November 2010

The Facebook blog page has video pieces that can’t be uploaded on this blog.

Flickr presents many photos of sites, organized by location


by Allies: Research and Writing


Across the American continent, indigenous people have retained political sovereignty in the face of imposing challenges. Tribal governments continually counter legal and social onslaughts against sovereignty and misconceptions about the exercise of legally-guaranteed rights. As part of this struggle, indigenous people work to maintain the language, practices and knowledge that are integral to the survival of the cultural identities that sovereignty protects.

Both the struggles and the cultural assets of indigenous communities are largely invisible in the wider American public. This invisibility is not an accident. In the continent-wide expansion of the U.S. political and economic system, Indian identity was assaulted by U.S. social policies as indigenous people were removed from Indian homelands. In the process, indigenous points of view were intentionally excluded from the body politic of the U.S., and the assumptions upon which today’s American society is based have been created in the absence of any indigenous perspective. Indian invisibility is a structural feature of U.S. public life.

The essential conflict between indigenous perspectives and the assumptions that guide America’s broader public discourse centers on the relationship between people and land. In the U.S. system, land is real estate, and individual property rights are paramount. From indigenous viewpoints, on the other hand, land is an entire nexus of connections in which humans are part of the natural world, and these connections are paramount.

[A] characteristic feature of American Indian religious traditions: spatiality. Indian ceremonial life and all of Indian existence are rooted in a profound notion of space and place… Indian peoples, then, tend to locate sacred power spatially—in terms of places or in terms of spatial configuration. This is in stark contrast to European and Euro-American religious traditions, which tend to express spirituality in terms of time: a regular hour on Sundays and a seasonal liturgical calendar… [S]patiality is a dominant category of existence for Native Americans whereas time is a subordinate category. Just the opposite is generally true for European peoples.

George E. Tinker (

“Religion.” Encyclopedia of North American Indians. New York: Houghton Mifflin

The historic expansion of the U.S. was, essentially, the displacement of one set of assumptions about how people relate to land with a different set of assumptions. This historical backdrop creates a context in which public discourse is inimicable to indigenous cultural perspectives. Members of the general public may learn about Indians – as historical figures, for instance – but basic assumptions of American public life create obstacles to learning from Indians.

Today the consequences of Indian invisibility in mainstream America are widespread:

  • Within indigenous communities, material poverty and other social challenges go unaddressed, ignored by the wider community.
  • In the interaction of indigenous people with a wider community – most nobably in the experience of Indian students in public schools – the clash of cultural assumptions and resulting invisibility of personal identity contribute to developments such as disparities in classroom performance and misunderstanding about treaty rights.
  • General public discourse in the United States is impoverished and misinformed by the absence of indigenous perspectives. On any number of critical topics – history, national identity, social relationships, environmental issues– the perspectives of the continent’s most enduring cultures are unavailable to the general public.

Program Model: The Bdote Memory Map

Over the past five years, the Minnesota Humanities Center and Allies: media/art (a Dakota-owned media production company) have forged a productive partnership in creating and refining the Bdote Memory Map. In this website, Dakota people express the meaning of a specific place – the heart of the traditional Dakota homeland.

“Bdote” is a Dakota word that signifies the confluence of two bodies of water, and includes metaphorical layers of meaning such as “meeting place.” The bdote of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in the Twin Cites is a site of Dakota genesis and genocide, the Dakota “garden of eden” according to some traditions as well as the site of incarceration for hundreds of Dakota people in the aftermath of the War of 1862. It is a powerful place for Dakota people, enriched, burdened and animated by memories of shared cultural experience.

On the Bdote Memory Map website, a map offers links to information on a dozen spots along the Mississippi that have special significance to Dakota people. Links include video interviews, historical photos, written background information and other media assets that present Dakota perspectives on place. The site gives primacy to unmediated indigenous voices sharing information beyond the non-Native cultural assumptions that render indigenous identity invisible.

In the process, the site creates opportunities for members of the general public to learn from indigenous people, and to interpret their own experiences with these places in the light of Dakota experience. The website has proven to be a popular resource for educators from primary grade to undergraduate levels. It supports learning throughout the social science curriculum and beyond, and introduces indigenous voices into mainstream educational settings throughout Minnesota. The Minnesota Humanities Center has offered training in using the site to groups of teachers, and is creating an online course on using the Bdote Memory Map that will be offered to all Minnesota educators.

The Bdote Memory Map is a web-based project that creates a Dakota context into which diverse information can fit.  The website, then, can reference and link to “outside” sources of information from non-Dakota partners that

  • reinforce Dakota perspectives,
  • engender a deeper sense of place for the general audience, and
  • relate Dakota perspectives to the stories that already shape and limit public discourse.

The University of Minnesota, for example, can provide information on topography, flora and fauna of the Bdote area. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation database on US-Indian treaty signers, as another example, illuminates can illuminate events that had a profound effect on Dakota culture. Neither of these examples is exclusively focused on Dakota points of view, but each provides a pathway for general audiences to move toward a Dakota point of view. The salient feature of these resources is that they were identified and chosen by Dakota decision makers, and are used at their discretion.

Working in partnership, the Minnesota Humanities Center and Allies: media/art have also identified and created teacher resources that support the use of the Bdote Memory Map in classrooms.  Find them at and