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RIVER LIFE

Living with the Mississippi: Creating River Memories

November 17, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: Creating River Memories

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

November 1st marked the closing of our exhibit, “Remembering the Bohemian Flats: One Place, Many Voices,” at Mill City Museum. An unintended but welcome outcome of the exhibit was hearing from a number of people who wanted to share their stories about life along the Mississippi. The exhibit struck a variety of chords: a woman who had lived at the flats as a young girl was confused by our “Crime and Vice” panel, remembering the community’s later years as peaceful and law-abiding. Some shared that their parents or grandparents had been ashamed to have lived at the flats, while others said they had been proud to live in the tight-knit community.

One story that stood out to me in particular was that of Ron Adler, whose grandparents lived in a different Mississippi River neighborhood: a camp under the 42nd Ave Bridge in Camden, Minneapolis during the 1940s. This area is now a part of North Mississippi Park, and though the story of this community resembles that of the Bohemian Flats, its existence is barely acknowledged today. Ron remembers visiting his grandparents as a child, and describes the community as “a dump, nearly uninhabitable.”

“Squatters ousted from their housing on banks of river at Camden Park, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken on May 7, 1936. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Squatters ousted from their housing on banks of river at Camden Park, Minneapolis.” Photographer unknown, taken on May 7, 1936. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Similar to the Bohemian Flats, there was no sewer or running water and water was collected from a community hand pump. The residents, considered squatters, lived in poverty in small shacks and trailers. Local civic clubs wanted to evict the settlement’s 200 residents to create a public park, deeming them a “menace to public safety and sanitation.”[i] The comparison between the earlier and later river flats settlements made me reflective on the nature of memory. Why has history been so kind to the memory of communities like the Bohemian Flats and Swede Hollow, despite their notable problems? How do we choose which stories to keep, like those of the Bohemian Flats, and which to forget, like North Mississippi Park? More importantly, how do we decide how to tell these stories?

Though the river flats communities like the Bohemian Flats and Swede Hollow were once viewed negatively, the less favorable aspects of life, like crime, poverty, and disease, have been diluted to create much more favorable stories of quaint, ethnic havens. The city’s disdain for and mistreatment of these communities over time has been forgotten, leaving mostly stories of their peaceful existence and later eviction. While the romanticization of these stories has caused us to perpetuate false, or at least not entirely true, ideas about our past, it has also allowed their memories to survive, incorporating them into our city’s narrative.

“Gateway Park and the Gateway Center just before it was razed.” Taken by the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Gateway Park and the Gateway Center just before it was razed.” Taken by the Minneapolis Star in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

One reason we can easily revise the history of the Bohemian Flats is that the neighborhood no longer exists. With the landscape so drastically altered, we are free to create new stories about the people who lived there. As I wonder about the narratives we will tell in the future, I reflect specifically on these areas that have been completely erased. In her blog post “Blight by the Block,” Kirsten Delegard of the Historyapolis project writes about the redevelopment of Minneapolis between the 1940s and 1980s. She mentions while Cedar-Riverside, the larger community that includes the Bohemian Flats, survived, other neighborhoods were lost, including the historic Gateway District. Decades later, we are forming our opinions about the demolition of this area, many already regarding it as a major mistake. How will future generations remember these places? Will they be viewed with a sense of nostalgia and loss, like the Bohemian Flats, or will we forget about them entirely, succumbing to the stories imbedded in the modern landscape?

Places have stories to tell, whether they are visible or not. Throughout this blog series, I have presented more complex stories about the historic river flats communities to give more depth to the experiences of the people who once lived along the banks of the Mississippi and to view places as having several stories to tell.

Footnotes:

[i] “Demand Eviction of Squatters: Residents Claim Camden Colony Menace to Public Society.” Minneapolis Star 7 May 1936.

River Rangers and Stormwater Mitigation at MWMO

November 10, 2015Maria LeeFeatured, Former Featured Posts, Guest Posts, RiversComments Off on River Rangers and Stormwater Mitigation at MWMO

by Maria Lee

Two years ago I took a big step towards adulthood and became a home renter. Along with having a house came the barrage of various bills, and among these bills was the City of Minneapolis Utility Bill. Every month I scanned my utility bill and the line ‘Stormwater Utility Fee’ always stood out because I didn’t understand this as a utility.

I eventually learned that part of my ‘Stormwater Utility Fees’ went to the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO). Last month students from the University of Minnesota’s River Rangers group visited the MWMO to build understanding of the what the organization does, where our stormwater fee goes, and how our actions affect the health of the Mississippi River!

