River Talk

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T.S. Eliot, a son of St. Louis, once posed the question "At what point does the Mississippi River become what the Mississippi River means?"


His question, coming as part of the Introduction to a 1944 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, resonates many ways.  But one of the most important points Eliot raises is that the Mississippi does mean something.  But what does it mean?  Or, to put the question the way it would be raised in a graduate seminar:  How is the meaning of e the Mississippi River created, through which texts and contexts, and by which agencies, (that is "agency" in the terms of an "agent" of change, not a bureaucracy).  Who speaks?  Who listens?  Who is heard?  Who is unheard?


Thankfully--for you readers more so than for me as the writer of these musings--this is not a graduate seminar.  But the point remains:  what does the Mississippi River mean, and how is that meaning carried forth?


We know a lot about the science of the river and the policy frameworks that help define it administratively.  Perhaps no river in the world has been studied more and has a more complex set of legislative, policy, and agency (in the more common meaning) mandates.


But I think we still don't know much about what the river means, to whom, and what, if anything, the meanings of the river have to do with the science that describes it so well and the policies that inform our relationship to it.


Last night, in a mixed media performance at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, we learned more about the river's meaning, its past, and some hopes for its future.  Dakota (Sisseton-Wahpeton) media artist Mona Smith  directed and produced "Presence," a video, spoken word art, and poetry presentation on the presence of the Mississippi River to Dakota people and the presence of Dakota people along the Mississippi River today.  Too many people still think of America's indigenous people as "past," and now removed and living on reservations.  In fact, indigenous people live all over the land that was once theirs, and their presence is an important part of understanding the meanings of places and of rivers.


Images of the river and shore in the Twin Cities flickered over the limestone walls of the Mill City Museum, formerly the Washburn-Crosby A Mill, as recorded voices spoke, in English and Dakota, of the healing and the pain associated with the river, the site of their genesis story but also of genocide after the Dakota War of 1862.  Clouds wisped overhead in the open courtyard as twilight deepened and the images became stronger throughout the 25 minute performance.  Spoken word artist Bobby Wilson closed by reminding us all that the river has been here with us always, and will be with us always.


We would do well to hear these voices and heed their visions.


"Presence" was supported by a grant from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.




Greening the Urban Riverfront

Even casual scans of the web show that there is a lot of "greening" on urban riverfronts.  Across the developed world, obsolete industrial and transportation facilities along urban rivers are being redeveloped, whether primarily as a park or in developments that maintain some highlighted open spaces.  More recently, with "sustainability" gaining traction as a buzz-word, there appear to be stronger efforts to incorporate "green design" elements such as green roofs, permeable surfaces, and rain gardens, along with the more traditional parks and trails.


In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Historical Society's Mill City Museum is in some regards doing all of these efforts one better.  The Museum's Greening the Riverfront series offers programs that explore the nexus of history and nature.  Many of these programs explore new developments in food production and distribution, as befits a museum located in the heart of what was once the world's largest flour-producing complex.  But there are also important links to artistic expression and to indigenous perspectives here as well.


And this is where I think "Greening the Riverfront" really stands out.  Programmers know that events should have more than one dimension to really attract a crowd:  a family-oriented event that lets adults and kids work together to prepare their own food, for example, offers quality "family time" as well as "learning where food comes from" time.  But the incorporation of artworks, and the ways in which local indigenous people are involved in several of the events, highlight the idea that we all have to learn from each other, and to express ourselves in whatever way best suits, in order to bring about long term sustainability.  Dakota people have been spiritually connected to St. Anthony Falls since time immemorial; of course the rest of us should learn from them about how to live well with this place.  And artistic work can convey insights without argument, without smugness, without hectoring (and yes, I know that there is a lot of art that argues and is smug). 


All riverfronts can be green, and all have stories and histories.  Highlighting the "green history" of the riverfront, and using that perspective as a light for the future is a distinctive, and welcome, development.

Many Voices at Bdote

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.

There is a (too) common trope in many discussions of restoration ecology that posits some kind of desired "pre-contact" ecological system that would serve, then, as a desirable future condition. "If only we could get back to the North American landscape before Columbus," these arguments seem to imply, "we'd be able to live happily and sustainably on the planet."

There are many problems with this supposition, of course, among the most obvious being that it completely disregards the indigenous people as agents of change both before and after the appearance of Europeans. 

More recent and sophisticated understandings have suggested that instead of some kind of "turning back the clock" people interested in restoration might want to consider what the critical landscape functions and processes are, and work toward restoration of some of those key connections and dynamics.

I'm certainly no expert on the science of restoration ecology, but a recent project that has garnered a lot of press attention appears to have developed a subtle approach to the subject, as well as a dynamic interaction and communication/education program. The Mannahatta Project takes as its starting point the question of what Manhattan Island was like before the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. The interactive map is really a cool way to show that Times Square formerly was an area where streams crossed (Crossroads of the World, on a different scale!) and the like.

But Eric Sanderson and the other scientists and staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society who have developed this project have a bigger goal in mind than just a cool web site and education materials. In a TED talk last summer, Sanderson posed the question of how Manhattan can still be habitat for 12 million people 400 years from now. What can be learned from the earlier biological and physical systems that will let the same number of people, say, live there, using a much smaller amount of space, and leaving the rest for growing food and managing clean water supplies.

I wish the project had more evidently talked to descendents of the Lenape people who inhabited the island when Hudson showed up, but that may still be in the works. In the meantime, the innovative use of technology to convey new scientific insights is only the most obvious reason to spend some time exploring this impressive effort to build a smarter future based on detailed knowledge of the past.

The River Runs through All of Us

Many of us work on improving the Mississippi's water quality, or on bringing more people to the water.  For some communities along the river, it is becoming their "front door," after generations of being treated as the back door or mud room.
For many eastern Dakota, the Mississippi is simply home, the place of their origin. Created by Dakota media artist Mona Smith the piece speaks powerfully and elegantly:  "we will always be here."

Voices such as these should be heard by all who want a "river experience," and a collaboration of Twin Cities-based organizations is working toward just that goal.  Staff from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Wilderness Inquiry and the Mississippi River Fund are working together on something called the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure.
A signature element of the Adventure will be learning from Dakota people about Dakota relations to the river and the region.
The river may run through all of us, but I think it is fair to say that it runs more deeply in some than others.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.