University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

#TBT: Uncovering the Past, Small Bit by Small Bit

We often want to understand the past in big chunks, whether through stories that help us figure things out, or in broad spatial scales that let us comprehend how parts of the world fit together.  But there’s another way of going about this question of exploring the past, a way that takes a small, finite space and uncovers it in minute detail in order to draw out much bigger threads of meaning.

Speaking (overly) generally that’s the way archaeological investigations work.  Archaeologists painstakingly uncover the buried remnants of the past in place, and then put together the clues from the material worlds they find in order to get at understandings of the past that are inaccessible through the documented record.  This past summer, University of Minnesota professor of anthropology Kat Hayes led a team of students on an archaeological exploration of the old jail site at Historic Fort Snelling, a historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.  An article with the evocative title “Thinking through the Dirt” describes the field school and another series of captioned photographs evokes both the experience of the field work and some of the thinking that went into the project.

In the case of the Fort Snelling prison site, questions emerge concerning how imprisonment, or “carcerality” in the contemporary academic jargon, serves as a metaphor for understanding broader relationships between the fort and the landscape: Once the fort was established, to what extent was its role really about establishing and enforcing new restrictions on movement of indigenous people? How was the fort a precursor to new ways of establishing order (and restrictions) on the landscape through formal land office survey and “opening” of the land to purchase?  These are big, provocative questions; understanding the nature and role of the site formally devoted to imprisonment can help ground answers from becoming completely flights of fancy.

Questions like these are at the heart of numerous projects now underway to develop a more nuanced and richer understanding of Historic Fort Snelling and the landscape surrounding it.  Staff from the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota have been collaborating for some time to develop and implement a new course of study, a degree in Heritage Studies and Public History, that will make such focused and broad-ranging inquiries a regular part of both the University’s curriculum and the Historical Society’s practice.

ICYMI: What We’ve been Reading

Careful readers of these posts will remember that we are using the platform to create a new conversation about rivers and water, one that attends closely to rivers as part of our social and cultural landscape, elements of a “sense of place” that feels very different for the diverse groups that comprise our society.  We’ll always need scientific and technical knowledge of course; we must expand our vision, though, to develop truly sustainable and inclusive futures for our rivers and the communities that depend on them.

Toward this end, we read material from many different public and scholarly conversations.  Often it seems like it would be great simply to hone in on one subject and know absolutely everythng about that issue, but we really just don’t have that luxury.  The rest of this post is comprised of short annotations of some materials that have come our way recently.  Frankly, we assume that the title, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) holds true; no one is reading these various things together.  That’s our job.

This animated map of the Mississippi River basin, which shows all the rivers that flow into the main stem, is just fun to look at and think about.  But it’s also a reminder that the Mississippi is a mighty big river with a direct impact on millions of people.

This article from our friends at Ensia, published by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, is not directly about the Mississippi, focusing instead on the challenges of maintaining a hopeful outlook in the face of climate change.  The larger point it makes, though, which is that we must imagine the future that we desire in order to conduct the research and enact the policies to bring that future into existence, is highly pertinent.  The future(s) of the Mississippi River and its basin are highly contested and making those futures sustainable and inclusive requires all of our voices.  It will also require participation from all the disciplines at a university; here’s where historians, English majors, and artists take the lead.

An example of those broader voices we need to hear is the work of Lauret Savoy, a geologist, writer, and professor of environmental studies.  Her book Trace brings together her personal story as a mixed race person growing up in the late 20th century United States with a strong sense of place and her professional training as a “earth historian.” Read a short interview with Savoy here.

The concept of “missing voices” in the interpretation of parks and public space as well as the policy debates about their futures has been highly publicized in the past few months.  Public land managers at the state and federal level have bemoaned the fact that park visitors and political supporters are overwhelmingly white and middle-aged or older.  Not only does this demographic fact not bode well for the parks’ future in terms of political support, but the lack of perceived access to public space and the scarcity of richly diverse stories of the meaning and experience of public space is an inequity that simply must be addressed.  This article by a member of the board of the national organization Latino Outdoors raises many of the important issues.

Closer to home, an article in the new place-oriented journal Agate reminds us that environmental policies are created by specific people working in a particular place and time.  The article describes the inception of a new oral history project in Minnesota that will develop the recent historical context for a series of pivotal environmental laws passed in the 1970s and 80s.  We need more work like this (the laws and the oral histories!), so if anyone is looking for a project…

Finally, we are well aware that our approach to examining the broad-field past, present, and future of rivers is not the only way that universities approach the subject.  Tulane University’s new Bywater Institute offers a strong and complementary approach from the other end of the Mississippi River.

