Women’s Forest Congress Visits Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob

On Monday, Oct. 17, approximately forty members of the 2022 Women’s Forest Congress toured the Oȟéyawahe/Pilot Knob site. The event brought national and international visitors, including members from British Columbia and England. The Pilot Knob Preservation Association, Oheyawahe Task Force, Mendota Heights and Dakota County staff provided information regarding the site’s importance as a sacred site, its history, and the natural resources and habitat it provides for visitors and wildlife.

Juanita Espinosa (seated at center right) and Neil McKay (standing at center left), both of the Spirit Lake Nation, greeting members of the Women’s Forest Congress at the Seven Council Fires Oveerlook, Connie Bowen photo

Members of the Congress were captivated by stories from PKPA Board of Directors members Juanita Espinosa and Neil McKay, both of the Spirit Lake Nation. Neil said, in Dakota, “I am standing on the hill,” and commented that the exact same sentence could have been uttered there two thousand years ago. They heard about the Oceti Sakowin and pictured the groups of families gathering and camping on this very spot. Neil explained how the stories are tied to this very place.  The listeners asked questions about present-day Dakota youth and were interested in how the language and culture are transmitted to the youth, asking, “How do they learn about the sacred sites?” Neil spoke of the deep meaning of the language and its connection to place, and the significance of this place, to which the Dakota people are connected. People asked about the degree of popularity of learning the Dakota language now, and the demand for online classes.

Members of the Women’s Forest Congress, listening to Juanita Espinosa and Neil McKay on the hill, Connie Bowen photo

This group clearly appreciated the stories of the Dakota’s relationships with the land, and the concepts of reciprocity and respect. Neil described that the term Wašíču, which is used to refer to “white people,” actually translates more precisely to, “the greedy ones.” Both Neil and Juanita spoke of the generations and generations of Natives connected to the land and caring for the land. Juanita said that Nature was in charge, and that, “Mother Nature always intervenes…there could be an earthquake and everything gets washed down the hill.”  She and Neil spoke of a “Less is more” approach to this site. Neil described the site’s connection with and relationship to other sacred sites along the river. Juanita emphasized the importance of, “caring for this place in a good way.”

They were riveted when Juanita mentioned the importance of the relatives, relations, and ancestors and that, “the ancestors are always with us.” She mentioned the Spirits, “those who had walked on in life.” She explained that spirits guide us with reminders that the Creator put us here for a purpose. We are all born into this world with a purpose, given to us by the Creator, and even if we don’t know what that is, we need to trust and keep moving forward, living a good and humble life.

The seating provided by the stones at the Seven Council Fires Overlook was welcomed and, as the stories continued, the attentive group seemed to slip into timelessness, and we could have easily continued listening for much longer.

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