University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

What can Scientific Study Tell Us about the Urban Mississippi?

May 23, 2016Patrick NunnallyEventsComments Off on What can Scientific Study Tell Us about the Urban Mississippi?

A year ago, when the Upper St. Anthony Lock closed, there was widespread interest in the impacts the closure would have on the biological and physical systems of the river.  Would the closure, and accompanying lack of dredging to maintain the navigation channel, help or hurt the river’s ecology?

The state LCCMR awarded a grant to the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership to study this very question.  The Partnership, in conjunction with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory and River Life (both from the University of Minnesota) is nearing completion of the study.

Join us Thursday May 26, at 6:00 in Mill City Museum to hear the initial results of our investigation into the changing Mississippi.  There will be brief presentations, a panel discussion, and plenty of time for questions.  Go here for more information and to register.

A Sip of Science–The St Anthony Lock Has Closed, So How Is the River Doing?

May 9, 2016Patrick NunnallyEvents, Featured, Former Featured Posts, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on A Sip of Science–The St Anthony Lock Has Closed, So How Is the River Doing?

This Wednesday May 11, A Sip of Science will feature a University of Minnesota graduate student reporting on a nearly-complete “literature review” and baseline assessment of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.  We know the Corps of Engineers will not be dredging the former navigation channel, but how will the river’s water quality, aquatic ecology, and sediment systems respond?  We have to know where we are now to understand future changes, so the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources awarded a grant to the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership to examine existing data on this stretch of the Mississippi and conduct very limited new studies.

Come to the Aster Cafe at 5:30 on Wednesday to hear Jane Mazack, a Ph.D. candidate in Water Resource Science at the U of M, report on the study.

More details below:

The lock is closed: what are the keys to river health?

Jane Mazack, PhD Candidate in Water Resources Science, University of Minnesota

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016  5:30p.m.  
Aster Cafe125 SE Main Street, St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis
No cover, Please RSVP!


A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly.  Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.

May 11th Event –

The Mississippi River has long been managed for navigation and transportation purposes. Last June, the St. Anthony Falls lock was closed to navigation and channel dredging was halted. These management actions are expected to change the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the river between the Coon Rapids and Ford Dams. Join us as Jane Mazack describes a current collaborative study between the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Lab, and River Life program that investigates the keys to evaluating the impacts of the lock closure.


The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase


Jane Mazack is a PhD candidate in Water Resources Science at the University of Minnesota. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from Calvin College in Michigan and a M.S. in Water Resources from the University of Minnesota. Her primary research interest is in aquatic ecology, and her dissertation research focuses on the winter dynamics of invertebrates in southeastern Minnesota trout streams.


A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar.  Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.

Interested in hearing about Sip of Science events?  Join our mailing list.

Looking for Ways to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in Minneapolis?

October 9, 2015Patrick NunnallyEvents, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Looking for Ways to Celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in Minneapolis?

Our friends at the Healing Place Collaborative were recognized this week as one of the winners in the 2015 St. Paul Knight Arts Challenge.  Huge congratulations to them all and we can’t wait to see how the Dakota Language Table will work!

In the meantime, especially for those of you who have Monday October 12 off, here’s a list of things you can do to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in Minneapolis and at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  It’s truly wonderful that there are so many possibilities!  What follows is cut/paste so apologies for odd formatting–scroll down to see all the good stuff!

Looking for ways to celebrate?  scroll and scroll and scroll

City sponsored events:

Sunrise ceremony

7:15 a.m.
Thomas Beach at Lake Calhoun, 3700 Thomas Ave. S.
(The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board added the Dakota name “Bde Maka Ska” to the brown entry signs surrounding Lake Calhoun as a way to honor the Dakota people and educate the public about the Dakota name of the lake.)

Red Shawl Round Dance

9:00 a.m.
American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Ave.

Brunch catered by Powwow Grounds

9:30 a.m.
American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Ave.

Panel discussion

Moderator: Deanna Standing Cloud
Panelists: Sharon Day and Robert DesJarlait
10 a.m.
American Indian Center, 1530 E. Franklin Ave.

The Indigenous People’s Day Hip Hop Show
5-8:30 p.m.
Augsburg College, 2211 Riverside Ave.

