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Living with Rivers: The Long View

January 13, 2014Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Living with Rivers: The Long View

A story in last week’s Minneapolis Star Tribune reminded me, again, of something that it’s critically important to keep in mind: people have lived with rivers in this region for a very long time.

Archaeologists working near the Minnesota River, in the southwestern part of the the metropolitan region, have been excavating a site that holds evidence of human inhabitation dating back between three and eight millennia (3,000-8,000 years).  The site appears to have been on the shore of a lake in the valley of the Minnesota River, very near the river itself.  Artifacts recovered may lead to conclusions about what the people living here then ate, how they prepared and stored food, and how the physical landscape was configured into hills, valleys, and wet areas.

Archaeologists often work with other specialists such as ethnobotanists and geologists to answer these sorts of questions.  Along other rivers such as the Hudson, or rivers in the West, biologists, historians, and others become involved in multi-disciplinary efforts to learn how people have lived with rivers on very long term time scales.

Unfortunately, the present descendants of those who have lived here before are not often invited to participate.  An outdated mind-set that sees present day indigenous people as separate from people living here thousands of years ago hinders our efforts to learn how to live in a good relationship with this place.

What would we learn from consultations with indigenous people now in conjunction with archaeological and other investigations?  Hard to say, but one promising possibility would be more detail around the notion that the world before we white people came was not a pristine, Edenic landscape untouched and that we have inevitably corrupted.  When we see human/environment interactions as taking place on a broad scale of time and impact, we may be in a position to understand our own impacts better.


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