Write to the River: “Then & Now” —

The Friends of the Mississippi River’s Write to the River poetry and prose project aims to “inspire artistic engagement” with the many senses of place found along the Upper Mississippi River. Every month, FMR invites people “to share an original poem or short prose response to seasonal images along the Upper Mississippi River.”

In December, 2020, I submitted a poem in response to “then and now” photos taken from the vantage point of present-day Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul. According the St. Paul city government site, Indian Mounds Regional Park “has six remaining Native American burial mounds high atop 450 million-year-old limestone and sandstone bluffs.… At least sixteen burial mounds originally existed on the bluff top. Nineteen more were located further down the bluff above Wakáŋ Tipi, also known as Carver’s Cave.”

Wakáŋ Tipi translates as “Dwelling of the Great Spirit,” according to historians Gwen Westerman and Bruce White in their 2012 book Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota and has been a sacred gathering place for Indigenous peoples of the Upper Midwest for countless millennia.

The writing prompt for Friends of the Mississippi River’s December, 2020, Write to the River is below. Following the prompt, I take on the perspective of the Great River itself — an audacious endeavor, to be sure.

Photo caption: Then and now: The view from Indian Mounds Regional Park overlooking the Mississippi River, Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and downtown Saint Paul in 1902 and 2020. (Photo credits: Edward Albert Fairbrother, Minnesota Historical Society; Mishaila Bowman for Lower Phalen Creek Project) Learn more about this place at the end of this edition.

This season’s prompt inspired moving writing with diverse perspectives. Each piece conveys human interconnectedness with the natural world and the importance of restoring land and water. We hope you enjoy reading and learning.

About the view in the photos above

Before we introduce the submitted prose and poems, we wanted to give some background on this place. Nestled between the bluff and the Mississippi River just east of downtown St. Paul sits the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, where Native-led Lower Phalen Creek Project and partners have worked for years to reclaim the former rail-yard turned dumpsite, and to restore the land, while creating access to and understanding of this culturally significant place of power.

A former cave in this sanctuary is the Dakota people’s Wakáŋ Tipi, or Dwelling Place of the Sacred. (The entrance to this cave was destroyed to make way for the railroads pictured above.) We highly recommend reading Lower Phalen Creek Project’s recent essay “On Sacred Dwellings” to learn more.

We’re working with Lower Phalen Creek Project on habitat restoration here, and we’re excited about their vision for how to honor the site’s history and ongoing importance to Dakota people in this restoration process and through the proposed Wakáŋ Tipi Center.

We also want to acknowledge that there are many Dakota stories about this place that aren’t represented in our submissions here. (Read and listen at Birchbark Books or Learning from Place Bdote tours.)

I AM THE GREAT RIVER

I see you, Wakáŋ Tipi, my currents roll with ancestral rhythms,
Paddles in the morning mists stroke, clean and clear
While steamboats and trains clog these valleys with smoke.

I hear your drums beat along tracks meant to girdle my channel, littered with cinders.
I live despite attempts to harness and subdue these seasonal swells.
A sacred ecology dislodged by the inducements of modernization.
All is not well, yet I remain.

These are sacred waters, among sacred hills.
The newcomers conveniently forget, in the name of Progress.
Their illness is Separation.
But it is not too late. The People know we are connected. Kin.

Hills. Waters. Woods. Life. Inextricable.
The lifeblood of this great valley, where we join together.
Confluence of summer; gathering in the fall; retreat in winter; renewed by the spring.

Hear me on the wind. Here and now.
Feel my currents swell. Call my name, in whisper or whoop.
Dance with me, make music. Like the migrating birds. Manifest.

I remain true, Wakáŋ Tipi. We are here together. Dwelling.
Wherever your footsteps tread. This is our sacred place.
Be in the here-and-nowness; stay alive in the Becoming.
Dynamic emergence is our bond.

I am the Great River. Let us roll on forever. Together.

Place Writing. Musicking. Sauntering. PhD. Driftless Area, USA.