Other event sponsors include Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and Minneapolis American Indian Center.

About Indigenous Peoples Day

Since 2014, the City recognizes the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, marking and celebrating the significance of the American Indian and Indigenous community in Minneapolis, as well as the city’s history of American Indian activism. Minneapolis’ 2014 resolution, in part, states, “The City of Minneapolis shall continue its efforts to promote the well-being and growth of the Minneapolis American Indian and Indigenous community. … Indigenous Peoples Day shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that Dakota, Ojibwe, and other Indigenous nations add to our city.”

Also in the area:

Saint Paul Indigenous Peoples Day
11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
Crowne Plaza, 11 Kellogg Blvd. E., Saint Paul


The City of Minneapolis has officially changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, and Mia is celebrating with a day dedicated to Native American art, both traditional and contemporary. Get hands-on in studio sessions, meet Native artists, and feel the rhythm with live drumming and dance performances.

Dance Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue Aztec Dance

11:3012:30 & 2 p.m.

Delight in vibrant and rhythmic dances from Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue Aztec Dance.

Dance Yellowhouse Dancers

Noon1:30 & 3 p.m.

Hoop dances tell stories through form and movement. Marvel at hoop dance performances from world championship-class hoop dancers from the Yellowhouse Dancers.

Interactive Performances Miskwa Desjarlait

Noon–3 p.m.

Join artist and dancer Miskwa Desjarlait, and discover the stories and artistry behind Native dances.

Performance and Talk Talon Bazille Ducheneaux

1 p.m.

Meet rapper and expression artist Talon ‘Bazille DX’ Ducheneaux and hear about his journey from the Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, and Rosebud Reservations to the Ivy Leagues.

Art-making Symmetrical Style

11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Compose a collage that’s simply striking, inspired by black and white Pueblo pottery. Design your own shapes, then flip them to create a symmetrical work of art.

Art-making Gold Pendants

11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Craft a dazzling gold creation inspired by Mesoamerican ornaments.

Gallery Hunt Circle, Square, Everywhere

11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Seek out your favorite shapes as you explore Native American art in Mia’s collection.

Preschool Tour Pattern

11:30 a.m. & 12:30 p.m.

Go on an adventure exploring patterns in art of the Americas, with a tour designed especially for little ones.

Art Cart Americas

Noon–4 p.m.

Get hands-on with objects representing Native cultures from the Arctic to South America with our great Native Collection in Focus Guides.

Tour From Anishinaabe to Zapotec: Art of the Americas

2 & 3:30 p.m.

Take a family-friendly tour and explore art of the Indigenous Peoples from ancient times to the present.


“The River Is Our Future” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

May 29, 2015Patrick NunnallyEvents, Guest PostsComments Off on “The River Is Our Future” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

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. This post is written by Jane Mazack, one of the two Graduate Fellows of the Sawyer Seminar.

As an aquatic ecologist, my work is based in the physicality of rivers. My field-collected data  quantify invertebrate communities, trout populations, and thermal patterns. But my work as a 2014-15 John E. Sawyer Seminar Graduate Fellow at the University of Minnesota has encouraged me to think beyond the quantitative. My research, while ecologically important, finds much of its broader significance in its context of climate change, its dissemination to the community, and its inclusion in broader narratives. My work with the seminar has made me reconsider the ways in which scientific knowledge is disseminated to and discussed with the broader public.

As part of the recent symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” I moderated the final panel discussion, “River as Future.” Much of scientific research looking to the future is contextualized in the fact that climate changes will change the physicality of the river itself. However, this concluding panel looked beyond the physicality of the river to the narratives we tell, the relationships we are a part of, and the decisions that we make. The work of the symposium, and that of the year-long Sawyer Seminar, has been rooted in the premise that our narratives of the river must change along with the changing climate.

The four speakers on this final panel provided diverse perspectives on how we consider the future of the river. John Anfinson, Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, emphasized the key roles of triggers and rupture points in facilitating new thinking and management on the river. Kat Hayes, Associate Professor in Anthropology, considered plans for the future as necessarily drawing on a broad archive of knowledge. Pat Nunnally, director of RiverLife, proposed that “River as Future” would be better stated as “The River is Our Future.” Kate Brauman, scientist at the Institute on the Environment, looked at the river under the lenses of equilibrium, flux, and transience. But despite the diversity in backgrounds and discussions, one thread was common to the thoughts of each panelist: the future of the river depends on us. Collaboration, inclusivity, and a multi-faceted understanding of the river will be essential to its future.

