University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Why Treaties Matter: It’s All About Relationships

Treaties, such as the series of documents between representatives of the United States government and people native to this continent, are fundamentally about establishing relationships between people.  This is probably why there are such particular laws spelling out how treaties are made, and is why it is so important that we all understand the histories of the treaties that the United States has signed with Indian people.

A traveling exhibition, Why Treaties Matter, has been touring Minnesota since last summer, with dates scheduled into summer 2016.  The exhibition and accompanying virtual exhibit and web site, are the result of a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment supported the project through a grant.

The exhibition opens at Century College West Campus on March 2 and runs through March 14.

The exhibition and web site are essential to understanding the nature of Minnesota’s land and water.  Voices of Indian people are heard describing the multifaceted considerations involved in understanding treaties as historical and legal documents.  The educators guide and classroom materials are rich and extensive.  Among the wealth of perspectives one message in particular is clear: tribal nations manage lands and waters; lands and waters managed by other public entities have in their history a relation that was established through a treaty.

Why do treaties matter?  Treaties matter to our understanding of our proper relationships to the Mississippi River, to this place more generally, and with each other.

Living with the Mississippi: Health and Housing 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.

In my post on Dr. Kilvington’s dumping ground I discussed the health risks specific to the Bohemian Flats, though most of the river flats communities faced similar challenges with health and poverty. Some of these risks were direct effects of the proximity to the river, while others stemmed from the basic nature of low-income neighborhoods. In 1917, Carol Aronovici, Director of Social Service for the Wilder Foundation, wrote a report about the housing conditions in St. Paul. This study, which focused on slum housing, consistently ranked Swede Hollow, the Upper Levee, and the West Side Flats as having some of the worst conditions in the entire city.

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

“Flooding in Bohemian Flats.” Taken by Karen Bayliss in June, 1929. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library. (Note the trash lining the banks of the river.)

The districts were rated and compared for a number of attributes, including access to city water, sewers, and bathing facilities, presence of ash cans or garbage cans, degree of crowding, amount of light and ventilation, and extent of rubbish on lawn. The flats communities consistently ranked below average on these conditions, particularly the Upper Levee, which completely lacked bathing facilities, access to city water or a sewer, garbage cans, or ash cans.[i] Pictures of the West Side Flats and Swede Hollow appeared in the report; the former was called out for the dilapidated boarding houses lining State, Robertson, and Wabasha Streets, while Swede Hollow was noted for its sanitation issues, as the residents had constructed their outhouses above Phalen Creek to use the stream as their sewer.[ii]

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

“Swede Hollow, St. Paul.” Taken by Albert Charles Munson in 1910. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Note the outhouses over the creek on the right side of the photo.)

Though the city of Minneapolis did not conduct an extensive survey like St. Paul, the Bohemian Flats was discussed in a 1915 examination of housing in Minneapolis. This report noted the limited supply of water at the flats, specifically citing a pump at the Bohemian Flats continued to provide water to much of the community though it had been condemned two years earlier.[iii] Contaminated water would have likely been a problem at many of the flats communities, as most of the residents received their water from pumps and springs. Spring floods would not only fill the homes with unsanitary silt and water, but also could have flooded these water sources, contaminating their water supply as well.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“Woman pumping water from pump on Bohemian Flats, Minneapolis.” Photographer Unknown, taken in approximately 1935. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The lack of clean water, sewer systems, and garbage facilities, as well as the overcrowding of homes, provided the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, resulting in a number of outbreaks in these communities. The health and housing conditions at the river flats settlements provide a departure from the more common, nostalgic narratives, providing insight into the physical problems these immigrant communities were facing.

Further Reading:


[i] Ibid.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

“The Once and Future River”: a Discussion You Won’t Want to Miss

Towboat at SunsetHold the dates of April 8-10, 2015 for the symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” to be held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.  A preliminary program is on the symposium web page, where updates and registration information will be posted in the coming weeks.

The program begins Wednesday April 8 at 7:00 with a talk by Jim Rock, well-known Dakota scientist and educator.  Discussions continue all day Thursday and conclude Friday morning April 10.

We all know that there are many ways people make the Mississippi River part of their lives, whether through their work, as a subject of study, a place for recreation, or as that bit of nature we go to for healing and rejuvenation.  We rarely question what the Mississippi River really is, what it means (especially to people whose background is very different), or what its future will be.  Our imaginings of the Mississippi are often dormant, unquestioned, just “there,” like the river itself.