Students learn about stormwater mitigation at the MWMO (Photo by M.Lee)

Students learn about stormwater mitigation at the MWMO (Photo by M.Lee)

The MWMO is a special unit of local government that provides for the long-term management of water and natural resources over an area of land that drains into 15 miles of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities metro area. The MWMO works extremely hard to help residents of the watershed understand how their household, schools, offices, and other places of work and play are connected to the river. In Minneapolis, our storm drains run to the Mississippi River. This means our choices and behavior on the surface makes a huge difference! Part of the MWMO’s effort to increase public understanding of stormwater is their Stormwater Park and Learning Center. The outside of the building is an interpretive area showcasing landscaping choices and strategies that help mitigate stormwater runoff such as rain gardens, rain barrels, and semipermeable surface paving.

MWMO’s Stormwater Park and Learning Center (Photo by MWMO)

MWMO’s Stormwater Park and Learning Center (Photo by MWMO)

While we enjoyed learning about landscaping choices that support a healthier Mississippi River, most students at the University of Minnesota live in apartments, dorms, or rental units that don’t allow re-landscaping. Luckily, the MWMO had many more ideas about habits we can incorporate into our daily lives that support a healthier river! Inside the building they had resources on safer cleaning products and tips to save water. The MWMO also encouraged us as college students to think creatively about conservation and watershed management! Every year the MWMO gives out grant money for Stewardship Ideas. In the past a rain garden on the University of Minnesota Campus has been sponsored by grants like this!

A visit to the MWMO is a great way to see where policy, education, and science-based management converge to face the challenges of an ultra-urban and diverse watershed. Do you have a local watershed management organization? What resources do they have to help you protect our river?

In Search of Secret River History

August 11, 2015Patrick NunnallyGuest Posts, River MeaningComments Off on In Search of Secret River History

This blog post was written by River Life staff member Maria Lee, whose work is supported by a grant from the Mississippi River Network.

 

What would you do with a houseboat the size of an office cubicle? Well, if you’re itinerant artist and general river enthusiast, Wes Modes, you embark on a multi-month journey down the Mississippi River. We had the pleasure of meeting Wes at the first River City Revue of the summer. Wes and his trusty companion, Hazel the Dog, welcomed us aboard the boat. The boat can more or less comfortably seat four by squeezing in a worn leather love seat and two chairs at an abbreviated dining table. Storybooks and jars of spices lined the shelves on the walls. A few people were lounging in the small space, sipping drinks out of jars, and taking in the smell of whatever tasty-smelling concoction was sizzling on the two-burner stove. Hanging out with Wes and his boat was exactly how I imagined encountering Huckleberry Finn and his raft would have been if I lived in a Mark Twain novel. The term, ‘Non-conventional’ only starts to cover the Wes experience. Shoeless and shaggy-haired, Wes radiates a boyish honesty that invites both trouble and trust. His journey down the river will undoubtedly be filled with both as this is more than just a man fulfilling Twain-inspired boyhood dreams of floating down the river; a story collecting effort will propel his boat downriver.

A Secret History of American River People, the title of Wes’ project, attempts to explore the stories of people who live and work on the river. He hopes his project will, “encourage an awareness of issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and an understanding of river ecology.” Wes paradoxically uses the archetype river journey as the method to explore unheard stories of the Mississippi River. In Minnesota, he’s already delved into the river stories of communities of color and non-dominant culture. Wes shared with us that he finds stories important because they allow us to begin to know and understand experiences outside of our own.

I, personally, love the idea of ‘Secret Histories’ as there are many communities whose experiences and stories with the river are still secondary narratives and not emblematic of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River feeds lifestyles that vary as much as the landscapes it passes through; the few stories that are championed as the narrative of the Mississippi River do not do this diversity justice. A teacher once told me—it is imperative that we tell our own stories. Otherwise, someone else will tell them for you, or worse, won’t tell them at all. Wes’ river journey is a decisive move to ensure that all communities have a place for their stories. What’s your river story? Tell us about it or tell a friend this week! Also, don’t forget to follow Wes and his journey on his blog!

Living with the Mississippi: The River as a Resource

June 11, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: The River as a Resource

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

The Mississippi River is one of our country’s major natural resources, not only providing us with transportation routes and countless recreation opportunities, but also supplying over 18 million people with drinking water.[i] Though the river’s water was historically polluted, the residents at the river flats found that the Mississippi was a resource in other ways.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Polish American girl and man with a wagon searching the Mississippi River shoreline near Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis. Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1900. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The river was used to transport lumber from the saw mills upstream, which the residents at the Bohemian Flats were quick to capture. The WPA Guide to the Bohemian Flats notes that “They gathered the billets of wood, mill ends, “dead heads” (entire logs), and other sawmill waste… ‘Slabs, shingles, strips, blocks, boards, and sometimes entire logs can be seen hurrying down the river.’”[ii] Photographs of the flats show piles of wood stacked against the walls of the houses, which could have been used to construct or repair their homes; the residents of the flats might have even sold the wood for extra income.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Women Gathering Driftwood from the River on the Bohemian Flats.” Photographer unknown, taken prior to 1930. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