If you weren’t able to attend the symposium, I hope you will take the time to watch the video of this panel and discussion and join in our ongoing conversations. The river is our future. What future do we want to see?

Video of the full session is available here.  Scroll down the page until you get to the session you are looking for.

On Science and the Past, with a Nod to Davy Crockett: A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

May 29, 2015Patrick NunnallyEventsComments Off on On Science and the Past, with a Nod to Davy Crockett: A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

Some tales about the Mississippi River region are well known and are true, some are well known and are fiction, and some of the most important are true, and have been well known but are barely remembered.

Conevery Bolton Valencius, a historian of science from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, presented an entertaining and informative talk about the last kind of tale: the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12. Her talk kicked off the final day of the “Once and Future River” symposium by asking us to think about what we know, what we think we know, and what difference the difference makes.

To begin at the beginning, the New Madrid earthquakes violently rearranged the landscape of the river corridor south of the junction with the Ohio.  Not only were trees flattened for miles, and the river and its lakes and tributaries reordered, but nascent settlement patterns on the frontier of white settlement were disrupted as well.  New Madrid went from being a thriving regional trade center with many economic interactions between native people and incoming whites to a backwater community.  Native people lost what foothold they had retained in the region and fled west.

Within a generation, the earthquakes, which had been felt as far away as Boston, remained so well known that Davy Crockett’s autobiography could include casual references to chasing bears down into the fissures in the ground left after the quakes.  But shortly after that, by the time of the Civil War, certainly, the earthquake history had all but disappeared.

Valencius argues that, in part, this was due to the press of other events.  Significant Civil War battles were fought along the Mississippi River in the immediate vicinity of the quakes.  But as is the case with most good history, there appear to be other elements at work as well.  As the region became more and more a rural “backwater” the accounts handed down through families and recorded in personal data collections such as probate records became less “scientific,” more “anecdotal.”  Throughout most of the 20th century, science was seen as the purview of men with instruments (and they were mostly men for the vast majority of the 20th century) conveying knowledge that was otherwise inaccessible.

This is in many ways the real story Valencius has to share: what counts as scientific knowledge, who creates that knowledge, what is discounted in this celebration of “scientific” knowledge, and who is discounted as their knowledge is marginalized?  That’s a lot of questions, but they may turn out to be among the central questions of our time.

For example, and this is a case that Valencius only alluded to, what are we to make of the debates about the “science”  concerning climate change?  Few any more doubt that climate change is real; the debates are over the causes and the actions that should be taken.  The consequences of these debates are enormous, and we should not be surprised at how the battle lines have been drawn and how fiercely they are contested.  Still, though, we can be taken aback when basic scientific facts, or, here’s the kicker, what we take for basic scientific facts, are so hotly disputed.  As the saying goes “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Valencius’ talk, available by scrolling down through this link, does what good scholarship ought to do: have us think in a new way about something we thought we understood.  It’s a bonus–for me at least–that the talk was presented so well and had the Mississippi at its core.


“Living with the River: the Once and Future Mississippi” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

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. This post is from Christopher Grenfell, an audience member at the “Thursdays at Four” session and undergraduate student in the Honors Seminar “Thursdays at Four.”

The session included three speakers plus a moderator, all speaking about “resilience” and the Mississippi River.  They were all interesting talks, although there was a lot of variation in what was said.

There is no question the Mississippi is in trouble.  Organisms dependent on the river slip closer to peril every day, as the gulf hypoxic zone grows to the size of Massachusetts.  At the same time, however, the Mississippi’s incredible biodiversity and resilience make it a champion among rivers.  No amount of damage to its ecosystem or flow will cause it to succumb.  It will always be here, but it will be different.

