On a warm Sunday morning in June, members of the Newport United Methodist Church emerged from services, passing a granite boulder planted on a patch of grass in front of the church. About 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide, it’s been the focus of months of conversation on reconciliation and the relationship between the church and the Dakota who consider it sacred.
The groups have yet to disclose what Red Rock’s future will be, but Methodist Bishop Bruce Ough said there will be plans to move it.
“It’s a teaching moment,” Ough said. “We want to create a number of opportunities for conversation and interaction with Dakota leadership as we move toward the formal transaction of the rock being relocated to a site determined by the Dakota people.”
Red Rock, a name long attached to the Newport area, has special significance for both the city and the tribe.
For the Dakota, the rock known as Eyah-Shaw was found among limestone on the banks of the Mississippi River near what is now Newport and viewed as sacred because of its mysterious origins, according to the city’s website. Indians have worshiped and left offerings at Red Rock for generations, and sometimes painted it with stripes whose markings are still visible.
For Methodists, Red Rock is tied to their religion’s roots in Minnesota, marking the site of religious camp meetings and historic missionary work. The Rev. Linda Gesling, the church’s pastor, said that while the rock legally belongs to the church, congregants don’t see themselves as owners so much as stewards of it.
The church earlier this year screened “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” a documentary sponsored by the church and directed by Sheldon Wolfchild, a filmmaker from the Lower Sioux Agency and member of the Dakota elders council. The film details the violent treatment that native tribes often faced at the hands of white Christians.
It was at that viewing, Gesling said, that Ough, bishop of the Methodist Church’s Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area, brought up the idea of returning the Red Rock to the Dakota.
On July 10, leaders of the Newport congregation passed a resolution recognizing that the Dakota “can and will determine the future location and care of the Red Rock.”
Gesling said the church’s stand is part of a larger gesture of reconciliation that she hopes can move the church into a new relationship with the Indian community.
“In the United Methodist Church, as well as in, I think, a lot of Christian churches, there’s really been an awareness of participation in the past of injustices,” Gesling said. “As we try to move forward in our country and our society, sometimes it’s really important to acknowledge those injustices to have a time of repentance and reconciliation.”
Wolfchild, who was outspoken at the protests in June leading to the dismantling of the controversial “Scaffold” sculpture at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, has been involved for several months in conversations with church leaders and Dakota elders in what both sides hope can be a model for future situations where different groups attach significance to historic objects.
Wolfchild said the Dakota elders have had their own meetings to get tribal members engaged in determining the future of Red Rock. He said the process is a spiritual one, that the elders do not view it through a political lens.
“It’s not in our belief system to do that,” he said.
Ough said it’s important that the Dakota elders and people come to a consensus on what they’d like to see happen with the rock, and that the church is doing the same. He said that those involved are less concerned with how long the process takes than with moving it along in a respectful way.
Robert Vogel, a preservation planner with Newport’s Heritage Preservation Commission, said that Red Rock is one of about 20 landmarks noted in the city. Every Chamber of Commerce map includes Red Rock, and every student learns in school that Newport used to be named for it.
But it’s not easy to manage a resource that has such value to different people, he said.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and you don’t run into too many multicultural heritage resources that are special to completely different ethnic and religious and cultural entities,” Vogel said. “It’s a complicated little resource when you think of all the different people who have a stake in it.”
He said he wants Red Rock to stay in Newport, and that relocation would require a permit from City Council. He said other groups, such as the chamber, are also interested in the outcome.
Wolfchild said those involved are “on a good path” so far.
“We’re just asking in a humble way ... to have our sacred site and object in our sacred site area and let the rest tell the story of our belief system and our integrity and dignity,” he said.
“That’s what’s sacred, that’s what we’re asking back, because we know it’s always been here.”
Sarah Jarvis • 612-673-4689