries and churches. Non-native people also revere the bluff in personal ways. We are now together working to create a place where all people can honor, respect, and enjoy the space.
Today, the connection between Prairie Island Indian Community and the City of Red Wing is growing stronger, and both view this bluff as a positive way forward. Improvements have been and are being made on the bluff, all done under the guiding principles of Heal, Sustain, Educate, and Honor — principles that have been in place since 2016. Those improvements include a new interpretive area for the bluff, shifting sections of trails to respect historic archeology, and sharing native history and culture with all who visit the bluff. One step was renaming Barn Bluff to include its Dakota name, He Mni Can, pronounced Heh-Meh-NEE-Cha, meaning hill, water, wood.
To celebrate the path ahead, Prairie Island Indian Community and the City of Red Wing held a community hike and ceremony on October 16, 2018. More than 100 people attended. Tribal Council President Shelley Buck welcomed attendees and spoke of a positive future between the two communities. Spiritual leader Art Owen told of the bluff's history and said a special prayer. Former Mayor Sean Dowse presented PIIC leaders with a gift, a handcrafted wooden bowl whose features signify hill, water, wood and the joining of two communities. Attendees hiked the bluff and many learned along the way of the bluff's history and native, edible plants. Afterward, everyone enjoyed buffalo chili and herbal tea (with rose hips and bergemot from the bluff).