University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

#TBT: On Communities of Color and National Parks

Beginning this month, Black History Month, but continuing far beyond it, this blog will be taking up issues of diversity, inclusion and equity as they pertain to water and “water landscapes.” By that last phrase, we mean the spaces, often public space and often intentionally designed, that are defined by their relation to water.  A surprising number of public lands, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, are focused around a feature such as a river, creek, lake, or seashore.  We feel that these places are where some of the most important systemic changes–in the ways we treat each other across communities, and in the ways we treat water–will be enacted.

Part of the Throwback Thursday focus on this post, then, looks back to a piece I wrote here a couple of years ago, exploring connections between the calls for justice in Black Lives Matter, and the questions of whether African-Americans feel connected to the outdoors, to parks, and to the “green movement.”  Short answer: not really, but people are beginning to work on it.

Lauret Savoy, a writer and professor of environmental studies, explores the roots of African-American connection (or disconnection) to national parks in an eloquent essay published last year, during the Centennial Celebration of the National Park Service.  She writes that as a child she realized that the national parks she loved attracted few people of color and that most of the stories told by park rangers were not about people like her, “…I began to wonder whose stories mattered and whose ‘public lands’ these were.”  Subsequent historical research into the histories of indigenous people across the western plains and the connections between their removal and the establishment of the parks showed her how fraught the stories of the national parks really are.  Furthermore, her research clearly showed the ongoing presence of “buffalo soldiers,” African-American troops in segregated units of the United States Army, in the formative efforts to maintain park resources.

These stories are certainly not lost on the present National Park Service, although it does take time to change the habits of an established bureaucracy.  Together with national programs such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, the current management of the National Park Service is making an effort to promote the parks as places where diverse communities can go comfortably and partake of the contact with nature that brings so many benefits.  Furthermore, efforts are growing to create a more diverse work force in the parks, as well as other public lands, and to spread the word of the benefits of public lands, so that future generations of communities of color can be champions as well as participants in  these special places.

Bears don’t read boundary signs: environmental history in/of the north land

An interesting post on a blog of early Canadian history reminds us (again) of how recently we have put in place structures we now think of as “inevitable” or “permanent.”

In the 18th century, as Britain and France were figuring how how to deal with their colonial ambitions in the St. Lawrence River valley, reports of “bear years” and “squirrel years” complicated nationalist efforts to “fix” boundaries.  Periodically, large numbers of black bears moved south out of Quebec, reaching into Massachusetts territory, where they excited and alarmed settlers.  Other years, the migrants were thousands upon thousands of black squirrels.  In all cases, the shifting numbers of animals were accompanied by movements of indigenous hunters, which, of course, complicated efforts to figure out where these populations “belonged,” which crown, if any they were “subject” to, etc.

These reports are interesting and fun to read about in their own right (to me, at least) but they also remind us that our tenure on these lands and waters is relatively recent.  Underneath our territorial lines and roadways, our “property” boundaries, lies a still-living continent of land and water. We would do well to remember this.

We Are Water: Water/Ways Goes to Lanesboro

Of course, in a literal sense, we ARE water: some 70% of our body is water.  Minnesotans often talk about their love of water as a distinguishing state characteristic: more boat and fishing licenses per capita than any other state (so I’m told), strong nonprofit advocacy around many different water concerns, powerful governance and advocacy by lake associations.

But what do Minnesotans really think about the water in their lives?

The highly popular Water/Ways exhibit opened in its fifth location, Lanesboro MN, on Saturday and once again the combination of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling “Museum on Main Street” exhibit with a series of displays from Minnesota state agencies is inspiring over a month of local programming.  Efforts are coordinated by Lanesboro Arts, with a calendar and more information found here.

This year is Governor Dayton’s “Year of Water Action” so we’ll be hearing a lot more about agency activities to build a water ethic, and how a water ethic can materially help create a landscape of cleaner rivers and streams.  One of the virtues of Water/Ways is the development of a story map for each of the host communities, where local citizens speak their mind about the water that is important to their lives.

It would be worthwhile to make a study of what can be learned from these diverse perspectives, and what additional questions have yet to be answered.  What are “ordinary citizens” talking about that policy specialists and scientific wonks are overlooking?  What are the specialists concerned about that has not yet made it into the awareness of “regular folks”? Whose voices do we hear often, and who is not heard?

