To the Dakota people, Ȟemníčhaŋ (Hemnican) / Barn Bluff is one of the most sacred places in the world

The City of Red Wing, Minnesota had a call for a creative artist to listen to community voices to add to the different associations people in the area have to Ȟemníčhaŋ/Hemnican (Barn Bluff); from the history of the geological formation to Indigenous peoples such as the Dakota and Ho-Chunk and to the immigrants of recent times. I was the artist selected for the project.

I illustrated the spiritual connections of the Indigenous peoples, as well as the spiritual nature of the plants and animals that have often been ignored in recent times. The Bluff has drastically changed its form in those years from the construction projects and lime quarrying of the early days of Red Wing.

Before the city of Red Wing was the Dakota village of Ȟemníčhaŋ with their everlasting relationship with the bluffs of their homelands. They continue this tradition in the nearby community of Prairie Island, Minnesota.

You can learn about the bluff via the City of Red Wing’s website.

I focused on engaging the community in telling a variety of stories about Red Wing’s powerful and iconic natural landmark: Ȟemníčhaŋ (He Mni Can) / Barn Bluff. To the Dakota people, the bluff is one of the most sacred places in the world. For recent western culture, it holds decades of newer memories and is key to the identity of Red Wing.

It is clear the landmark represents different meanings to different people. Sometimes these different points of view create conflict. The purpose of this project is to reach out and engage the community in telling the many and varied stories about the bluff so that we honor and document our human relationships with this place.

Dakota Homelands

The land speaks


 For this project, I created a Dakota homeland map of the area from Prairie Island to Red Wing and Winona. It features traditional and ancient locations as well as modern places in the Dakota language. You can download a free print and hear the words pronounced here.


The bluff’s spirit is represented to the Dakota people through stories of Íŋyaŋ (Stone Spirit). One such example tells of how Ȟemníčhaŋ (Barn Bluff) was split into two. Two Dakota villages fought over the possession of the sacred bluff. As a compromise, the Great Spirit divided it into half and moved the other portion downriver to what’s known today as Wabasha’s Hat in Winona (a portion is said to have fallen at Trempealeau Mountain as well).

From atop the bluff, one can see the land for miles around, including Tháŋka Bdé (Lake Pepin) where Dakota people believe there are Uŋktéȟi, the underwater serpents who brings about drownings, floods and mysterious deaths because of their deep dislike of people. Wakíŋyaŋ, the thunder being and messenger of Íŋyaŋ (Stone Spirit) protects humans from Uŋktéȟi, as the two are eternal enemies with mankind stuck in the middle of their war.  

View the map

Near Ȟemníčhaŋ Othúŋwe Wašté (Red Wing, Minnesota), there are numerous burial mounds and in one set, there contains a thunderbird effigy. Scientists have studied it to note there’s a much higher frequency of lightning strikes there than in comparison to other locations. Thunderbolts also represents the connection between life and death, earth and sky, as it connects land with the heavens (and the Milky Way we believe to travel in the afterlife).

These Dakota beliefs are mirrored in the scientific understanding of lightning as an energy-balancing transfer between the positively charged earth and negatively charged thunderclouds.

Return of Wakíŋyaŋ

Representing the spirits of weather and water

Understanding of weather is important to both Indigenous peoples and later immigrants. In the early days of Red Wing, European-Americans would mark the end of winter with the return of the boats coming up the Mississippi River; the boats were vital to the early days of a rivertown such as Red Wing. The people would rush to the top of Ȟemníčhaŋ (Barn Bluff) to watch them come in. Meanwhile, Dakota people have their own  way of marking the end of winter on the bluff with a ceremony called “Return of the Wakíŋyaŋ” or the thunder beings, which mark the return of spring and rejuvenation of life.

In this piece, Wakíŋyaŋ is illustrated as a traditional grass dancer, who look up to Wakíŋyaŋ as their “patron deity”. Many of the items relate to Wakíŋyaŋ, including the thunderbolt-cut whip, rattle (see Siŋtéȟda (Rattlesnake), Protector of Medicines for detailed story of the rattle) as well as being a way to honor warriors (Wakíŋyaŋ is a god of war). The chokecherry is used sometimes to create arrows and dragonflies represent the spirits of past warriors. The prairie rose and Grass Dance Society teaches warriors to also make peace.

Siŋtéhda (Rattlesnake), protector of medicines

Representing the animals and plants that call the bluff home

There are also burial mounds located atop the bluff, which are believed by Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples to be protected by the Rattlesnake: Siŋtéȟda protects both the ancient burial mounds and sacred medicine plants that are located on the bluffs along the Wakpá Tháŋka (Mississippi River); thus, there are many burial mounds in the shape of rattlesnakes located in the region, including just a few miles outside of Red Wing near Spring Creek. In the Red Wing area as well as the Wisconsin Dells area, Dakota and Hochunk people would have inter-tribal ceremonies in the Spring to honor the dead as well as make offerings to the Siŋtéȟda of the bluffs for continued protection — it is said no Dakota person has ever been bitten by one. 

For a rite of passage ceremony of the Medicine Lodge, young men and women would climb Ȟemníčhaŋ to seek one that would sacrifice its life to become the serpent staff. Many tribes in the area have spiritual connections to Siŋtéȟda. To Dakota people, Siŋtéȟda helps maintain the balance of life and is considered especially wakháŋ (sacred) because of its ability to detect bad medicine and those who carry it.

Coloring Book of the Plants of Barn Bluff

Respecting the medicines of the bluff by both Dakota and immigrants peoples


In 1861, the year before his death, Henry David Thoreau took a month long trip to the midwest and explored the area around the Twin Cities with his friend Horace Mann, Jr. This coloring book of Dakota plants of Ȟemníčhaŋ is inspired by his writings which I have illustrated using the floral artistic-style of Dakota people to create something that together combines our connections to Nature.


Before returning to his home in Massachusetts, he visited Red Wing and climbed Ȟemníčhaŋ (Barn Bluff) where he read his mail, wrote in his journal of the natural beauty of Tháŋka Bdé (Lake Pepin) and ate Wažúšteča (wild strawberries). His journals offer scientific and poetic studies of the indigenous plants he saw growing throughout his Minnesota journey. 


Download free coloring book

Paper cutting

Dakota people traditionally share oral stories and histories through artwork. On my reservation of Spirit Lake Dakota, there is a paper cutout tradition that was practiced by mostly women. Scandanavian countries also developed their own psaligraphy (paper cutting) traditions which includes floral designs. 

And Dakota people have their own unique style of floral art, which is represented in these pieces. In Scandinavia, they typically hang cuttings in their windows to celebrate the light during long dark winters. Meanwhile, Dakota women used their cuttings to sew on their clothes, creating the patterns for quillwork, beadwork and ribbonwork.

Special thank you to the City of Red Wing and the community of Prairie Island for all their help with my artworks.

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