Red Rock Ridge is a Sioux quartzite, metamorphic rock outcropping along a 23-mile ridge in southwestern Minnesota. It rises out of the tallgrass prairie and is one of the oldest bedrock formations in the state, with sand deposited more than 1.6 billion years ago. The 50 x 300-yard rock face has provided a surface for American Indians and their ancestors to make rock carvings, or petroglyphs, for more than 7,000 years, with the most recent completed 250 years ago. Although archaeologists are unsure who made the earliest carvings at the site, historical research reveals that the area was inhabited by Mandan and Hidatsa people before 1300, Cheyenne until 1650, and Ioway and Otoe until 1700, when the Dakota arrived.
The petroglyphs were carved into the rock with a hammer stone and stone punch, both likely of quartzite. To date, 5,000 images have been identified at the site, most of them visible to viewers looking down at their feet from nearby trails, put in place to prevent visitors from walking on the petroglyphs. Representations of bison and atlatls, or throwing sticks, are some of the earliest images. The wolf also appears early on, symbolic of social strength, hunting prowess, and the ability to work together. Completing the iconography of the site are thunderbirds, deer, bison, turtles, and human forms, all of them important to the culture of prairie inhabitants. The symbolism in these images is powerful. For example, according to Kevin Callahan, thunderbirds were believed to have the ability to transform into man, causing lightning, thunder, and wind; they were also the nemesis of the Great Horned Serpent of the underworld. Turtles were a representation of Mother Earth, seen as a womb and also a symbol of fertility. The handprint, according to Joe Williams, a Dakota elder who assisted with the interpretation of the site, says that the Indian people are still here, that they have “kept the spirit alive and survived the most disastrous things on this continent.”
This is a living, sacred site and contemporary American Indians still come here to pray. It is, according to Dakota elder Jerry Flute, a place “where Grandmother Earth speaks of the past, present and future.” Red Rock Ridge is a property of the Minnesota Historical Society, which purchased the site from W.R. Jeffers Jr. in 1966. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970, and is open to the public from May through September.
Callahan, Kevin L. The Jeffers Petroglyphs: Native American Rock Art on the Midwestern Plains. Prairie Smoke Press, 2004.
Minnesota Historical Society. “Jeffers Petroglyphs Preservation Project.” Accessed March 13, 2016. http://collections.mnhs.org/jp/.