Stay tuned…we’ll be exploring these questions further.

Voices and Images from #NoDAPL Standing Rock Action

In case you have been under a rock for the past few weeks, you have heard about the actions taken by a growing number of Native people in North Dakota, standing up against an oil pipeline that threatens vital water sources and sacred sites.  The work of the water protectors (not “protesters”) can be followed on Twitter through #NoDAPL.  Here is a link to a collection of the published articles on the subject.

In the (likely) event that you don’t have time to read everything on that list, I’m going to give you a highly selective sample of some of the richness that the #NoDAPL movement has generated.  I believe that all of the links offered below are from indigenous writers, photographers, and perspectives.

Jaida Grey Eagle created a series of images #StandWithStandingRock in September 2016.

Several members of the Standing Rock Sioux community offer particular reflections of their history with water in this place in a short video “Thank You for Listening.”

Nick Estes puts the Standing Rock action in a historical context that includes the Louisiana Purchase, a series of treaties with Lakota people, and the Pick-Sloan Act that created a series of impoundments on the Missouri and flooded Sioux communities including the people of Standing Rock.

Jen Deerinwater, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, offers “5 Things Every Nonnative Needs to Consider Before Visiting Standing Rock.”

As I said, this is a highly selective list, gathered from following Twitter accounts such as @AmericanIndian8, scholar/activist Kyle Powys White from Michigan State, and indigenous feminist Eve Tuck.  “Traditional” news media have been notably absent or unreliable, with a few well-known exceptions, which you will undoubtedly run across.

Listen, read, heed what is being said and shown.  Use these voices and images to start your own journey of learning and exploration.

What Stories Should be Told at the River?

October 11, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Stories Should be Told at the River?

Because I’ve been involved in Mississippi River work for a long time, people (sometimes) think I have something to add to their projects.  I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours last week with two people who are working on developing interpretation and planning ideas for parts of the riverfront in Minneapolis.  It’s always fun talking with folks who care about the same things I do, and this was certainly no exception, but they caught me up short with this question: What would I want the interpretation on the Minneapolis riverfront to convey?

Never at a loss for words, I warmed to the task quickly, after some initial hesitation.  I’m actually not sure I gave them what they were looking for, since I’m not necessarily inclined to name specific people, events or facts that everyone visiting the riverfront should learn.  We’ve mis-taught history as a “march of facts” for far too long.

So here, in no particular order and with much explanation left out, are the things that I think riverfront interpretation and education should convey to the public:

  • This is a place of converging biological, physical and human dynamics and stories;
  • This is a place that has been valued for millennia by people who are still here;
  • The making of this place by industrial and urban processes follows patterns common to other places but also unique to here;
  • The place that is made here does not serve everyone equally;
  • Understanding this place now means knowing its past and its possible futures;
  • Understanding this place now means understanding upstream and downstream;
  • Understanding this place means understand that it is dynamic, that it carries various things from one place to another, it is a place of flowing as well as a place of stasis;
  • Nothing here is accidental.

I hope to hear from some of you about what I have left out or what I have perhaps over-emphasized.  I’m certain I’ll be writing more about this in the days/weeks ahead.

Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

August 30, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

On the North Dakota prairie a storm has been gathering for months.  Since last April, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have assembled at a point just off their reservation to pray, discuss, and bear witness to an unwanted oil pipeline construction project that threatens their lands and waters.  Required federal consultation processes continued on, but when ground was broken to take the pipeline under the Missouri River just a mile upstream from the reservation, the vigil became a full-fledged protest.  Now, a month after that start of construction, indigenous people from across North America have gathered at a camp that has thousands of occupants, work has stopped, and the matter is in the hands of judges in North Dakota and Washington DC.

Some reports indicate that this is the largest, most inclusive multi-national gathering of Indian people since the 19th century.

I have skipped over many details, of course, in this summary, but there are a number of very good accounts online (along with some that emphasize division and conflict, which don’t appear to square with the reported facts on the ground).  There is a good background explainer that carries the historical context ; Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II has an eloquent explanation of his tribe’s position here.  A Washington Post story highlights some of the powerful accounts of individuals who have gathered at this place.