Hope you enjoy the articles linked in this post, and that they stimulate further exploration, research, and engagement.  We will write other posts like this from time to time, so tell us what you’d particularly enjoy seeing!

#TBT: “This Day in Water History” Site

I guess some folks feel like every day should be “Throwback ____.”  Michael J. McGuire maintains “This Day in Water History” as a complement to his blog safedrinkingwaterdotcom.  While the latter is full of good information on the important subject of drinking water safety, the “This Day” blog has lots of great stuff both whimsical and of continued policy importance and perspective.

For example, September 22, 1990 was the day a broken water main in New Jersey left some 300,000 people without water for more than three hours.  An isolated story, perhaps, but given that the broken main was nearly 100 years old, and that many municipal water systems have infrastructure of similar vintage, it is likely that the story will be repeated elsewhere.

A quick glance through the archives of “TDIWH” as it is sometimes tagged, shows the surprising range of subjects that water history touches.  There’s material here from across the world, and from nearly any historical era.  Urban history, policy history, environmental history and public health all play recurring roles in the ongoing stories of how people have engineered water to serve their needs.  The subjects are drinking water and wastewater, so someone will have to start another blog to address subjects such as wild rivers, or the oceans, or recreational use of surface waters.

Minnesota Water Resources Conference: Some Welcome Additions this Year

The Minnesota Water Resources Conference brings scholars, agency staff, and practitioners together every year for a couple of days of panels, keynote talks, exhibits and poster sessions.  These are usually pretty standard, but useful, sessions, reinforcing our tendency to see water issues as matters of science and engineering.

Of course, water issues are not just matters of science and engineering, and this year’s conference has important sessions on social justice and national scale policy innovations which reflect an expanded vision of water’s importance.

These sessions are a great start; we hope they are just a start to a broader, more inclusive set of discussions.

#TBT: The University on the River

The last post here talked about the river as part of the University of Minnesota’s Strategic Plan, so it seems appropriate to put up some “then and now” images of the University campus on the river.


This image, made in 1955, shows what is now the East Bank campus to the lower right and the river separating the campus from what is at this point still an industrial and residential section of Minneapolis.


Fast forward 58 years, to 2013, and the scene has changed completely.  Obviously, the floodplain has become green open space, and the campus has jumped the river onto the west bank.

What other changes are here, and what, if anything do they say about the changing meaning of the river to the city? to the university?

Sometimes I just can’t help myself–I’m a teacher at heart.  Responses to the images are welcome, of course, and I want to thank the Minneapolis park and Recreation Board for the images.

Great Idea for a Strategic Plan: Take Advantage of Our Location

Everyone loves to hate strategic plans, right?  They are something else for management to drone on about, they rarely are connected to our everyday work, and they often just don’t make sense.

A place as big and complex as the University of Minnesota almost requires a strategic plan just so the hundreds of different units, departments, and centers all can have a sense that we work for the same place.  Of course, those hundreds of units mean a strategic plan is almost impossible to develop.  Nevertheless, the University of Minnesota recently adopted a strategic plan, one of the pillars of which is “Capitalize on our Unique Location.

Of course, this phrase means the location of the campus on the Mississippi River–what else could it be?  Actually, as you read the section, there’s a lot more to our location than just the river, but it’s gratifying to see that the river is in fact mentioned and pictured.  We can, and are, helping University officials think about how the campus can take advantage of the river location, and the community of people working on river issues.  It’s worth reiterating that “taking advantage of location” also means exploring the question of how the University’s teaching and research can be a resource for those communities as well.  One of our current questions is how we can expand the sense of “community” that is invested in the river.

We have some programs under way that are directly aligned with the University’s Strategic Plan, things like our new Open Rivers digital journal.  We are always looking for new ideas, though: What do you think the University should be doing to be a better resource for people working on a sustainable and inclusive future for the Mississippi River?  Let us know!

#TBT: Revisiting the Idea of the Mississippi River as a “Gardened” Landscape

Two years ago we were starting up the year-long project “Making the Mississippi: New Narratives for the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change.” We kicked off our work with a program by Dr. John Anfinson, historian and superintendent of the local Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  The post I wrote two years ago still rings true in many respects.

