JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Feature Article

For immediate release

Release dated: 
April 27, 2015
Media contacts: 

Jessica Kohen, Marketing and Communications, 651-259-3148, jessica.kohen@mnhs.org
Tom Sanders, Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site, 507-628-5591, thomas.sanders@mnhs.org

JEFFERS PETROGLYPHS: Feature Article

“The sacred is like rain.
It falls everywhere
but pools in certain places.”
— Dakota elders

When ancestors of today’s American Indians stood on a red-tinged rock outcrop rising above the prairie in what is today Minnesota, they knew that here was a place where the sacred pooled. For nearly 7,000 years they carved a legacy into the stone—sacred symbols that would leave not only proof of their lives, but a window into their beliefs, histories and aspirations for the future.

This year, visitors to the Jeffers Petroglyphs will find thousands of recently uncovered rock carvings and a guided tour reflecting new discoveries revealed by the carvings. The carvings, or petroglyphs, are preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society at the Jeffers Petroglyphs Historic Site in southwestern Minnesota near Comfrey, Minn.

“Visitors often sense that Jeffers is a sacred place when they stand where American Indian ancestors carved their visions and truths for thousands of years,” said Thomas Sanders, an archaeologist and Jeffers’ site manager. “In the oral tradition of American Indians, knowledge was sacred and passed on to elders. Elders and other spiritual leaders recorded this knowledge by carving the petroglyphs at Jeffers.”

The rock outcrop at Jeffers is Sioux quartzite, some of the world’s oldest and hardest bedrock. Carving, or pecking, symbols into the rock “would have been very hard work. This was a place of destination, and these carvings mattered,” said Sanders. “They knew they were speaking to the past, the present and the future.”

Until recently, the number of petroglyphs identified at Jeffers was around 2,000. Over the past several years, an extensive restoration project at the site naturally removed lichen growth. The result? An additional 3,000 petroglyphs have been identified, bringing the on-site total to 5,000. With the new discoveries came evidence that American Indian ancestors who gathered at the red rock had advanced understanding of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine.

“The earlier carvings are of animals, who are the helping spirits,” said Sanders. For example, a carving of a wolf invokes social strength, being a great hunter and working together. As time passes, carvings shift to include a type of spear called an atlatl, which predates the bow and arrow, thunderbird, pottery, items from agriculture and carvings that represent people, such as handprint carvings.

“Handprint carvings, or napé in the Dakota language, says they were here,” said Joe Williams, a Dakota elder who has helped discern the stories represented by the carvings at Jeffers. “For Indian people, the handprint says we are still here, that we have kept the spirit alive and survived the most disastrous things on this continent. Imagine that a vision, a spirit, guided him to make this carving. We shake hands as a gesture of friendship, to show that we believe what we say we will do, with honor. And so when you nestle your hand inside his hand carved here, it means a lot.”

The arrival of Europeans on the continent tragically eroded traditional American Indian culture, including insight into the sacred that had been passed on for thousands of years. Actions to assimilate American
Indians distanced the young from the wisdom of their elders, which is witnessed at Jeffers.

“The earliest carving predates Stonehenge, and the most recent American Indian carving was made about 250 years ago, or around the 1760s,” said Sanders. “That means at least 10 generations have passed since this last contact. The link was lost between those who left their messages for the ages, those who carried the knowledge, and those who would come later.”
Reconstructing the meaning and significance of the carvings, and surfacing their stories, has been a labor of patience, discovery and dedication led by Sanders and including other archaeologists and students. But the work would not have been possible without the involvement of American Indian elders, like Joe Williams.

“The elders working with us here at Jeffers have brought the sacred intent to the stories of these ancient people,” said Sanders. “With so much knowledge lost, stories can have many interpretations. The elders
have guided us with context, truth and meaning. They have helped us uncover and piece together narratives that are healing. Healing is important.”

by Mary Small