Dakota sacred stones and Spirit Island, Mille Lacs, Minnesota:

the boulder island that moves.

Kevin L. Callahan

Department of Anthropology,

University of Minnesota;

Upper Midwest Rock Art Research Association;

1102 26th Avenue S.E.

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55414

Telephone: (612) 623-7685;

E-mail: call0031@tc.umn.edu

The Dakota thought that stones that moved, such as boulders and meteors (the stones that fall from the sky at night), were sacred. They often prayed and left offerings at boulders; they painted them with red ocher stripes such as at Newport's, Red Rock; and they sometimes carved petroglyphs into boulders such as at Brown's Valley, Minnesota. At Pipestone, Minnesota, the petroglyphs were carved into the bedrock at the base of the enormous boulders called the "Three Maidens."

Spirit Island in Mille Lacs lake, Minnesota was, and still is, a significant location within the sacred landscape of Minnesota. Spirit Island, or "Spirit Rock Island" as it was labeled on Jacob V. Brower's (1900) archaeological chart of Mille Lacs, is an island 3 miles off the southern shore of Mille Lacs Lake composed entirely of heavily weathered and eroded pink and white granite boulders. The initial rock debris may have come from a glacial moraine. The island has no soil and is a unique bird nesting location. The boulders are built up to a height of between 15 or 20 feet above the water from the action of ice dams. Ice dams, waves, and the freeze thaw cycle continue to erode and round the boulders. These forces presumably make some of them occasionally unstable. The boulders rest on a ledge of bedrock a short distance below the surface. Brower thought that ice dams from the north push the boulders upward (Brower 1900:118,121; Upham 1969:346-7).

As viewed from the shore, the island also appears to move around the lake when the barometric pressure changes. Archaeologists Jacob Brower and David Bushnell also noted that: "During hot weather, on clear calm days, many explosions are plainly heard across the surface of Mille Lac. The sound is similar to the discharge of a shot-gun in distance, or the rising to the surface of a large bubble of escaping gas, a greatly increased sound similar to water escaping from an inverted jug" Brower 1900:121, 124-5). They speculated that: "Mysterious sounds escaping from the lake made it a 'spirit' lake (Id.).

The Dakota name for Mille Lacs Lake was "Spirit Lake" and according to Warren Upham the lake was named after its rather remarkable and mysterious Spirit Island (Upham 1969:346-7). The "dwellers or people of Spirit Lake" are the Mde-wakan-ton band of the Dakota, who fought under the leadership of Little Crow during the 1862 Dakota conflict. Today, the band currently owns several successful casinos in the Twin Cities area.

The Mille Lacs area is forested and possesses a convenient waterway for canoeing in the form of the Rum River which connects Mille Lacs with the Mississippi and thus the Minnesota River valley. The shallow wide spots in the Rum River (which is the outlet for Mille Lacs Lake) were perfect locations for wild rice to grow. The local story goes that the French mistranslated the original Dakota name for the "River of Good Spirits" into the "Rum River" because those were the spirits that the French were most familiar with (Waters 1977:176).

We know that, in general, cultures are constantly changing, but it is possible that the customs and folklore of the historic period Dakota may provide a very tenuous link or glimpse into the past Dakota lifeways in the woodland areas during and before the time of contact. I suspect, for example, that Dakota beliefs regarding truth-telling oaths may be a reflection or memory of actual experiences with the problem of the instability of the boulders on Spirit Island. I suspect that the island may also have some distant connections with the Dakota myth of Waziya, or the winter man who provides a mythic explanation for the mysteriously wide dispersal of boulders across the prairie.

Large sacred boulders that were venerated by the Dakota existed at Newport, Eden Prairie, Lake Minnetonka, Shakopee, Pipestone, and Browns Valley, Minnesota (Anderson 1979:11, 18; Callahan 2000a:25-30; Catlin 1973:246; Kreidberg 1976: 134, 232-233,279).

Many other Midwestern tribes also venerated boulders, including the Omaha (Hovey 1893:35-36). Important sacred medicine stones appear in Lewis and Clark's notes (Thwaites 1904:264), and there are considerably earlier, but obviously important, inscribed boulders from early Native American cultures at Fort Ransom, North Dakota; Robert's County, South Dakota; Blood Run, Iowa; and Cedar County, Nebraska (Callahan 1996, 1999a, 1999b; Lewis 1891:456-57; Lewis 1904; Wied 1906:339-40; Rau 1882).

