JEFFERS, Minn. – The ribbon of red rock looked flat and unremarkable in the August sunshine. Then, Joy Rathman bent down and spritzed the scarlet quartzite with water. A lined animal instantly appeared.
"It could be a horse or a moose," said Rathman, who has worked at the Jeffers Petroglyphs site for 45 years. "Or a wolf, who is revered for teaching the people how to hunt."
Nestled in the prairie of southwestern Minnesota, the rock carvings are a rare glimpse into the daily lives and beliefs of Indigenous people living up to 11,000 years ago.
The site grabbed the attention of reader Sharon Carlson, who sought more details about it from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project.
Jeffers is one of the foremost collections of ancient writing and spiritual knowledge in North America, according to site director David Briese. This 80-acre stretch of land off a sparsely traveled county highway north of Windom has fascinated European settlers since their arrival in the area and academics since the 1950s.
And it remains a sacred site for Native Americans, including the Ioway, Cheyenne, Ojibwe, Lakota and Dakota tribes living in the region — some of whom pray at Jeffers. The colorful prayer ties affixed to trees above the rocks signal its religious significance.
"Jeffers Petroglyphs fits on a sacred landscape that we refer to as the Red Rock Ridge, 20 miles east to west," said Briese, of the Minnesota Historical Society, which owns the site. "There's probably still more [carvings] out there on private property we don't know of."
Indigenous university becomes 'Kissing Rock'
The variety of figures carved into the hard quartzite surface spans epochs and tribal traditions. About 11,000 years ago, retreating glaciers smoothed the rock visible today. Indigenous people soon began carving the first symbols on the rock, including five bison — a staple of their diet.
Some objects appear ordinary, such as a handprint. Others carry spiritual meaning, such as the thunderbird and turtle. Figures appear to be crawling out of one cleft in the rock, which Rathman said could possibly allude to an underworld.
People returned here to carve important developments. The appearance of tasseled corn suggests the arrival of more intensive agriculture about 1,000 years ago. There are no bows and arrows.
The carvings are also open to interpretation. A net might mean the coming white people who would divide the land into squares, Rathman said. It also could symbolize fishing.
"What we can see here is a concerted effort to record knowledge," said Briese. "This space was probably used as a university."
The most recent glyph arrived only 250 years ago, just before Indigenous life in the region would be interrupted.
In 1862, war broke out between the United States military and Dakota peoples in southwestern Minnesota. After the conflict, the government forcibly removed Dakota and Ho-Chunk tribal members out of the state and onto reservations.
The U.S. census shows that just seven people lived in Cottonwood County in 1870, Briese said. Soon, white settlers would flood the area.
Throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, wagon trains traversed the Jeffers site on the way to South Dakota. Locals called the place "Kissing Rock," a popular destination for picnics.
In 1966, a local group that was nurturing appreciation for the site's archaeological significance sold the property to the Minnesota Historical Society. The Historical Society, a nonprofit organization, has overseen Jeffers ever since.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, supervisors applied marine varnish to highlight the sometimes faint lines of the carvings. But in recent years, the docents have relied on less invasive techniques such as the use of distilled water and shade boards.
Maintaining a sacred site
Briese said the Historical Society consults with local tribal communities and seeks to retain the integrity of this sacred spot.
It's why the staff at Jeffers now asks attendees not to shoot photographs of the carvings themselves. Instead, they encourage photographing the remnant prairie or the red rock from a distance.
The Upper and Lower Sioux Indian communities and the Historical Society recently objected to the installation of a major wind turbine project nearby the petroglyphs. After negotiations, Apex Clean Energy consented in 2021 to a larger buffer for the turbines.
On a recent Saturday, Susanna and Michael Gibbons from St. Paul attended the tour and remarked with wonder about a large map Rathman coaxed from the rock with her spray bottle.
"A friend of ours, who is [enrolled in the Red Lake Nation], told us, 'People think we didn't know where we were. But, there's literally maps everywhere,' " Susanna said.
The site is only open to the public between June and mid-October, though staff provide private and school tours during the off-season.
Keeping traditions alive
Other visitors on this bright August afternoon included a van of teenagers on an extended field trip from the Otoe-Missouria Tribe in Oklahoma. They had spent the morning at nearby Pipestone National Monument and planned to land that night at a powwow in Iowa.
"Our people originated from up here," said Blaine Hall, who'd driven the van from Oklahoma.
In the distance, the students practiced throwing the atlatl, an ancient handheld tool that would have launched hand-thrown spears farther and faster. Atlatl were once used to kill bison.
Watching from the shade of the visitor center, site supervisor and archaeologist Chuck Broste monitored the bison meat soup and sweet corn cooking over an open flame.
"The meal that we're making today is all foods we'd eat here anytime in the last thousand years," Broste said. "It's really good stuff."
The warm sun in the clear blue sky overhead soon faded as a group of stargazers gathered for an annual night watch. Some visitors walked around learning from the carvings, while others inspected a high purple wall of stone rubbed smooth by bison removing their winter coats. In some ways, a typical Saturday at Jeffers hasn't changed much since the last ice age.
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