Wherever you go, along any river on earth, the chances are great that people indigenous to that landscape knew that place, valued it, named it, depended on it.
In some places the past tense of the verb is appropriate, the indigenous people being so long gone, and their relations to that place obscured under such a thick palimpsest of subsequent cultures that their presence is barely discernible, if at all.
But for most places in the world, indigenous people remain connected, through stories, voices, presence. Oh sure, it may be possible to be on a river such as the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Columbia, or the Mississippi, and to know something about those rivers, without knowing their indigenous histories and meanings.
It may be possible, but such knowledge, truncated without connection to old, enduring ways, is lacking. It lacks a certain richness, depth, and connection.
Knowledge of a river that begins when the most recent occupants came is necessarily foreshortened, both with regard to the past, but also with regard to the future. For those of us Euro-Americans living along the Upper Mississippi River, if we only understand "history" as beginning with the fur trade in the late 17th century, and as only including dominant voices of those who wrote things down, we limit ourselves to only imagining a future of a couple hundred years, and with ourselves as the center of that future.
We must do better, if we are to sustain a relationship with our rivers.
Fortunately, web sites like the Bdote Memory Map can begin to show us some ways into understanding these old ways, and their continuations into the present.
Bdote is a Dakota term that means, roughly, "where two waters meet." The bdote at the juncture of what are now called the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in the heart of the present Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, is the spiritual and historical home to Dakota people. It is also a place where 1700 women, children, and elders were imprisoned after the Dakota War of 1862, making it a place, as I have heard people say, "of our genesis and our genocide."
The Memory Map site, a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center and Allies: media/art conveys a richly nuanced sense of this place. The site contains audio and video clips from Dakota people explaining elements of their connections to this place; it contains photographs and text that show it in its many dimensions; it contains a mechanism for visitors to tell their stories.
This capacity, for people to listen to multiple and diverse stories, to learn through visual, aural, and text-based documents, and to speak back to the site, to engage in a conversation, is essential if our future with this place is to be sustained. Explore the Bdote Memory Map, listen to the voices, and imagine how those voices and voices like them can be--must be--part of our future understandings of our rivers.
At the River Life Partnership, we work closely with Allies and with people and organizations that Allies connects us with in the indigenous community. Quite honestly, we can't imagine doing our work without these partnerships, voices, and insights.