Rivers are absolutely essential to our survival.  Darlene St. Clair, a Native American studies professor at St. Cloud State University, talked about the Mississippi through a Dakota studies framework.  The Dakota define waterways as the lifeblood of mother Earth.  Through an ethic called “Mitakuye Owas’in,” roughly translated to “everything is my relative,” the Dakota feel a familial connection to the Mississippi and its ecosystem.  Our current society could learn a lot from this ethic, as we are just one of many species dependent on the river.  Unfortunately in today’s world it is impossible to study nature without studying human influence.  We are now the dominant source of change on Earth, and need to take responsibility.

Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of water resources and policy at the University of Minnesota, outlined three possible futures for the Mississippi.  The first was a bleak scenario where invasive carp dominate the river, water withdrawals reduce its flow, and recreation of any kind is impossible.  In this future we do nothing to stop the Mississippi’s decline, and it becomes merely a dumping ground for fertilizer and waste.  The second was a best-case scenario.  In this future the river supports a healthy and diverse fishery, it is possible to drink untreated water, and the gulf hypoxic zone ceases to exist.  Swackhamer was quick to point out that this scenario was a near impossibility, and offered her third scenario as the “future we can have.”  If we act now to reverse the damage we have caused, the Mississippi can support diverse life, its drinking water could be considered the best in the country, and the gulf dead zone could be reduced by 50%.

Pat Hamilton of the Science Museum of Minnesota addressed the Mississippi’s adaptive nature.  He defined resilience as the ability of a system to deliver goods and services while withstanding disruptive changes.  From this definition the Mississippi’s resilience is in trouble.  With an increase in pollution and invasive species, it will no longer be able to deliver, fish, drinking water, recreation, or transportation.  It will be viewed as the central United States dumping ground, transporting our waste to the sea.  He cited climate change as the Mississippi’s ultimate threat, and called upon world leaders to stem the growth of atmospheric pollutants that are contributing to global warming.

The Mississippi will exist long after we are gone.  But it is the state of its existence that determines our future.  Irreparable damage has already been done, however we can decide how much more has to occur.

Video of the session can be viewed here.

“From River as Image to River as Place” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

May 27, 2015Patrick NunnallyEvents, Guest PostsComments Off on “From River as Image to River as Place” A Post from the Sawyer Symposium

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.  The author of this post is Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, Postdoctoral Fellow of the Sawyer Seminar.

Art historians generally think about texts and objects much more than they do about place. We might analyze an artist’s process, the materials out of which something is made, and the meaning that is created by an artwork’s display and interpretation in various contexts. My work as the 2014-15 John E. Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Minnesota has made it clear that the Mississippi has always been more than a line on a historical map or the setting for some of the most canonical paintings in American art. It has made me reconsider the ways in which the questions that I ask about nineteenth-century maps, paintings, and prints depicting the Mississippi River might be brought to bear on contemporary issues and be made to function within public life beyond the classroom or museum.

As part of the recent symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” I chaired two panels: “River as Image” and “River as Place.” For the first, we screened Pare Lorentz’s 1938 New Deal film project, The River , an epic documentary about the deleterious effects of human agricultural and engineering efforts to shape the Mississippi. It was followed by five short videos curated by the Twin Cities-based art collaborative, Works Progress that are part of a project called Dear River.  Unlike the grand, sweeping narrative presented by Lorentz, the short films of Dear River tell a diverse set of narratives that invite viewers to reflect on their own personal, and often intimate, relationship with the Mississippi.

The organizers of the yearlong Mellon Sawyer Seminar have argued that the stories we tell about the river must necessarily change in an era of climate change. Much of what I research helped to create a largely celebratory and nationalist identity for the Mississippi River, one that is arguably still the dominant one in American culture. However, the speakers in the panel “River as Place” offered alternatives for understanding the river. Dr. Richard Mizelle’s project identifies limitations in traditional historical archives, exposing structures of power that silenced African American voices and dictated their movements during and after the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Through the Bdote Memory Map and Healing Place projects, Mona Smith and her collaborators weave together many voices to assert the centrality of indigenous history and belief to understanding Minnesota and the river. Shanai Matteson’s place-based, collaborative practice with Works Progress cuts across disciplinary and bureaucratic boundaries, uniting the modernist divide between art and science in taking an ecological approach to artmaking and community building.

I hope you will take the time to watch the video of this panel if you weren’t able to make it to the symposium. These projects reflect on the politics and ethics of studying a place where people continue to live and work, on which environmental crises have unfolded and will happen again, and where race, class, and power dictate access. They bring an awareness and understanding of the past but also provide models for how expression and creativity might be harnessed to tell the river’s stories in an uncertain future.



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.

Rivers May Need Universities; Universities Probably Need Rivers

April 14, 2015Patrick NunnallyEventsComments Off on Rivers May Need Universities; Universities Probably Need Rivers

The title here may or may not be puzzling, but hear me out.  Last week, we held our “Once and Future River” symposium about the Mississippi River, the stories we tell about it, and how climate change may/will/is affect both the river and the stories.

We had a great symposium, with lots of participation, thought-provoking questions, good food, and gallons of coffee.  In fact, things went so well with our discussion sessions that I did not have to give a wrap up talk to close the show, just said “Thanks and see you next time.”

But I hate to see all the thinking that went into the closing I had prepared go to waste, so here’s a short post on rivers and universities.

Rivers may “need” universities, because universities are full of researchers who can examine the river through scientific means and offer policy, design and planning recommendations to enhance their health.  The Dakota partners at our event, who reminded us that the river is a major part of that group of entities “all our relatives,” also put us in mind of the fact that universities are places where new ways of understanding and expressing those relations can come about.

But rivers don’t need universities.  Our campus has been on the banks of the Mississippi for roughly 160 years.  We’ll probably make it another 160 years, but the river is a good bet to be here ten times that duration, 1600 years, or until roughly the year 3615. The Mississippi River will probably be here in 3615; the University of Minnesota, probably not.

The University of Minnesota, like many academic institutions, is turning its considerable assets and attention to addressing “grand challenges,” problems defined by the community in which we find ourselves. The Mississippi River, one of the great rivers of the world, offers many potential “grand challenges” for our attention. It’s a bonus, of course, that so many people can and are already working on issues associated with the river.

Big questions–broader impacts–durable benefits: all offered by the Mississippi River and people working with it, and all ready for university participation.

Yep, we need the Mississippi River.

Changing River + Changing Communities: Need for New Narratives

March 25, 2015Patrick NunnallyEvents, Featured, Program & AnnouncementsComments Off on Changing River + Changing Communities: Need for New Narratives

Towboat at SunsetWhen we put a public program together, we have a clear, but complex, goal:  we want the audience to walk away saying “That’s a really interesting idea.  I’ll have to think about that some more.”  Maybe it’s the teacher in us, or the fact that unlike our community partners our mandate is not to manage river resources or programs.  Instead our mandate is to encourage new ideas that help our partners do their jobs.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because we are two weeks away from the symposium “The Once and Future River,” where some two dozen speakers will incite new thinking on a range of topics related to the Mississippi River.  We’ll ask questions such as:  What do we mean when we talk about the “Mississippi River”? How do we express new ideas?  What do we mean by “resilience” as that term might be applied to the river and its communities?

Hard questions, requiring more thought than we are perhaps used to.  But then, as I said, that’s our job.  For example, we held a program last spring “The Irony of Carp” that really exemplifies what we’re about.

Invasive carp are a threat to current conditions on the Upper Mississippi, of that there is no doubt.  We are glad that many organizations and coalitions are working to stop the spread of these pests.  But what, ultimately, do we mean by “invasive,” and exactly how did these fish get here in the first place?  If we are stopping them to protect a “natural” ecological system, well, how “natural” is that system really?

Last spring’s program ranged across a number of fundamental questions about invasive carp and our responses to them.  Among the insights:

  • We are spending millions of dollars to keep these species out of the Great Lakes because we are afraid they will harm species of “game fish,” which themselves are introduced species.
  • In social media such as You Tube, the language that is used to describe the “stop carp” efforts sounds an awful lot like the xenophobic language people use who are worried about “illegal immigrants.”
  • In another century, which is the blink of an eye from the perspective of the indigenous people here (and who have their own ideas about the ironies of whites getting alarmed about “invasive species,”) the currently invasive carp may well be seen as “native” to the ecosystem.

Watch the videos at the link above; they are sure to inform and to provoke thought.  And be sure to register for the symposium in two weeks: it also is sure to both inform and to provoke thought.

After all, are any of us comfortable saying that we know enough?

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.