There is little that I can add to the detail and immediacy of the accounts linked above.  Two things, though, do occur to me:

First, the Army Corps of Engineers, as the federal agency responsible for granting permits to the pipeline company to cross the river, has said that tribal members did not consult specifically on exact locations of burials, sacred sites and other areas protected by federal historic preservation law.  Federal law does not require such disclosure, though, only that tribal representatives argue that there is a likelihood of damage to culturally sensitive resources.  The pipeline was originally aligned to cross the river half a mile from the water intake for the city of Bismarck, but was moved because of worries that a spill might contaminate water supplies.  We’re supposed to think that indigenous culturally-sensitive lands are somehow less important?  Water has manifold meansings to indigenous people everywhere, central to their spiritual and cultural lives as well as physically essential.

Which leads to my second point: the threat to water and other resources that comes at the hands of a shortsighted, highly intrusive project that is being rammed through without appropriate consultation as required by law.  This is not just about water, although water is one of the central resources on the earth and must be protected.  As the #NoDAPL gatherings have repeatedly said, “Water is life.” Nor is this just an indigenous issue; all of us are subject to the rule of law and environmental protection processes.  When those processes are truncated, and when damaging projects are inflicted on unknowing communities, that is a threat to all of us.  Fights about pipelines are fights about our shared future, how, and by whom that future will be decided.

Finally, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch this commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.  He minces no words in placing the Standing Rock dispute in the 500 year context of genocide against indigenous people across North America, and seeing this fight as only the latest example of indigenous courage, resilience, and spiritual power in their continued enduring.

“Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color

July 12, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color

Last week’s post on offers a central, foundational, connection between the distressing news in our headlines and the work of connecting rivers and open space to communities.  The article’s commitment to #HealingHikes highlights the values that are too often taken for granted in the environmental community, values such as the rejuvenating effect of being in natural surroundings, and connects those values to vital concerns with self-care, health, and endurance.

The article is not long: read it.  Consider well what it says. Read it again. Its eloquence is moving.

I also want to re-post something that appeared in this space 18 months ago, which seems more relevant today than ever.  I don’t think it is coincidence that River Life has recently committed to exploration of how public spaces, particularly those spaces that connect us to rivers and to water, can and must become spaces of more inclusive civic engagement.  Stronger relationships are necessary between Black Lives and the “Green Movement” as well as other place-based commitments to enhancing equity and inclusion in our cities.  The time to start building those relationships and connections is now.

“Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education

June 28, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “Water Ways” Program Sets New Path for Water Education

Saturday June 25 marked the official opening of the “Water Ways” program, which will travel to six sites across Minnesota over the next 18 months or so.  The Minnesota Humanities Center is the lead partner on this multi-faceted, path-breaking project; the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in Kandiyohi County is the local partner for the first series of programs.  More information, background, resources for educators and links to related programs such as story maps are available here.

There are a lot of things to like about the Water Ways project:

  • It begins with understandings from indigenous people about the local relationships to water and sense of “here.”  Once we know “where” we are, we can begin to connect with other systems and relationships that make up “who” we are.
  • The grounding in local experience and place makes the effort to “make water visible and understandable” much more accessible.  Many of us have had the basic lessons on the water cycle, but seeing how that works in your town or neighborhood makes the lesson much more memorable.
  • The projects depend on the participation of a wide range of community partners.  It’s not every day that humanities programmers team up with environmental learning centers!  During the first installation of the program alone, there is a children’s concert, two additional music festivals, two paddling events, three community celebrations and a presentation by the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lower Sioux Community.  The Prairie Woods calendar of events is here.

The federal, state, and media partners and sponsors for Water Ways is a “who’s who” of water and natural resource agencies and groups associated with public programming and community engagement.  Truly a wide-ranging and remarkable set of relationships, all of which focus on directing community attention to water.

Rivers and Human Systems: Grasping Water

It’s not entirely clear precisely what the organizers of last week’s international workshop “Grasping Water” had in mind with the name of the project.  It could be the case that they meant to allude to the nearly impossible task of actually physically grabbing a handful of water, that task then being seen as a metaphor for the difficulty of mentally “grasping’ the full dimensions of water.  Or perhaps they meant to direct participants’ attention to the water itself in rivers, adding knowledge gained from scientific investigations to the conceptual infrastructure from the humanities disciplines that are their “home  turf.”  Maybe, and we’ve all been there, they just needed a title with the grant proposal deadline looming.

Whatever the case, last week saw the first Summer Institute in Chinese Studies in Global Humanities put on at the University of Minnesota.  Major funding was provided by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, along with nine collaborating units from the University of Minnesota.  The 40 participants came from 13 home countries and, for the most part, study rivers in China, Africa, and North America through humanistic scholarly perspectives.

I won’t work through all of the talks, exchanges and interesting insights from the whole week; those ideas will likely pop up on the blog in various ways throughout the next weeks and months.  But I do think it’s instructive to review quickly the broad questions and topics that the group settled on in the institute’s “summing up” session on Friday:

  • Where does knowledge about rivers come from?  How (or does) the knowledge developed by official sources like government agencies intersect with the perspective of scholars, or advocacy organizations?  Who/what groups are not commonly heard; most particularly how are the perspectives of people indigenous to river regions heard or excluded?
  • What are the scales, both temporal and spatial, at which analyses and investigations are best pursued? Some impacts take decades to emerge while others may be visible right away.  Similarly, some issues can only be understood at a regional or national scale; zeroing in too closely to the actual site of concern may leave the investigator “unable to see the forest for the trees.”
  • How can we get a handle on the “unintended consequences” that almost always accompany a large scale intervention in a river system, such as building a dam?
  • Where does “agency” lie in manipulation of river systems and the associated human systems?  What happens if the group charged with imposing an intervention on a river doesn’t have responsibility or authority to address the chains of consequences for nearby people, for instance?
  • It seems that a broad field interdisciplinary collaboration is required for a rich nuanced investigation of rivers under change.  But the sorts of collaborations required, between scientists, humanists, and scholars from other knowledge bases, are difficult, and require a great deal of time, consideration, and relationship-building.
  • Major interventions in river systems such as dams are almost always justified in terms of making a country or region more modern, or bringing assets such as a steady supply of electricity to an area.  But these claims need to be investigated closely and unpacked for the various unspoken claims that are present as well.

These are big issues, a lot to think about.  I think two conclusions are in order at this point.  The first is that people interested in the Mississippi can learn a lot from studies of far-flung rivers such as the Yellow, the Volta, and the Zambezi.  The second is that, as complex as these issues are, coming to a definitive understanding may be as hard as grasping a handful of water!

Coming to Terms with Mark Twain

For a long time now I’ve had an uneasy relationship with the work of Mark Twain.  Sure, the books are great, and for many people they form an introduction to the stories and history of the Mississippi River.  For too many people and organizations, though, their knowledge starts and stops with Twain.  Images of steamboats and freckled barefoot boys convey some important elements of the Mississippi, and appear all over in marketing and promotional literature, but have severe limitations as well.  Still, it has always seemed churlish to push “beyond Mark Twain” always, or to find ways to minimize his impact so people can go on to broader, richer, more inclusive stories.

I’ve been reading work recently that in many respects redeems Twain in two important ways.  T.S. McMillin’s The Meaning of Rivers points out very clearly that Sam Clemens could not have become Mark Twain without the detailed and immersive education he got as a cub pilot.  Only after Clemens really learned to see the river, to look closely and understand its every mood rather than ride skimming along over it, did he have the knowledge he needed to make the Mississippi River central to his work.

The music historian Dennis McNally picks up one of the vital and easily-overlooked threads of Twain’s work when he reminds us of the importance of the river to our understanding of race and music in American history and culture.  There’s a lot to quarrel with in McNally’s On Highway 61, and Richard Mizelle’s Backwater Blues is a necessary complement to McNally’s version of events.  Taken together, though, we are reminded that we can’t really understand the importance of the Mississippi River without understanding its importance to black life in America.

Even though the Twin Cities is far upstream of the river as depicted in Twain, Mizelle and McNally, the essential truth remains: until we go beyond the easy anecdotes and images, and really learn to see the river and the myriad people for whom it is and has been central to their stories, we won’t really know the Mississippi.

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