Climate change is changing the Mississippi, though, and, some think, changing the ways we ought to be thinking about it.  These are the conversations that will begin in April.  Sessions all feature speakers from academic disciplines as well as realms of practice not located in the academy.  We will hear from Dakota people, for whom the river has always been central to their concept of “home.”  We’ll see some innovative short films that are suggestive of the river’s future.  And we’ll have a chance to talk and learn with other passionate river people from across the region.

So–save those dates!


Bruce Chamberlain to be Inaugural Minneapolis Parks Fellow

February 12, 2015Patrick NunnallyPlanning1

The efforts to plan and design open space along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis received a substantial boost this week with the announcement that Bruce Chamberlain would be the inaugural Minneapolis Parks Fellow.  As Fellow, Chamberlain will concentrate on the Water Works project in the Central Riverfront, and the Halls Island/Scherer site in Northeast.

The role of Parks Fellows is to connect the broad vision of new park development with the strategic planning that bridges the project through to construction.  Chamberlain, a former Assistant Superintendent for Planning at the Minneapolis Park Board and vice president of a local planning and design firm, brings great skills and expertise to the role.

The Mill City Times post on Chamberlain’s appointment contains the press release from the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, and the Parks Foundation’s web site covers the story as well.

As a long-time participant in riverfront planning, design, and program activities, I particularly appreciate Chamberlain’s skill at listening to diverse perspectives and ensuring that all feel that they have been heard and respected.  This habit of deep engagement may slow a project down initially, but is absolutely essential for community acceptance of new projects in such valued landscapes as the Mississippi Riverfront.

A Living River : Installation by Anna Metcalfe

A Living River by Anna Metcalfe

A Living River by Anna Metcalfe

“A Living River”

Concordia University Gallery
Opening: February 5, 5-7pm
Show runs February 5 – March 4
Gallery hours:  10-4 M-F

A Living River by Anna Metcalfe

A Living River by Anna Metcalfe

In this show, I investigate how my art practice can be a catalyst for social change. Reflecting a concern for environmental issues: food systems, water, and agriculture, my work bridges placemaking and event-based art with a material focus on clay. A Living River presents a collaboration with Wilderness Inquiry in 2013-2014, including drawn and written reflection from Folwell Middle School and Upper Mississippi Academy students.

Click on the pictures for a detailed gallery view.

This installation was made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

For more information on my work, please visit

Living with the Mississippi: Dr. Kilvington’s Dumping Ground

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.

In 1890, the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company ordered that the City of Minneapolis stop dumping their garbage directly into the Mississippi River, giving them only a few days to find a new place to dispose of waste.[i] Barred access to the river, Dr. Kilvington, head of the Minneapolis Board of Health, and his sanitation committee found a loophole by depositing trash on the banks of the Mississippi instead. It was determined that the flats beneath the Washington Avenue bridge would provide a satisfactory location for the dump, “away from the settled city.”[ii] This facility, described in an appropriately titled Minneapolis Tribune article about the flats called “Life at the Dump,” was extremely hazardous to the health of the residents at the Bohemian Flats.

“S.S. Kilvington.” Taken by W.H. Jacoby and Son in approximately 1885. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“S.S. Kilvington.” Taken by W.H. Jacoby and Son in approximately 1885. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The reporter describes the odor of the dump in great detail: “The smell though was extremely picturesque. It had frills and fancy trimmings all over it. The outer zone was gently suggestive of eggs which had become passé. Then there was wafted in an odor reminding one of a Bridge square restaurant; this was soon reinforced by foul exhalations from decaying fruit and vegetables, and the center of the atmospheric pollution was a combination of all these smells and every other that could offend the olefactory sense.”[iii] The author goes on to condemn the dumping of garbage into the river as an illegal offense, and discusses the implications of these practices on the nearby community.

