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Stories About Water: What’s “Old” is New Again

May 26, 2015Patrick NunnallyEvents, Guest PostsComments Off on Stories About Water: What’s “Old” is New Again

Last month we convened a symposium, “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.”  Video coverage of the sessions is available here  and additional material is on the web site of the Institute for Advanced Study  as well.

The chairs of the various sessions during the symposium have written blog posts about their session, posts which we will run for consecutive days this week.  Phyllis Messenger, the author of this post, is IAS grants coordinator and staffed the Sawyer Seminar.


Throughout 2014-15, we’ve been exploring new water narratives for the Mississippi River as part of the John E. Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota, which has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Sometimes the “new” has been right under our noses for a very long time.

The opening session of the symposium on the Mississippi featured Ojibwe Elder Sharon Day and Dakota scientist Jim Rock. They began with greetings in their Indigenous languages and a water ceremony in which waters from four sacred places, representing different watersheds, were poured over the back of a turtle shell representing Turtle Island, or Mother Earth. This powerful earth and water symbolism was a common thread throughout the presentation.

Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous People’s Task Force, and leader of a series of “water walks” talked of her work as head of the water lineage in her family, and her obligation to protect and teach about rivers and lakes.  She has walked with small groups of women up and down the Mississippi River and in other places where water needs to be healed and its purity restored. Women have been responsible for water since the beginning of time, she reminded us. What woman would not develop an intimate relationship with water, when she needed to walk to gather and carry it home multiple times a day?

Jim Rock, adjunct professor at Augsburg College and incoming program director of the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota-Duluth,  talked about the protocol of offering tobacco before we take anything from Mother Earth. He shared tobacco leaves that came from seeds both ancient (800-1000 years old) and otherworldly (having flown on the last space shuttle as part of an Indigenous-developed experiment).  He gave a glimpse of ancient star knowledge of the Dakota and other Indigenous peoples. “We have an axiology, an epistemology, metaphysics,” he said. He and co-authors have shared some of this knowledge in the just-published D(L)akota Star Map Constellation Guide, as well as a companion Ojibwe guide.

Jim straddles worlds. He was born near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, or Bdote, the center of the earth and the spiritual home of the Dakota. His father was one of the last first-language, Dakota, full-blood speakers. Jim is equally at home talking about monitoring planetary boundary conditions, studying 600,000-year histories buried in Antarctic ice cores, and sharing stories of constellations inscribed on ancient rock art. He makes connections across indigenous languages and knowledge bases, calling Maya codices “our own Indigenous science books,” and meeting with Indigenous leaders from Bolivia to New Zealand.

As a scientist, Jim Rock understands the impulse for exploration and new knowledge. But he warns that curiosity is not enough of a reason to do science; there are consequences to exploration, whether they be lives lost, colonization, or exploitation, in addition to knowledge gained. There are ancient protocols to follow, spirit tricksters to take into account.

He has unbounded enthusiasm for being in the important conversations about saving endangered species, cleaning up critical waterways, and preserving Mother Earth for generations to come. “We are Turtle Islanders,” he says.  “As indigenous people we have deep connections and we will always honor them. Our mother and relatives have to come first.”

The keynote presenters got us off to a good start. They invited us to participate with them in songs, stories, and the gifting of tobacco. They shared laughter with us, but they also asked us to listen to and act on the sobering message that we cannot ignore the harm that we as humans are doing to Mother Earth and her waterways. This was a message that was repeated by diverse voices throughout the symposium, in different ways, and from different bases of knowledge.

As we continue to ponder the themes of our symposium on the Mississippi, my hope is that as scholars, practitioners, and members of different communities and traditions, we will always make room at our tables for a diversity of perspectives, including Indigenous voices drawing on deep and ancient history and knowledge. That will help us all sound a little wiser and better informed as we move toward action.

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