In fact, I think developments subsequent to Anfinson’s talk only make his points more powerful.  The recent celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service included many stories with warnings about how a changing climate will reshape iconic places.  Another very significant set of questions about the next century of national parks concerns what populations will be using and championing these places.  Currently, most park users are white, are older than middle-aged, and have higher incomes than national averages.  Important efforts to diversify park users are being undertaken by groups such as Green Latino and Outdoor Afro, as well as by the National Park Service itself.

Still, a question we have to ask as we watch John Anfinson’s presentation is: Who will be the gardeners for the “Fourth Mississippi,” the gardened landscape?

Big Ag and Big Green Team up: What’s Not to Like?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an article last week about an unlikely coalition that has formed to improve the environmental impact of crop agriculture in the Midwest.  Cargill, Wal-Mart, Monsanto and others involved in “Big Ag” will team up with global environmental players such as The Nature Conservancy to form the “Midwest Row Crop Collaborative,” which will work to develop solutions to farm nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River basin.  One hoped-for advantage from teaming global entities like these is that solutions can be scaled up quickly.

Yes, I suppose that’s true.  One of the persistent problems with improving farm nutrient runoff is that solutions aren’t always seen as scalable, as “moving the needle” on such a large problem.  Another challenge that the new collaborative effort might address is that “Big Ag” has rarely been committed to finding solutions.  People say the right things here and there, and individual farmers always seem to be doing their best to balance the desire to be good stewards with the economic realities of running their business.  Broad-based commitment that leads to active change has always seemed elusive, though.  Emphases on consistent measures of progress toward clear strong goals are important first steps toward meaningful change.

Here’s hoping this effort makes a difference.  I hope that with all the “Bigs” at the table there is still room for local voices, for local conditions, and for adoption of solutions that are scalable but not just “one size fits all.”  We all hope that the partners at this table will keep each other accountable to shared goals, and not let the collaboration fall apart due to one sector or the other falling into narrow habits.  If this effort turns out to be just another “greenwash” that sells farmers more pesticides or something in the name of sustainability, we will have lost a huge opportunity.

Two press releases from some of the conservation groups involved, The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, provide interesting insights into what those groups hope to achieve.

#TBT: Painting the Landscape of the Past

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

The image above, a watercolor by Seth Eastman in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, is titled “Indians Spearing Fish Three Miles Below Fort Snelling.” It was probably painted during Eastman’s second tour of duty at Fort Snelling, between 1846 and 1848.  The location, as listed, would put the scene between present Historic Fort Snelling and downtown St. Paul, roughly where I-35E crosses the river at the old community of Lilydale.

What can be learned about past landscapes from a painting such as this?  I’m not an art historian, so can offer only cursory guesses.  The vegetation appears to be a prairie-woodland mix, which corresponds to what other sources such as the records of the Government Land Office survey tell us about this region.  Dead-looking snag trees on the left perhaps indicate prairie burning.  Cattails at the water’s edge on the left may show that the river bed does not fall away steeply from the shore, reinforcing notions that the river was a much more varied stream then than it is now, after the imposition of locks and dams.  Other Eastman paintings convey this understanding more clearly, showing animals and fallen trees in mid stream.

What can we not understand from the painting?  A lot.  The water and sky convey a kind of stillness, but undoubtedly the scene had more action, as the paddler positions the boat advantageously for the spearer to do their work.  The people shown are most likely Dakota, this being the area known to Dakota people as Bdote, their ancestral home land.  Above all, we can’t understand tides of historical change and the range of reactions these figures would have for that change.  Fort Snelling was built in 1820; the first treaty between the United States and Dakota people that aggressively acquired land had been signed in 1837; settlers were filling up St. Paul and fanning out all around the new town.  Change was certainly afoot, and the Dakota people would largely be harmed by ensuing developments.

As an artifact, the painting is interesting, perhaps beautiful to some tastes.  It can be subjected to formal compositional analysis or, as I have offered above, a rudimentary content assessment.  But it was made through the lens of what is now called “settler colonialism,” (see also the extensive background at Decolonization) as Eastman undoubtedly held opinions about indigenous people and land that did not deviate much from other Army officers in the mid-19th century.  So observers now have to be extremely cautious about what broader patterns and meanings can be drawn from this image.  We have to contextualize it with the voices of Dakota people, such as those contained in the Bdote Memory Map.

We may then learn that the distance between the 1840s and today is not, for some people, quite as far as we first thought.

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.

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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.