The WPA guide also notes that wood wasn’t the only thing the residents of the Bohemian Flats rescued from the Mississippi: “Oranges and bananas, dumped into the river by wholesale fruit houses, sometimes bobbed about in the current. “We saw a child eating one of those bananas from the river when we first came,” an old resident recalls,” and we thought he would die. The whole place was in a panic until we found out that everyone ate them here. Until I came to America I had never seen a banana.””.[iii]

At Swede Hollow, the residents would catch fish in Phalen Creek until the stream became too polluted,[iv] and it seems likely the residents along the Mississippi would have done so as well. Additionally, the river fed the flour, wool, and saw mills at the St. Anthony Falls, many of which provided jobs for the residents at the Bohemian Flats. Though the real estate at the river was some of the worst in the city, the Mississippi still had a few benefits to offer its residents.

[i] “Water Quality.” 1 Mississippi, 2011. http://1mississippi.org/water-quality/

[ii]Works Progress Administration. The Bohemian Flats. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1941.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Yekaldo, Ralph. This is about life in Swede Hallow [sic]: things I remember and the people I grew up with. Photocopy of Handwritten Autobiography kept at the Minnesota Historical Society, 1987.

“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.

Living with the Mississippi: Upper Levee

May 28, 2015Rachel HinesFeatured, Guest PostsComments Off on Living with the Mississippi: Upper Levee

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

A trip to Cossetta’s in St. Paul provides an idea of life was at the Upper Levee, St. Paul’s historic Little Italy. Covering the walls of the restaurant are photographs of smiling Italians, shabby storefronts, and flooded streetscapes. The centerpiece is a model of the Upper Levee community, each of the houses painted and arranged along the three main streets, Upper Levee, Mill, and Loreto. Before the Upper Levee was known as Little Italy, however, it was St. Paul’s Bohemian Flats, home to recent Czech and East German immigrants.[i] This was a notorious area of town, filled with recently arrived single men, and was constantly featured in the newspapers for the drunken fights and altercations between residents.[ii] As these men made enough money for their families to join them, they moved up to the West 7th Area, vacating the flats for the Italian community. By 1910, the community’s population was three-quarters Italian, and would remain so until the residents were evicted in 1959.[iii]

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

Model of the Upper Levee in Cossetta’s Restaurant in St. Paul. Taken by Rachel Hines in June 2014.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Shepard Road and the Upper Levee, St. Paul” Photographer Unknown, Taken between 1950-1959. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The residents of the Upper Levee truly formed a community, a place where members looked out for one another. Many had emigrated from the same area of Italy, Campobasso, and, upon arrival in St. Paul, traveled straight to the Upper Levee and never left.[iv] The welfare of the community was so important to the residents at the Upper Levee that, in 1931, they asked University of Minnesota student Alice Sickels to conduct a study on the community; it was the start of the depression, many young men were unemployed, and there was a high rate of juvenile arrests. The residents hoped that Sickels, a graduate student in Social Work, would find ways to keep these young men out of trouble and aid in planning programs for the new community center.[v] This report, which analyzes statistics on nationality, immigration, voting, religion, community participation, citizenship, and literacy, in addition to delinquency, provides a rare look inside one of the river flats communities, as most of the documents about these settlements are sensationalized newspaper stories or nostalgic memories from former residents. “It would have been a normal evolutionary process for the Italians in this neighborhood to give place to the more recently arrived Mexicans, as is happening among the Italians in the Phalen Creek and the Jewish immigrants in the Central Community House districts in St. Paul, but there is a sense of permanent village life among the homeowning group of older inhabitants which has held some of the foreign-born residents there in spite of the fact that their children would have enjoyed moving into the better neighborhoods which they could well have afforded.”
–Alice Sickels, page 35

Sickels noted that the neighborhood was “almost a transplanted Southern Italian village built by men who migrated from old world towns.”[vi] Village ties were so important to the Italian immigrants that 30 of the community’s 50 marriages were between people from the same town. The residents maintained traditional Italian values by keeping close family ties, establishing their own restaurants and taverns in the West 7th area, and attending the local Catholic Church, Holy Redeemer, where mass was said in Italian.

