Originally, Wakan Tipi was centrally located at the intersection of the roads between the three large Mdewakanton Dakota villages and also at the intersection of the Ho-Chunk, Anishinaabe, and Dakota tribes. According to Dakota elders, the presence of petroglyphs within Wakan Tipi indicates that the cave was a location for council meetings and sacred ceremonies. Elders talked about petroglyphs as “very ancient stories” made by man and spirits that indicate “the power of the place.” While petroglyphs of men, birds, animals, fish, and turtles were recorded within the cave, the largest and most notable petroglyphs within Wakan Tipi were large rattlesnakes that appeared to be pointing to, or moving towards, a common point directly over the widest part of the cave. The snake is an icon of healing, power, and medicine and thus the presence of the carved snake motifs indicate that the cave was likely a place for healing ceremonies.
Furthermore, caves, in and of themselves, are sacred places because they allow one to enter simultaneously into the earth and darkness. Darkness is linked to both birth and death, which in turn are linked to Grandmother Earth. This is why sweat lodges and some vision quests also occur in darkness.
The presence of a spring within Wakan Tipi furthers its importance as a location of healing.
The cave was also of significance to early river travelers and settlers of the area. In the fall of 1766, Jonathan Carver, a self-taught English mapmaker from Connecticut, set out to explore the Upper Mississippi. Carver wrote in his journal:
“This day we arrived to the great stone cave called … Waukon Teebee, or in English the House of Spirits. This cave I found to be a great curiosity, in a rocky mountain just by the bank of the river.”
Given the cave’s sacredness to Native people, combined with many years of damage and even desecration of the cave, the highest priority was its appropriate and immediate protection. Conversations among tribal, city, federal, and community representatives, concerning future interpretive efforts and issues pertaining to access have been ongoing. And this conversation continues to find new ways of understanding the implications of our storytelling endeavors.
Today, the area has undergone extensive environmental rehabilitation and is a destination for walkers, bird-watchers, and others.
For further information see: