Methodist Bishop Commits to Returning Sacred Red Rock to the Dakota People

Sign next to Eyah Shaw in front of Newport United Methodist Church. (Photo from the Church’s website.)

The Bishop of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Minnesota, Bruce R. Ough, has committed to restoring Eyah Shaw — the sacred red rock — to the Dakota people. (In Dakota, Eyah means “rock” and Shaw means “red.”)

Before settlers arrived, Eyah Shaw was on the east bank of the Mississippi River several miles south of what is now St. Paul. Filmmaker and researcher Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota) says Eyah Shaw is a sacred relative to Dakota people and deeply connected to their creation story. Dakota people traditionally would paint the boulder-sized rock with red stripes.

Early settlers saw the boulder as a significant landmark and began referring to the area simply as Red Rock. Red Rock’s early missionaries were Methodists. In the 1860s they purchased several acres of land to create a camp meeting; the religious gathering became synonymous with the Red Rock. While the camp — and the rock — have moved since that time, the name stuck. Red Rock Camp still exists today near Paynesville.

The rock itself now resides outside the Newport UMC, with local historic designation.

Wolfchild said the Dakota people had other sacred rocks in the area, but settlers destroyed them. He has thanked the UMC for protecting Eyah Shaw, but says it is now time for the rock to come home to its people.

Ough’s Speech

Ough made the commitment to restore Eyah Shaw to the Dakota people during a March 16 event at Centennial UMC in St. Anthony Park. More than 100 gathered to view Wolfchild’s documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery and discuss its meaning today.

Ough’s announcement fits into the UMC’s larger effort to acknowledge and repudiate the deep historic and ongoing harm done by Christians to Native peoples through the Doctrine of Discovery. This Doctrine refers to a series of papal decrees from the 1400s and 1500s that gave the legal and religious justification to European explorers to take indigenous lands and convert, enslave or kill Native peoples. Its legacy and impact still is very much alive today.

The UMC recently released an edited version of Ough’s March 16 speech. Titled Walking Together, Ough offered the following reflections:

The Doctrine of Discovery, first articulated by Roman Catholic Pope Nicholas V in a Papal Bull in 1452 has served as the basis of justifying war against all non-Christians throughout the world and sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonialization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories for nearly 500 years….

This doctrine is a deeply embedded part of our nation’s insidious white privilege and institutional racism and continues to this very day to shape our prejudices, relationships, and actions with Native Americans.

Bishop Ough specifically addressed the Red Rock in his speech.

Justice will only be fulfilled when the sovereignty of Native peoples is recognized and they are present (returned) to the corporate board rooms and legislative halls where decisions are being made about their lands and their water.

In our context here in Minnesota and the Dakotas, justice will be fulfilled and we will take a significant step on the journey toward true repentance when the sacred Red Rock is returned to the Dakota people.

It is a common practice for colonizing powers to build their temples, churches and holy places on top of indigenous peoples’ sacred places. It is a form of domination, depriving people of their traditional connection to the sacred. In the case of Eyah Shaw, the rock effectively became a Methodist mascot.

Ough’s decision to restore the rock will undoubtedly be controversial. People in Newport strongly identify with the Rock. The process for restoring the rock is yet to unfold. It will take conversations to make sure it is done in a good way.

UMC’s Commitment to Repentance

In recent years, the UMC and other mainline Christian denominations have made efforts at truth telling and improved relations with  Native American peoples.

In 2012, the UMC adopted a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. In 2013, the UMC stated its intention to “Extend Healing Ministries with Native American and Other Indigenous People,” a ministry of repentance “with Native American and other indigenous people as part of an effort to build a church of integrity and inclusiveness for all people and all of God’s creation.”

In 2016, the UMC continued its efforts to repent for its role in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, led by Methodist Pastor and military leader John Chivington. Last year, Bishop Ough also made a powerful personal statement in support of the Standing Rock Nation and its opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Efforts to restore Eyah Shaw to the Dakota people is now added to the list.

While these measures do not undo deep historical trauma, they are certainly very positive steps.

Local Historic Site Offers One View of History

The Red Rock is considered a Newport Historic Site. Many business in the area have adopted the name: The Red Rock Lodge, Red Rock Heating, etc.. This is how the city describes the Red Rock on its website:

The Red Rock is a huge boulder that was found by the Sioux among the limestone on the bank of the Mississippi River near here.  It was a mystery as to how the boulder arrived and therefore was considered sacred and became a shrine where the Native Americans came to offer sacrifices as a part of their worship to the Great Spirit.  They painted the rock with red stripes and the stripes always faced the east.

It was at Red Rock that white people heard the ministry of the Methodist Church. This rock is an important historical object taking us back to the beginning of Methodism in Minnesota, and beyond that to the  ancient life and history of the Native Americans.

Comment: This is history through the lens of settlers. It places the story in the past, not something that is still going on. This narrative states that Eyah Shaw “was considered sacred” but does not see or acknowledge that it is still considered sacred. It views Eyah Shah as an “important historical object” while traditional Dakota see the rock as a sacred relative. The neutral tone taken hides what is a painful history for the Dakota.

Consider that many major religions have their sacred stones. Abrahamic traditions share reverence for the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock, the site where it is said God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Foundation Stone, or Cornerstone, is particularly significant in Judaism, which believes it is the center of creation. Islam also has the Black Stone inside the holy shrine of the Ka’ba. Christianity has the Stone of Anointing, where it is said that Jesus’ body was anointed before burial.

How would people from those traditions respond if those stones were taken and put in front of another religion’s house of worship as a historical object? How would it feel if the names of these stones became commercialized in a similar way, with local businesses such as Stone of the Anointing Bar and Grill or the Foundation Stone Lodge?

Surely it is the right thing to do to restore Eyah Shaw to the Dakota people in a good way. Thank you to Sheldon Wolfchild and many others for raising this issue. Thank you to Bishop Ough for taking this important step.

Other Links

Some of the early history of the Red Rock, from a Methodist point of view, can be found online in the 1887 book History of Methodism in Minnesota.

The UMC’s Camp Minnesota webpage has a picture of an 1890s Red Rock Camp meeting.

[Note: An earlier version of the blog incorrectly identified the rock’s location on the Mississippi River. It was on the east bank.]

4 thoughts on “Methodist Bishop Commits to Returning Sacred Red Rock to the Dakota People

  1. This is a long in the waiting. In 1853 little crow said his last prayers prior to leaving for the reservation at lower sioux due to the 1851 treaty at Mendota. The sacred rock needs to go back to the Kaposia Band of Dakota in Mendota. We look forward to discussing its new location. Perry Altendorfer..Decendant of Chief Cetanwakanmani of the Kaposia Band and current Historian for the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community.


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