Considerably older pitted and inscribed boulders from different cultures are also reported across the eastern United States, the far west, Canada, Mexico, and Siberia (Buchner 1994; Callahan 2000b; Diaz-Granados & Duncan 2000; Greer 2000; Parkman 1994: Rau 1882; Whitley 2000).

To the Dakota, boulders were an important part of the sacred landscape and were considered "wakan" - consecrated, mysterious, spiritual, wonderful, and sacred (see Riggs' Dakota Dictionary; Upham 1969:346-7). The act of painting and decorating rock with what we now refer to as "rock art" appears to have sprung directly from religious considerations and the cosmological belief system of the Dakota regarding Taku skan skan - the spirit or god of energy and movemeent and Inyan or Tunkan - the spirit or god in stone. Unlike the Euro-American worldview, for Native Americans stones were not inanimate objects and the world was full of spirits.

Historical records, Dakota and Ojibwe oral traditions, and contemporary archaeology all indicate that Mille Lacs lake in east central Minnesota was the ancestral homeland of the eastern Dakota and they were living there at the time of first contact with French explorers like Radisson and Groseilliers (about 1660) Du Luth (1679) and Hennepin (1680), who was captured by a war party of 120 Dakota in 33 canoes along the Mississippi River (Brower 1901:47; Hennepin 1880; Johnson 1984; Radisson 1967; Upham 1908:216; Warren 1984; Wilford 1944; Winchell 1911).

Pierre Esprit Radisson called the Dakota the "Nation of the beefe" because they were known to have hunted bison from their settlements near the border of the eastern woodlands and the prairie. In those early days the French referred to the Indians as the "wild men" and the Dakota referred to the white men as "spirits." During the seventeenth century, Mille Lacs Lake was a focus or center in the Dakota world and Thomas Waters has even described it as their "Indian capital" (Waters 1977:174).

The terms Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota refer to dialects of the Siouan language and are also groups of people. Lakota, for example, refers to the dialect generally spoken today in the western part of South Dakota and the Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation are an example of people who speak the Lakota dialect. Nakota is generally spoken in the eastern part of South Dakota, Montana, and Canada, and Dakota was generally spoken in nineteenth century Minnesota. The dialects changed as the Dakota people moved west. The eastern Dakota were woodland people who used canoes and undertook wild rice harvesting, fishing, and some waterfowl, deer, and bison hunting. The only crop that was raised at Mille Lacs was tobacco (Bailey 1997).

The original homeland, then, for the eastern Dakota people was at Mille Lacs. As archaeologist Lloyd Wilford noted: "Father Louis Hennepin visited the Sioux at Mille Lacs Lake in 1680 and reported that it was the sacred lake of these Indians and the focal point of the whole nation, from which the tribes and bands spread out over a wide area" (Wilford 1944:329).

Pierre Esprit Radisson indicated that the great Sioux town he visited had 7000 men (Brower 1901:47). Du Luth said that he found Hennepin at Mille Lacs "with about 1000 or 1100 souls" (Du Luth 1685; cited in Hennepin 1880:376).

Mille Lacs is the second largest lake entirely within the state's borders and is large enough that it is visible from space.

The outlet of this large shallow lake during middle prehistoric times probably provided an excellent location for wild rice production, maple sugaring, the hunting of wildfowl, and fishing which, according to archaeologist Elden Johnson (1984:12), diminished during late prehistoric times due to increasing sedentism and a "shift from a diffuse seasonal pattern" of subsistence to "a focal subsistence pattern" utilizing wild rice and bison. This increased the population "by several hundred percent" (Johnson 1984:12).

According to Edward Neill "the Dakotas began to be led away from the rice grounds of the Mille Lacs region" by the French trading posts built by Nicholas Perrot and Le Seur (Neill 1852; cited in Warren 1984:157). According to Ojibwe oral tradition, as recorded by William Warren in 1852, the Dakota were driven from Mille Lacs in what was called the Battle of Kathio about the year 1695 (Warren 1984:157,163). "Kathio" was a corruption by a Dutch printer of the Dakota word for their great village of "Isanti" (Warren 1984:157). Archaeologist Alan Woolworth has urged caution, however, in viewing the Ojibwe oral traditions. Due to the dwindling food resources at Mille Lacs during this period the Dakota were probably already in the process of moving south and west in order in order to be closer to the bison and the French traders (Woolworth 2000;personal communication).

