July 2011

Thanks AGAIN to Pat Nunnally of the River Life Program at the University of Minnesota for permission.  http://blog.lib.umn.edu/ione/rivertalk/


It seems self-evident (but may not be) that we should listen to people who have lived with our rivers the longest in order to learn how we might develop a sustainable relationship with rivers.

Put it another way:  In less than a decade, New Orleans, founded in 1718, will celebrate its tricentennial.  If there is to be thriving urban life on the Mississippi for the next 3 centuries, we must learn from people native to the river.

Recently a spate of news stories have highlighted relations between native people and rivers in the United States.

Sometimes, the relationship is difficult.  As The Native American Times writes, shoreline stabilization on the Tennessee River, at Moccasin Bend, has uncovered previously-unknown archaeological sites.  Moccasin Bend was a very significant settlement, and the discovery of human burials complicates the river stabilization project considerably.  The project is under the direction of the National Park Service’s Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, so federal laws pertaining to human burials at archaeological sites are being followed.

Farther down river, in Louisiana, a site known as Poverty Point, which contains some of the largest “prehistoric” earthworks in North America, has been proposed for possible consideration as a World Heritage Site.  World Heritage Sites, designated by UNESCO, contain qualities of “outstanding universal value.”  There are less than 1,000 World Heritage Sites on the globe; inclusion of Poverty Point would likely spur research and protection interest.

It would be a serious error, though, to conclude the Native presence along rivers is historical only.  Two current projects, both in the Pacific Northwest, illustrate collaborations between Native nations and public agencies in preservation of rivers and the varied life forms that depend on rivers.  The New York Times has two stories on coalition building along the Nisqually River.  Also in Washington, a coalition of tribal governments and federal agencies is examining the aquatic ecology of the Elwha River, prior to the removal of a large dam this fall.

Finally, take a look at the Facebook page of a program called Conversations With the Earth.  This effort to ensure that indigenous voices are heard on planetary issues, such as climate change, is a “must learn.”  River managers on the Upper Mississippi are well advised to listen to native people–they are still here–and collaborate in establishing more sustainability on the Great River.


Pidamaya to Pat Nunnally who is teaching the course and to all the students who took the time to explore and respond to the Bdote Memory Map.

This is a long post! There’s so much material on the Bdote Memory Map, you really should check it out because I can’t cover everything. Preservationists often have to decide a “period of historical significance” for the site and restore it to look like it did then. With most of the places described on the Bdote website, irreparable changes have already been made and other histories have been recognized (such as at Historic Fort Snelling). What role does preservation play for the Dakota? And how can we negotiate ownership and access to the land that was historically their home? I think these issues are very different than those presented in the “National Register” and the laws and codes relating to preservation. It has more in common with Hayden’s “The Power of Place” in that it seeks a voice and representation for places that aren’t part of the dominant culture. This source is different than the others in that it seeks to reclaim places that have been overtaken and significantly altered.

Bdote Memory Map Website (http://www.bdotememorymap.org/)

Getting Started
The Bdote Memory Map is a very rich resource. It’s best to first read the overview in the west section, “MNISOTA: A Dakota Place.” It doesn’t tell much of the purpose for the site, but instead explains the connections that Dakota people have to this place and how this area feels like home. My impression is that this website is meant to gather stories about this place so that Dakota people and “those who came to shape the earth” can hear and understand. It tells stories of belonging and longing for a return to a way of life and a place where the Dakota people can live the way they were meant to.

The videos in “MNISOTA” introduce you to the people whose voices populate the Memory Map. They represent the Dakota people in what they say, but as the first video (translating Mnisota/Minnesota) suggests, not everyone has the same interpretation. Of the videos here, I think the 1, 2, 5 and 6 had the most impact, but they are all worth viewing.

  • 1. Chris MatoNunpa translates the Dakota word Mnisota, talks about multiple meanings and his understanding. “Land where the waters reflect the sky”
  • 2. Dave Larsen “discusses this place, the arrival of non-Native people in the ‘center of the earth” and themes of being displaced, then cleansed and re-found. “The Dakota people must be able to return to the locus of creation and… understand what it means to be from a place.”
  • 3. Diane Wilson talks about growing up in South Dakota and thinking she was from the plains, but through research she found that she’s from the Bdote area.
  • 4. Ramona Stately, “a Dakota woman who grew up in Florida,” talks about visiting and feeling that Minnesota was her true homeland.
  • 5. Sydney Beane, “a filmmaker and community developer,” discusses how naming a place that might have originally been named by people who lived there first is an act of displacement.
  • 6. Diane Wilson describes the causes and events of the Dakota War of 1862.

There are also a few audio clips in the MNISOTA section which are provoking. I wonder if they wanted the voice to be more powerful, or if they didn’t use video so that no one person’s face is attached to these statements. The Dakota deserve more respect is adamant that: “without our sacrifices, this state would not exist.” Sisokaduta (W. Joe Bendickson)

Memory Map (http://www.bdotememorymap.org/index.php?var_get=memoryMap)
When it loads, it doesn’t show all of the sites. You have to pan north to see St. Anthony. The Kaposia and Bdote sections are also fascinating. For example, I didn’t know that Kaposia is really a name for a tribe that moves with the seasons. The bdote page has so much content that it’s hard to know what to look at first; the second video that talks about finding round stones on the shores of the islands is moving. There is a section for both bdote and Pike Island, I think because the island sits at the confluence, but the confluence or bdote itself is more of a spiritual area; just as the waters mix in changing ways, the confluence is a zone more than a mappable location.

