Like anyone who grew up in Red Wing, Steve Kohn's childhood always had an enormous riverside bluff looming over everything.
But Kohn didn't know as a kid how important the natural landform they called Barn Bluff was to the history of that part of the state.
He didn't know Native Americans called it He Mni Can (pronounced heh-meh-NEE-cha) in the Dakota language, and that it was the site of burial grounds and ancient dwellings. He didn't know it was a visual reference for explorers and for riverboat navigation. He didn't know Henry David Thoreau, the famous American naturalist and writer, once visited. He didn't know the historic 1882 limekiln he climbed over as a kid had a century of sediment covering the kiln's chambers — sediment that easily could have collapsed.
Kohn, the planning manager for Red Wing's community development department, hopes it will be easier for future visitors to He Mni Can-Barn Bluff Regional Park to recognize the totality of the site's historic significance.
An effort with the city and the State Historic Preservation Office is underway to add more detail to the site's listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The amended listing would better reflect its historic importance to Native Americans, such as the nearby Prairie Island Indian Community, for thousands of years.
"For anyone who grew up here, it's always in the background, always there, this important backdrop to the community," Kohn said. "But we thought the National Register listing had some shortcomings, especially when related to Native American culture."
Recent decades have seen more tribal involvement in archaeology amid a movement to better recognize the Native American importance of historic sites. For example, in 2018 the former Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis was officially restored to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska. But in 2022, the Minnesota Historical Society voted against adding "Bdote," the Dakota name of the sacred place at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, to the official name of Historic Fort Snelling.
The National Register of Historic Places, a program of the National Park Service, is mostly symbolic. It lists places that are worthy of preservation. Local applicants must make informed arguments about why a certain place is historically significant. Since the program started in 1966, more than 90,000 places have been listed on the register, including more than 1,700 in Minnesota.
Barn Bluff has been listed on the register since 1990, and Red Wing a few years ago renamed it He Mni Can-Barn Bluff Regional Park to reflect its Dakota name.
The city has been in the midst of a separate revitalization project for He Mni Can-Barn Bluff to make it more accessible to visitors and include more historic interpretation.
The first phase of the project, which cost $1.8 million and was completed in 2021, included trail improvements, a welcome plaza and historic markers. The second phase will include a new trail, which is expected to be completed in fall 2023. And a third phase will include a visitor center in the plaza.
"Minnesota is an amazing place to be an archaeologist: 13,000 years of human history here, and the vast majority is American Indian history," said David Mather, the National Register archaeologist for Minnesota's Historic Preservation Office. "The National Register creates an institutional memory. If there's an important place, archaeological site or a building or a bridge and the consensus is that this is important and we want to preserve it, listing it on the register is the best way to do that. There's a marker carried forward saying, yes, this is an important thing."