The residents of the Bohemian Flats were not the only people affected by the dumping ground. Not surprisingly, this new riverside location did not remedy the Mississippi’s water quality issues. An 1894 report found that the water, which approximately 100,000 Minneapolis residents drank, was extremely contaminated. Report author and chemist Charles W. Drew attributed the major disease outbreaks to this problem, noting that the water’s quality was one of the city’s most important issues.[iv] The garbage at the Bohemian Flats was routinely washed into the river by spring floods, which not only contaminated the water, but also temporarily left the city without a place to put their waste.[v]

In 1899, the State Board of Health ordered Kilvington’s replacement, C.T. Frane, to find a new location for the city dump, after closing the location at the flats. This article noted that city residents had been dumping their “cess-pools” (toilet waste) beneath the bridge in addition to trash.[vi] Around the same time, a similar dumping ground at the East Side Flats beneath the 10th Avenue Bridge was closed; however, it seems that these decisions were concerned solely with the water quality of the Mississippi River. The residents of these communities were rarely mentioned in the articles. Though one story discusses a petition from the Bohemian Flats residents asking to remove the dump from their community, the government, “recognizing nothing could be done at once,” filed the petition and seemed to promptly forget the complaint.[vii]

Though the residents at the flats predated the garbage dump by over two decades, it reflected negatively on the community, rather than the people who put their garbage next to a residential area. It leads one to wonder about the role of the government in creating an unfavorable place. What responsibility did the city and the city’s residents take for this trash heap? Why did it become synonymous with the flats residents when the majority of the garbage did not belong to them? The Bohemian Flats was already a place where disease and poverty ran rampant, but the presence of this city dump would have made life much more unbearable.


[i] “In the City: The City to Be Without a Place to Dump Its Garbage After Tuesday of this Week.” Minneapolis Tribune 30 April 1890.
[ii]“That Garbage Dump: The Health Officers Think the New Site Will Answer.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 August 1890.
[iii] “Life at the Dump.” Minneapolis Tribune 26 April 1892.
[iv] “River Water Report.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 June 1894.
[v] “It’s Quite Serious: The City Has No Place to Dump Garbage.” Minneapolis Tribune 22 May 1892.
[vi] “The Court Says, Stop!” Minneapolis Tribune 1 September 1899.
[vii] “At the Top Again.” Minneapolis Tribune 10 May 1892.

A Sip of Science: Indigenous People and Plant Genetics

We tend to have many prejudices and assumptions about both parts of next week’s talk, that is, indigenous people and genetically modified plants.  Come to A Sip of Science at the Aster Cafe on Thursday February 12 (note changed date) to hear Prof. Clint Carroll, American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota, on these subjects.  Full announcement follows below:

From Mother Corn to GMO: Indigenous Peoples and Plant Genetics
Clint Carroll, American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota

THURSDAY, February 12th, 2015  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.

February 12th Event –

Humans have modified food crops to produce desirable traits since the birth of agriculture, but today this modification mainly occurs at a plant’s genetic level. The ever-growing prominence of genetically modified (GM) foods, and the debates they have sparked, are an unavoidable part of our lives today. But what are the implications of this increasing amount of technology involved in food production—including the patenting and commodification of genetically modified crops—for, specifically, American Indian peoples? How do biopatenting standards privilege certain forms of modification over others? How might a concept like “food sovereignty” work to heal American Indian communities and decrease colonial dependency? Join us as Dr. Clint Carroll addresses these questions and more through indigenous perspectives on intellectual and cultural property, and the recent indigenous traditional food movement.


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


Clint Carroll is an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science, Policy and Management from the University of California-Berkeley and a B.A. in Anthropology and American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona. Clint is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and works closely with his tribal community on issues of environmental policy and cultural revitalization. His forthcoming book, Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2015), situates this work in the context of broader discussions of tribal governance and political ecology. He teaches courses on American Indian ecological perspectives and environmental issues.



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.

Get more information at:



We All Live Downstream

This truism, which is often described as a basis for a true water ethic, applies even here in Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”  Minnesota is also a state that is increasingly aware that the health of those lakes, and by extension the health of humans, is at risk.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune posted an article Sunday that very clearly outlines connections between the state’s forests, expanding agricultural land uses in former forest lands, and the impacts on groundwater.  In and around the small community of Park Rapids, expanded potato fields (French fries, anyone?) are threatening to increase nitrogen content in the region’s ground and surface waters.  More fields brings more irrigation as well as agricultural chemicals, which end up in the lakes, rivers and aquifer.  Downstream? The Twin Cities, with 1.7 million people dependent on the Mississippi River for their drinking water.

One of the article’s strengths is that it does not blame.  Agricultural operations are at the heart of the change, but operators are doing a great deal to reduce their water and chemical use.  The real problem, according to the state hydrologist, is that “we didn’t see this coming.”