Mille Lacs lake is capable of producing large amounts of food. Archaeologist Jacob Brower reported that in April 1901 at Outlet Bay, Mille Lacs, "during the spawning season, more than 600 maskalonge [sic.] were speared, some of which measured four feet in length, and they were hauled away in wagon-load quantities" (Brower 1901:48). Today, Mille Lacs continues to be well known for its walleye and northern pike fishing (Waters 1977:174).

Spirit Island was probably a place where Dakota villagers could gather bird eggs and hunt waterfowl. The island's striking white appearance is not due to the underlying pink and white granite but is due to being entirely covered with bird droppings. The island is part of Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, consisting of Spirit Island and Hennepin Island. This is the smallest wildlife area in the national wildlife refuge system (.57 acres total) and it became a bird sanctuary for pelicans, gulls, and common terns through Presidential Executive Orders in 1915 and 1920. Spirit Island is 0.24 acres in size and in addition to other bird species it presently has about a dozen nesting pairs of common terns.

According to Joseph Nicollet, in Dakota society there was a fear of being crushed by a boulder and a fear of the boulder god which was one of those fears relied upon in when promising by oath to tell the truth. One agreed to tell the truth by the "sticks and stones" by which it was meant that if one lied while under oath, at some later time in life a tree would fall on you or a boulder would fall and kill you (Durand 1994:94-95). The favor of the boulder spirit was also prayed to for success in hunting and in war.

Since people that live in a flat prairie environment presumably do not develop a dread of trees and boulders falling on them, this Dakota custom probably came from the time when the Dakota were living in a woodland environment. Central Minnesota is fairly flat and it seems to me that a place where the Dakota might have had enough experience over time with lethal rock falls for this to have affected their oath-taking custom, would be Spirit Island. People gathering bird's eggs and hunting waterfowl amongst the boulders would have been rightly concerned about them falling on them. When visiting the area in 1999 I was told by an Ojibwe man at the Mille Lacs Museum that someone had been killed on the island the year before.

Anthropological archaeologists occasionally describe the layers of meaning surrounding artifacts, which include petroglyphs and pictographs, as being like the layers of an onion. After looking at the upper layers associated with the petroglyphs, pictographs, and landscape there still remain many layers of meaning that were associated with the underlying rock.

Several nineteenth century ethnohistoric sources gave detailed accounts describing Dakota beliefs about boulders. To the Dakota, the blue of the sky is all that humankind can see of Taku Skan Skan -- the spirit that is everywhere that is the god of movement symbolized by stones or granite boulders painted red. This god is too subtle in essence to be perceived by the senses and is, among other things, associated with hunting and battle. He is passionate and capricious (Riggs 1889:64-66). Inyan, the stone-god, also dwells in stones and rocks and is, according to the Dakotas, the oldest god, and is associated with warfare (Lynd 1889:168-70; Riggs 1889:64-66; Riggs 1883:148).

Sara Faribault described her experiences with the Dakota sacred rock near Shakopee's village.

"We used often to go to the sacred stone of the Indians and I have often seen the Sioux warriors around it. There was room for one to lie down by it and the rest would dance or sit in council around it. They always went to it before going into battle. They left gifts which the white people stole. I can remember taking some little thing from it myself. I passed a party of Indians with it in my hand. One of the squaws saw what I had and became very angry. She made me take it back. She seemed to feel as we would if our church had been violated" (Morris 1976:232).

Samuel Pond was a missionary whose first assignment was to try to teach Little Crow's father, the leader of the Mdewacanton band's leader at Kaposia (now called South St. Paul), how to use a plow. Pond wrote in his book The Dakota or Sioux in Minnesota As They Were in 1834 that:

[An] object of worship was Taku-Shkan-Shkan, or that which moves. Stones were the symbol of this deity, and sometimes at least his dwelling-place. The [Dakota] Indians believed that some stones possessed the power of locomotion or were moved by some invisible, supernatural power; and intelligent men affirmed that they had seen stones which had moved some distance on level ground, leaving a track or furrow behind them . . . Stones were much worshipped by them, both with prayers and offerings. They chose granite boulders and painted them red. There was a large sacred stone of this sort at Red Rock from which the place takes its name, and another between Kaposia and Mendota. Both were covered with votive offerings, such as tobacco, pieces of cloth, hatchets, knives, arrows and other articles of small value" (Pond 1986:87,89).

Stephen R. Riggs, another missionary to the Dakotas, and author of the Dakota Grammar and Dictionary, indicated that to the Dakota:

Boulders are the "solid gods," "hard wakan." These they worship painting them

red, decorating them with swan's down, and offering sacrifices. The boulder is

toonkan, "grandfather," by preeminence. . . . Every thing, even the . . . boulder, has a spirit. The world is full of spirits, who cause all disease and death. . . . Sacrifice is probably an old form of Dakota worship. Mr. Riggs has observed it offered most frequently to the "painted stone" toonkan" (Riggs 1871:6).

