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No. 1: City bans graffiti on Barn Bluff

The Red Wing City Council banned graffiti on Barn Bluff, as seen from the Goodhue County Historical Society on Oct. 11, 2018, effective on Nov. 15, 2018. Steve Gardiner / Rivertown Multimedia1 / 5
After the ceremony at Barn Bluff on Oct. 16, community members begin the hike to the top. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
Many people from Red Wing and the Prairie Island Indian Community joined together for a ceremony and hike on He Mne Can. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Mayor Sean Dowse (left) presents a wooden bowl to Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Tribal Council, as Art Owen, spiritual leader, looks on during a ceremony at Barn Bluff on Oct. 16, 2018. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Art Owen addresses the crowd at the Barn Bluff ceremony on Oct. 16. He died unexpectedly Oct. 27, 2018, in St. Paul. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

Editor's note: This story is part of a series looking back at some of the biggest stories of 2018. Find the rest of the series here: Top Ten 2018.

When Red Wing City Council members voted unanimously on Sept. 10 to ban graffiti from He Mni Can - Barn Bluff, they didn't actually create a new policy.

Red Wing had already prohibited graffiti across the community, but tradition had accepted that the west-facing rock on Barn Bluff was exempt unless the message was political or profane. If the city received a complaint, crews went up to remove the graffiti.

This left enforcement of the policy up to interpretation and created concerns for city staff members, according to the He Mni Can - Barn Bluff Graffiti Policy Report released on Aug. 29, 2018.

Police didn't like the inconsistent enforcement. City workers were worried about the safety of individuals painting on the rock and of crews sent to remove it. The city attorney was uncomfortable with the subjective nature of determining what was a political message that should be removed.

In addition, there was concern regarding allowing the graffiti to continue because the bluff is on the National Register of Historic Places and because the 1911 deed granting the property to the city stated that the property was to be used as a park and should not be defaced.

In 2018, members of the Prairie Island Indian Community requested that He Mni Can be respected for its historical and cultural significance, and that the graffiti be stopped.

"We had three board commissions look at the issue over a year," said Sean Dowse, Red Wing mayor. "There were many public meetings, many hours of listening, and they all came up with the same conclusion, which is to respect the land, to respect the territory, and to move forward with a relationship with the Prairie Island Indian Community."

The vote

The Sept. 10 decision "approved two relatively minor clarifications to the policy," Dowse explained. "It added the words 'natural edifices' to the descriptors in the ordinance so there is no confusion. It also stated it would enforce park hours at Barn Bluff in the same way it does to other neighborhood parks and bluff parks around the city, so it's clear no one is allowed on the bluff after 10:30 p.m., when the park closes."

The September decision also noted that full enforcement of the graffiti law would begin on Nov. 15. To acknowledge this step, Red Wing and the Prairie Island Indian Community agreed to have a ceremony and hike up He Mni Can - Barn Bluff on Oct. 16.

Dozens of people showed up to hear speeches made by Dowse, Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Tribal Council, and Art Owen, spiritual leader of the Prairie Island Indian Community.

Dowse presented Buck and the Prairie Island Indian Community with a wooden bowl to symbolize the importance of the ceremony.

Owen addressed the crowd, and said the Dakota name for Barn Bluff is He Mne Can (pronounced Heh-Meh-NEE-Cha).

"The He is guttural," he said, and means the hill. Mne is the water, the Mississippi River, "And can is the wood. With those, you have everything you need to survive. It is right here."

He asked everyone to respect the bluff and its significance to the Dakota people.

During the walk up the bluff, Buck said, "It is awesome that we are able to do this hike together. It is starting to build that bridge, the relationship, and together, we can do so much more than we can apart."

Although no one knew it that day, Owen's appearance at the ceremony was one of his final public appearances. He passed away on Oct. 27 at the United Hospital in St. Paul.

"Art Owen was a very special man for a lot of reasons, but his ability to bridge the gap between people and communities with different viewpoints was something he could accomplish just by being present," Buck said. "He put his whole life and soul into educating, Dakota and non-Dakota, on the ways of our people. Losing him was a devastating loss to our community late this year, but as a tribe, we look forward to continuing his legacy."

Looking ahead

Also in October, the Red Wing City Council put out a call for artist request for a Community Placemaking project called "If This Bluff Could Talk." They reviewed proposals from several artists, and on Dec. 10, accepted the proposal of Marlena Myles from St. Paul.

Myles will record stories from community members and produce animations to bring the stories to life. She wrote in her application that she wants to "have the project represent the past and present coming together through positive action and true understanding to create a better future for all life."

On Barn Bluff itself, several improvements are slated for 2019. Trails and the trailhead area will receive updates, and a wheelchair trail will give access to an interpretive area explaining the sacredness of the bluff to the Dakota people.

"Artwork, interpretive material, including details about the flora and fauna of the bluff, and better parking will also be added to the base of the bluff," Dowse said. "The city has been and will continue to work with Prairie Island Indian Community on all this work."

Cost for the improvements will be $1,538,825, according to Dowse. Of that, $1,137,433 will be paid for by the Minnesota State Legacy Parks and Trails Program Grant, $268,302 will be paid for by the Evelyn Sweasy Charitable Trust Foundation, and $133,090 will be paid by the city.

"We are very optimistic looking into the future and plan to keep lines of communication open between ourselves and the neighboring communities on all matters," Buck said.

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

(651) 301-7872