By Dawi Cofer
The natural feature known to Americans as Pilot Knob has a long history as a mystical site, highly regarded by numerous nations of indigenous people. It was known to the Hochunk, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Meswaki, as well as others. The significance of this site is high, as it was a place where sky burials would take place, commonly known as scaffolding of the dead. It also was a site where the multinational medicine lodge ceremonials would occur. The medicine lodge is a congregation of traditional medicine people, from many different nations. This ceremony was known to all the aforementioned tribes, as well as others. During the time of the medicine lodge, multiple nationalities would appear and work together to perform the ceremonials. This ended in a large dance where all the members would take part. Pilot Knob was such a place that it was easily accessible by river travel, and was up high where all of creation could witness the events. These are the reasons it was chosen.
According to the oral history of the Dakota people, Pilot Knob had great significance to the spirit of the waters, Uŋktéȟi. It was said that the formation of the land had been created by two Uŋktéȟi chasing one another down the river, and one bashed into the hillside which caused it to raise up. These beings were of great size, depending on their own whims, as they were mystical in nature and had many powers, such as changing shape and size. Nearby to Pilot Knob, along the Mississippi river, are many other sites that are regarded as belonging to the Uŋktéȟi; Coldwater Spring, which was a trail into the places under the earth for them, the literal Dakota name Mní Owé Sní signifies it is a cold water trail. Nearby, where the VA center stands, was known as Táku Wakháŋ Thípi, signifying “where the mysterious being dwells.” Even further upriver, at St Anthony Falls, it was known to be a den of this great spirit, underneath which was a nest filled with metals. Many ceremonials took place at St Anthony Falls, to request assistance from this great being. Downriver from Pilot Knob, we have Pig’s Eye Lake. Pig’s Eye Lake was known to be the dwelling place of one of the greatest water spirits, known amongst the Hochunk as Traveler. Somewhere around the area of Pig’s Eye Lake, along the white bluffs of St Paul, (which St Paul was known as Imníža Ská or “White Bluffs”) it was recorded by Jonathan Carver that the Dakota residents camped along the river had painted a great effigy of the water spirit. In his journals he sketched it and spoke of it. Thus this span of the river has a great history to the Dakota and neighboring peoples, especially in regard to the water spirits to whom we were very fond.
As for the name of Pilot Knob in Dakota, it is currently misspelled in Dakota, on most signs and references. They say it is Oheyawahi, but this isn’t phonologically correct as a spelling for the Dakota name. The phonologically correct spelling would be Oȟéyawahe. This spelling can be found in the Dakota – English Dictionary, authored by Stephen Riggs, under the entry “Oȟé” Stephen Riggs said that the name signifies “the hill much visited.” This is not an exact translation, as it is more of a connotation of the place. If we break down the words to create a more literal etymology, we can take oȟéya and explain it as the place where they build mounds – a reference to the burial practices there. The ending of -wahe is commonly attached to places with significance, such as thiwáhe, which signifies the household and family, and othúŋwahe (more commonly said as othúŋwe now in minnesota, but in Lakota country the full word is still said) which signifies a village or city, more literally a place where the people are born. Thus the name Oȟéyawahe implies that it is a place where the people go for burial practices. That is why it is much visited.