Though the residents of the Upper Levee had the means to move to a better neighborhood, they continued to remain in the community. Sickels noted that though it would have been natural for the Italians to be replaced by the newer Mexican immigrant population, there seemed to be a sense of permanence about the community.[vii] After the flood of 1952, the residents at the Upper Levee suffered extreme property damage, and the city of St. Paul decided the settlement’s location was too hazardous. An urban renewal and relocation plan was implemented by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, and the Upper Levee residents were dispersed throughout the city. However, despite the unfavorable conditions at the flats, the community still resisted the move.[viii] The relocation plan failed to keep the community members together, placing them in homes similar to their own but surrounded by unfamiliar neighbors, disrupting the sense of unity maintained by this small settlement.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[i] 1880 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[ii] See articles like: “Murder on Bohemia Flats.” Minneapolis Tribune 30 June 1888. “Murder in St. Paul.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 December 1888. And “The Result of Beer Drinking.” Minneapolis Tribune 21 February 1890.
[iii] 1910-1940 United State Census, Minneapolis, Ramsey County, Minnesota. www.archive.org
[iv] Sickels, Alice L. The Upper Levee Neighborhood: A Study of an Isolated Neighborhood of About One Hundred Italian Families in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thesis (M.A.): University of Minnesota, 1938.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] National Park Service. “Little Italy: A Floodplain Neighborhood.” http://www.nps.gov/miss/forteachers/upload/LittleItaly_30x40.pdf

“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.

Living with the Mississippi: Working on the River

Living with the Mississippi is a blog series that examines the history of the river flats communities and what it means to almost literally live on the Mississippi River. Follow along to learn more about life on the Mississippi prior to luxury condos and clean river water, before the riverfront was considered a desirable place to live. The entire series is downloadable in PDF format here.

For many residents of the river flats communities, the river was not only a place to live, but also a place to work. Employment originally drew settlers to the Bohemian Flats. After the Kraenzlein & Miller Brewery was built above the southern end of the flats in 1866, a boardinghouse was to provide a home for the brewery workers, mainly German immigrants.[1] They were shortly joined by the Zahler Brewery built on the other side of the flats in 1874; this brewery quickly changed hands and became the Noerenberg Brewery in 1880, while Kraenzlein and Miller became Heinrich and Mueller in 1884. These two breweries joined John Orth and Germania to form the Minneapolis Brewing and Malting Company in 1890, known today as Grain Belt. When a centralized brewery was established across the river, the jobs followed, and the breweries on the flats were abandoned.[2]

"Heinrich Brewery building (Minneapolis Brewing Company), foot of Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Heinrich Brewery building (Minneapolis Brewing Company), foot of Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Photographer unknown, taken in approximately 1895. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

By this time, the population at the flats had greatly surpassed the labor force at the breweries. In fact, most of the brewery employees no longer lived on the flats, as the population was changing rapidly. The majority of the community worked as unskilled laborers; the men and most children over the age of 14 were employed by the mills and factories in downtown Minneapolis, while their wives and mothers would stay home to tend to the house. Young women often worked until they were married, often employed as seamstresses or laundresses.[3]

Historically, certain industries were sometimes ethnically affiliated. In an oral history, Bohemian Flats descendant Don Pafko mentioned the local railroads were controlled by the Irish, while trades like carpentry and bricklaying were associated with Scandinavians, making it difficult to obtain these types of jobs.[4] While residents at the Bohemian Flats generally did not work in these industries, that did not prevent them from working in a diverse number of areas. Though about 75% of the people living at the flats between 1900 and 1930 were Slovak, they did not seem to favor any industry over another. Though families would sometimes work for the same company, this pattern was not reflected in the work of different ethnic groups.

“Palisade Mill on the West Side of the River in 1903.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1903. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

“Palisade Mill on the West Side of the River in 1903.” Photographer unknown, taken in 1903. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

Common employers in 1880 were the Averill, Russell, and Carpenter Paper Mill on Hennepin Island and the Minnesota Linseed Oil Mill located in Cedar-Riverside. By 1890, the flour mills had become dominant, with Anchor, Humboldt, and Pillsbury Mills as some of the top employers. This concentration shifted to manufacturing companies by the 1900s, though many still worked at the mills as well.[5] Though many of these workplaces were located on the river, it was still a distant walk or trolley ride upstream for the residents of the Bohemian Flats.

This map shows a sampling of the workplaces of the residents at the Bohemian Flats between 1880 and 1920. Different industries are represented by color: mills are yellow, stores are red, manufacturing is orange, foundries are dark green, and everything else is light green.

This map shows a sampling of the workplaces of the residents at the Bohemian Flats between 1880 and 1920. Different industries are represented by color: mills are yellow, stores are red, manufacturing is orange, foundries are dark green, and everything else is light green.

Further Reading:

Footnotes:

[1] Minneapolis City Directories, 1859-1922. Found online at the Hennepin County Library website at http://box2.nmtvault.com/Hennepin2/
[2] Hoverson, Doug. Land of Amber Waters. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
[3] These patterns were reflected in the United States Federal Census from 1880-1930.
[4] Donald Pafko, interviewed by Anduin Wilhide, Houses of Worship and Ethnicity Project, April 13, 2012.
[5] Minneapolis City Directories, 1859-1922. Found online at the Hennepin County Library website at http://box2.nmtvault.com/Hennepin2/

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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.