Another “wake up call,” like the shrinking lake levels in White Bear Lake, located northeast of St. Paul.  Those of us downstream had better pay attention.  As the freshwater conservation director for the state’s chapter of The Nature Conservancy puts it, it is much easier and cheaper to protect water sources than it is to repair them.

This is How Change Begins: Forum on Closure of St. Anthony Lock

A week ago, the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership held a forum on the future of the Minneapolis Central Riverfront after the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock.  Dave Tinjum, publisher of the Mill City Times, filmed the session and has made it available.  Dave does yeoman work for the communities around the Minneapolis riverfront and we want to thank him publicly for the dedicated community service he performs.

The video is conveniently divided so that viewers can skip to any of the particular speakers, go straight to the questions, which were highly interesting and well-informed, or simply view the entire program.  A quick summary of some of the key points each speaker made:

  • Council Member Jacob Frey welcomed the group and offered his sense that the Central Riverfront holds tremendous potential as part of the economic revitalization of this part of the city,
  • Architect Tom Meyer, who has been part of the St. Anthony Falls riverfront for better than 40 years, described how the lock at Upper St. Anthony was completed in the early 1960s, just as the great age of industrial milling was coming to a close.  After a period where the area lagged behind investments in the rest of the city, a number of key events took place in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s that set the stage for the historic transformation that will happen when the lock closes.
  • Nan Bischoff is the project manager for the lock transition effort at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.  She too has deep experience in the area, which forms part of her perspective as she organizes the studies and analyses that will lead the agency to recommend whether to keep the facility although it is essentially nonfunctional, or transfer all or part of the facility to another public entity.  The processes are driven by federal rules and regulations, and she assured the crowd that there would be plenty of opportunities for public comment.
  • Janna King, President of Economic Development Services, Inc. completed a study of the economic impact of closing the Upper St. Anthony lock.  While the general impact, in terms of more trucks on local highways, a loss of jobs, and potential economic increase from recreational river use is fairly well known, her studies provide a large number of important details.  Nevertheless, measured at a broad level, the impact to the region is estimated at a $22 million dollar loss, measured out over some 25 years.
  • The last panelist to speak was John Anfinson, Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the local unit of the National Park Service that covers the Mississippi River in this area.  A professional historian, Anfinson pointed out that the lock’s construction was the result of long-running competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and that it was barely economically feasible when it opened.  It never achieved the hoped-for role as a nationally-significant component of the inland waterway system that stretches from Minnesota to New Orleans.

The closure of the lock is relatively imminent, slated to take place on or before June 15, 2015.  The decisions about what happens to the facility, and by extension how this part of the city is affected by this momentous occasion, has just begun.


River Sites as Sites of Conscience: the Past Strengthens the Future

At this point in history, the early 21st century, most folks generally understand that our history hasn’t always been a uniform, steady story of progress whereby enlightened and sensitive people make unerring choices as society moves toward an ever-brighter future for everyone. (In case you think I’m being my usual semi-snarky self, let me just say that this was the dominant narrative in K-12 history classes for a very long time.)

We know, of course, that history is fraught with stories of mistakes, violence, well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) efforts that reaped unintended consequences.  Telling those stories in public places, whether through memorials, or through interpretive programs at historic sites, parks, and open spaces, is part of how our rich and complex legacy is conveyed to people today.

Shockoe Bottom is a site in the City of Richmond VA that is deeply associated with slave trading in the city’s past.  Currently, the city and others plan to redevelop the site, further erasing the opportunity to convey this painful part of the city’s past.  A coalition of local and national advocates is rallying for a different future, one that incorporates the site’s past into its present, and retains the site’s capacity to act as a “site of conscience.”

What has this got to do with our work, you may ask?  Rivers were historically the key routes of transportation, commerce, and exchange between communities, regions, and nations.  River sites such as Fort Snelling and the sites of many indigenous settlements, now all but erased in the dominant society’s memory are strong candidates to become “safe places to tell challenging stories” as a recent National Park Service report said.

A richer, more nuanced understanding of our river’s past is necessary for us to engage a broader and deeper set of possibilities for its future.

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
Hold the Date! Mississippi River Symposium April 8-10
Come join us at our symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” taking place in Northrop in early April.

For up-to-date program information on the symposium, please visit