Riggs would also write later that: "The War God . . . is called Inyan or Tukan, both of which mean stone, and is said by some of the Dakotas to be the greatest of their gods. He is supposed to exist in the numerous boulders scattered over the prairies, and is more worshipped than any of the other Dakota gods (Riggs 1883:148).

James W. Lynd wrote that:

The deities upon which the most worship is bestowed, if indeed, any one particular one is nameable are Tunkan (Inyan) the Stone God, and Wakinyan the Thunder Bird. . . .[The] adoration of the former is an every-day affair. The Tunkan, the Dakotas say is the god that dwells in stones or rocks, and is the oldest god. . . . No ceremony of worship is complete without the wakan or sacred application of paint. The down of the female swan is colored scarlet, and forms a necessary part of sacrifices. The tunkan is painted red, as a sign of active worship . . . In cases of extremity, I have ever noticed that they appeal to their Tunkan (Stone God), first and last . . . All Sioux agree in saying that the Tunkan is the main recipient of their prayers; and among the Titons, Mandans, [Y]anktons and Western Dakotas, they pray to that and to the spirit of the buffalo almost entirely. . . It must not be understood, however, that the Dakota is an idolater. It is not the image which he worships, any more than it is the cross which is worshipped by Catholics, but the spiritual essence which is represented by that image, and which is supposed to be ever near it (Lynd 1889:154, 168-70, 173-174).

Even today smaller sacred stones are carried by traditional Lakota people and sacred stones are a part of the Yuwipi ceremony where a shaman or medicine man is bound and spirits are called for healing or to find lost people or property. As William K. Powers, writing in the early 1980's, put it:

Every Oglala who believes in the omnipotence of Wakantanka wears or carries a small spherical stone carefully rolled up in a wad of sage and deposited neatly in a miniature buckskin pouch not more than an inch in diameter. Men normally wear these pouches pinned inside their shirts, and women carry them in their purses. It is not necessary to carry these stones on one's person every day, but if one is about to embark upon some important mission, such as a trip off the reservation, or if one wishes to invoke the aid of the supernaturals, one carries the stone with him.

Inhering in each stone is a spirit called sicun, understood as that aspect of the soul that lasts forever and is capable of being reinvested in another object, human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, at one's death. Not all sicuns are reinvested, so there is always a surplus, some of which may be called upon in a ritual to perform certain acts dealing mainly with curing or to reveal information necessary for the welfare of the people. . . .

An individual's personal stone possesses a tutelary spirit, analogous to the Christian guardian spirit, but with one important difference. Whereas in Christianity one guardian angel may be signed to an indefinite number of people, each Oglala has an exclusive protecting spirit. During a crisis, an Oglala may pray directly to the spirit for aid or counsel. As long as he does not offend the spirit, he is guaranteed of its protection throughout his life. When he dies, the spirit leaves his stone and is free to inhere in another's stone (Powers 1982:11).

According to H.L. Gordon the Dakota have a figure in their mythology called Waziya, or Wayzata, the god of the north or winter who dwells in the frozen north in a great tipi of ice and snow. According to the mythology:

"From his mouth and nostrils he blows the cold blasts of winter. He and 'I-to'-ka-ga Wi-cas-ta' - the spirit or god of the South (literally the 'South Man'), are inveterate enemies, and always on the warpath against each other. In winter Wa-zi'-ya advances southward and drives 'I-to'-ka-ga Wi-cas-ta' before him to the Summer-Islands. But in Spring the god of the South, having renewed his youth and strength . . . is able to drive Wa-zi'-ya back again to his icy wigwam in the North. Some Dakotas say that the numerous granite boulders, scattered over the prairies of Minnesota and Dakota, were hurled in battle by Wa-zi'-ya from his home in the North at 'I-to'ka-ga Wi-cas-ta.' The Wa-zi'ya of the Dakotas is substantially the same as "Ka-be-bon-ik-ka' - the 'Winter-maker' of the Ojibways (Gordon 1881:125).

In conclusion, stones and boulders were viewed by the Dakota as important items within their sacred landscape because of their religious cosmology. When seen as a part of that worldview, Spirit Island in Mille Lacs Lake can give us a deeper appreciation of the many layers of meaning that painting or inscribing sacred stones must have had.


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