A place that’s also fascinating (that we don’t talk much about) is Coldwater Spring or Mni Owa Sni. It was a sacred area, a place of peace and meeting. “It wasn’t just sacred to the Dakota, it was sacred to the Anishinabe, it was sacred to the Ho-Chunk, it was sacred to the Sac and Fox, to a whole group of indigenous peoples. They would put down their arms, and meet, talk, eat, laugh together…” As the site says, “Mni Owe Sni has been a place of healing and peace for centuries. It was a meeting and camping site. Anishinabe/Ojibwe people camped here when conducting business at Fort Snelling. Just after contact with white people, soldiers building Fort Snelling relocated to this site for the health benefits of the springs. (This is one of several reasons why Mni Owe Sni is sometimes called ‘the birthplace of Minnesota.’) For decades after that, Dakota people, white people and other nations peaceably visited and lived near the site, living next to each other, intermarrying, and conducting trade.” Another video from 2008 is of a press conference when the Dakota held a ceremony there, and asked for the land back according to the 1805 treaty.

If you focus on St. Anthony (Owamni), watch the first three videos in that section. The third video, “contaminated falls” seems to beg a question: what do the Dakota people (or those that speak for them) want there? That video in particular is a short clip, and I wish we could see the rest of it.
The second video in the St. Anthony section talks about family trips to the falls, and how the Dakota women would go to Nicollet island to give birth in order to be “protected from the prying eyes of the Ojibwe.” The idea of the island as a protected place is a very spiritual and meaningful concept.
I found the first video, of Dave Larsen talking about spirituality, to be fascinating. Here are a few quotes from what he says. “The falls were created by mother earth… those walls shouldn’t even be there. Stop controlling, start opening up inside, your heart and mind.”
“The place creates change, it has that kind of power. Human beings have authority, only natural law gives power. … Majority rule doesn’t work in natural law.”
“All the might of the so-called strongest nation in the world… is being put on us from time to time to make us stop being who we are. Then, when we show a little change, they say ‘see those Indians were lying, they’re not who they said they were.'”
“The places that we talk about are the ones that give us direction, that point out who we are and point us in the right direction. .. If you have no idea where you’re coming from, you have no idea of where you’re going.”
“St Anthony falls is our mother… and when we sit and tell stories about our family, that’s our family. Its much more than a piece of dirt, it’s who we are. Without having access to that, and being able to do what we are supposed to do there, [they’re] taking the best from us.”

A quote about the Minnesota River summarizes why the rivers are so important. We hear about how it ran clean two generations ago, but now it’s so muddy that you can’t see the bottom. However, valley still seems like Eden. The river still has a powerful and beautiful purpose. Autumn Cavender-Wilson says “You can’t help but feel everything about you. … The river carries everything, it carries our history, all the way down to the sea. Rivers do carry eternity on their backs, they have no age. They carry with them our history and our pain.”

— Liz, how refreshing to read this, after my dry reading about the rules of the National Register Bulletin. I just wanted to say that it would probably be impossible to use these beautiful stories of the meaning and place making to nominate St. Anthony as a designed historic landscape according to the National Bulletin, and I think that’s not fair! Certain landscapes could be disqualified if they do not have designed physical landmarks that are exactly how they were in history, which apparently shows the landscape’s “integrity.” The last couple quotes are powerful and I think they should have merit in determining historical significance.
–The stories wouldn’t be qualified because the landscapes are not intact? Wow. That’s the opposite of how I would think it should be. Isn’t there such a thing as restoration?
Are we only restoring things that have been well-preserved in the first place? That’s fascinating, and I am interested to hear more tomorrow!

–The Bdote Memory map seems like a good complement to the MNHS information. Hayden recommends an approach to public history that is community-based, “shared-authority” – with communities empowered to define their own collective pasts based on their collective memories. This seems like a good source that taps into the “place memory” of the community in an inclusive way, as an authoritative source.
–Im pretty certain that the National Register Bulletin had no mention of “stories”, more places of significance and integrity. I think these stories must have a designed element, with the original fabric of a place retained, I imagine this can be recreated, so restoration is possible. These rules are kinda tricky, like -if this, then this-.. I think it tries to be black and white.
–This Website is a great creative online resource. It is an excellent way of recognizing, protecting traditional cultural sites using this online media to communicate the value of this place and culture to the World, but specially to local people. It combines the history with geography and the voices of the people. Telling stories is telling history. ( In Spanish we use the same word for both, historia) .
There is a video of “The falls are contaminated, we can’t care for the place”. She talks about the place saying : Sacred, holy , pure knowing that currently it is contaminated….The National Register criteria says that a property is eligible if it has “integrity”, this is what King was explaining about the tricky meaning of the words in these Bulletins, if the place lost their sacred value, or purity it means it does not conserved it’s integrity because it is now contaminated?.

You’ve given us a thorough review of the site, Liz, thanks! Mona Smith, the site’s creator, and I were part of a program last month offering the distinction between a “rule-based” approach to heritage preservation (exemplified by the National Register) and a “story-based” approach, embodied in these videos. There have been questions about how these stories stack up as evidence with respect to historical claims; are they as significant as written accounts from other cultures (i.e. our writing-oriented approach). What’s to separate these accounts from “stories told by my Grandma,” and maybe should they be separated?

For me, I think part of the issue lies in what “claims” are explicit or implicit in stories. These voices make it clear (to me at least) that these areas are very significant to Dakota people. How those claims of significance stack up against other versions of significance is another matter, one that I haven’t fully thought through yet.