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The Presence of Those Who Came Before

June 16, 2010Patrick NunnallyRivers, UncategorizedComments Off on The Presence of Those Who Came Before

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.

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