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Returning the Red Rock: An act of healing and reconciliation.

Returning the Red Rock: An act of healing and reconciliation


August 10, 2017

By: Christa Meland

The Minnesota Conference is in the early stages of making plans to return a granite boulder located on the grounds of Newport United Methodist Church to the Dakota, who consider the “Red Rock” to be a sacred object.

Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough, members of Newport UMC, and representatives of the conference Commission on Native American Ministry (CONAM—formerly the Native American Ministry Action Team) have been in conversation with Dakota tribal elders and have begun to identify a process for returning the Red Rock to the Dakota and relocating it to a site determined by the Dakota people. A precise timeline hasn’t yet been established, but the hope is to create a thoughtful process that includes opportunities for Minnesota United Methodists to build relationships with Dakota spiritual leaders and perhaps participate in a series of ceremonies designed by the Dakota.

For the Dakota, the rock—known as Eyah-Shaw—was found among limestone on the banks of the Mississippi River. Eyah-Shaw was a sacred site for Native American prayers and worship for many generations before white settlement.

“We live in Dakota and Ojibwa lands—land systematically taken from the Dakota and Ojibwa through treaties violated or broken by the U.S. government, land long sacred to its native inhabitants,” said Bishop Ough. “Since the 2012 General Conference, our Minnesota Conference Commission on Native American Ministry has been preparing us to walk the path of peace and reconciliation with the Dakota people and to heal the lingering wounds form the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. This is the moment for the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church to lead the entire state down this path of healing and reconciliation. This is the moment to return Eyah-Shaw. This would be a powerful and just step toward peace and harmony.”

For nearly 150 years, the Methodist Church has cared for the Red Rock. In 1868, the church was gifted 10 acres of land at Red Rock Township to create a camp meeting or assembly grounds. The Red Rock Camp Fellowship—which still organizes the modern-day Red Rock Camp annually at Koronis Ministries—was born, and each year Methodists attended camp meetings on the property. The Red Rock was located on the land and became a symbol of the camp, and camp leaders were committed to caring for the rock and honoring its native heritage. The fellowship moved the rock several times to keep it safe and protect it from construction and vandalism, and in 1964, when the fellowship sold its land and moved further away, the rock was brought to the closest Methodist Church, what is now Newport UMC, so that it could remain in the area.

A Methodist camp group gathered around the Red Rock in the mid-1900s

“The congregation has always believed that we’re stewards of the rock, but we don’t own it, and there’s been an awareness that there would likely come a time when their property might not be the best place for the Red Rock,” said Rev. Linda Gesling, who serves Newport UMC. “What I hope we can convey in returning the Red Rock is that we as the white people majority culture have benefited in many ways from so much that was taken from the native people who lived here before us. Returning the Red Rock is a symbol of our acknowledgement of that.”

Gesling said leaders of her congregation first talked about giving the Red Rock back to the Dakota people about a year and a half ago. But it was earlier this year, after Bishop Ough gave an address in which he talked about returning the Red Rock, that more formal discussions began to take place.

Support from key stakeholders

Bill Konrardy, a member of CONAM, believes repatriating sacred objects to native people is a critically important opportunity—and his group has been heavily involved in conversations about the return of the Red Rock. He hopes that the return of the Red Rock serves as a way for Minnesota United Methodists to learn about Native American history and the harms that the white majority culture has inflicted.

“We have an opportunity within Methodism to make significant changes within our own understanding so we can at least try not to do continued harm,” he said.

Rev. David Werner, chair of the conference Commission on Archives and History (CAH) and a board member of the Red Rock Camp Fellowship, said neither group has any claim on the Red Rock. The commission, he said, “believes that the Red Rock belongs with the Dakota people,” and many members of the fellowship “are looking forward to having it well-cared for in a way that’s meaningful to the people who originally found it important.”

The CAH’s role is to identify, document, promote, and draw attention to historical locations and items of historical significance to United Methodists in Minnesota. Because the Red Rock has become part of the United Methodist Church’s history, the commission hopes that it can continue to be accessed by Minnesota United Methodists even after it moves to its new location. They also want to invite members of Newport UMC to mark the current location of the rock with a plaque to note its significance even after it’s no longer there.

Preparing for an act of repentance

A plaque that now sits next to the Red Rock at Newport UMC

The 2012 General Conference, when it met in Tampa, Florida, engaged in an “Act of Repentance and Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.” That body also passed a resolution condemning the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of religious documents from the 15th century that justified the colonization of the Americas and the oppression of its native people, and committed The United Methodist Church to work toward eliminating the doctrine as a means to subjugate native peoples and seize their homelands. All United Methodist annual conferences around the world were asked to implement “acts” or processes of repentance and reconciliation with the indigenous peoples in their respective areas.

For the Minnesota Conference, one step in that direction came two years ago, when Rev. Anita Phillips, executive director of the United Methodist Church’s Native American Comprehensive Plan and co-author of the book “On This Spirit Walk,” talked to Annual Conference attendees about welcoming the stranger and journeying toward repentance. Since then, there have been several opportunities for Minnesota United Methodists to view and discuss the film “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code.”

For several years, Minnesota United Methodists have been discussing an appropriate act of repentance. Members of the key stakeholder groups believe that returning the Red Rock is just such an action.

“To me, this is a first step,” said Konrardy. “It’s evidence that maybe we can be in repentance, but I find it troubling when we think about a singular act of repentance. This is only the beginning of the possibilities.”

Konrardy hopes that Minnesota United Methodists use this opportunity to begin to form relationships with Native Americans and to recognize the generational trauma they’ve experienced. He points to the four questions that Phillips posed to Annual Conference attendees in thinking about repentance: Can you see us? Can you hear us? Can you find Christ in us? Will you claim us as part of yourself and your community?

A matter of justice

Gesling said her congregation hopes that the return of the Red Rock may be able to serve as an example within and also beyond the United Methodist Church.

“There are so many things we could name that have been taken from native people,” she said. “Are there other things that could also be ‘rematriated’? Are there other places sacred to native people that we can give them access to? Can this be part of a series of taking things that have power and meaning for the native people and making sure that they have more access and ownership? We want to show others how to do this in a meaningful and respectful way.”

Bishop Ough believes that returning the Red Rock is a matter of justice.

“In the Hebrew Scriptures, justice literally means returning everything to its rightful owners, or to its rightful place, or to a right relationship,” he said. “I believe in our context here in Minnesota and the Dakotas, justice will be fulfilled and healing championed when the sacred Red Rock is restored to the Dakota people. Justice will be fulfilled when we—Native Americans and non-native Americans—are fully returned to a state of mutual respect and loving one another as God loves all of us and all of creation.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.