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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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A History Of Owamni Yomni: Lock Closures Signal Healing For Mississippi River
by Jon Lurie,- The Circle

To the Dakota, the only waterfall on the Mississippi and its surroundings is known as Owamni Yomni (Whirlpool), revered for centuries as a place of tremendous spiritual power and inspiration. Wita Waste (Beautiful Island) the key above the falls, once covered in maple trees, was the site of annual sugaring camps. The island below, Wita Wanagi (Spirit Island) shrouded in mist and the peaceful din of rushing water, was a calm and sheltered place where women gave birth to generations of Dakota children. The people shared the area with a large population of Eagles, for whom the waters provided a plentiful source of fish.

A rich oral tradition informs the Dakota understanding of Owmani Yomni. One of these stories was first written down in 1908 by historian Henry G. Allanson, whose records remain in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

He wrote, "Legend states that Anputa Sapa Win, commonly known as Clouded Day, was the first and devoted wife of a Dakota warrior. However, in time in accordance with the custom, the husband introduced a second wife within the tipi. One day the band camped near the falls of St. Anthony. Clasping her little son, Clouded Day entered a canoe, pushed out into the swift current chanting her death song. The Dakotas say that in the mists of morning, the spirit of the Indian wife with a child clinging around her neck is seen darting in a canoe through the spray, and the sound of her death song is heard again in the winds and roar of the waters. In seeming remembrance, a bear and her cub occasionally appear coming out of the water."

As the only portage on the river, Owamni Yomni was a practical place for people of many nations to gather, meet, rest, and trade. Even during times of turmoil between the Dakota and Anishinabe, it remained neutral territory.

Owamni Yomni served as a natural obstacle to human movement on the river and did the same for the myriad species of fish, plants and aquatic mammals that lived in its waters. Distinct ecosystems flourished above and below the falls, protected from the potentially devastating effects of organisms whose introduction might offset the delicate balance of each natural sector.

So impressive was this feature of the river – a horseshoe cascade that some European travelers compared in grandeur to Niagara Falls – that the Dakota named the entire 2,552-mile waterway Haha Wakpa (Waterfall River) in its honor.

From those times forward, the governments of France, the United States, Minnesota and Minneapolis, along with their partners in industry and organized religion conspired to makeover the sacred falls of Owamni Yomni,and many other immovable landmarks, in their own image.

American history books claim Owamni Yomni was discovered in 1680 by Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan Friar who had been dispatched to explore the western part of "New France," an area which, at its peak in 1712, extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains, and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

It is clear from Hennepin's written accounts of that journey that the priest considered himself the first man to bear witness to both Niagara Falls and Owamni Yomni; in 1683, he published a book about Niagara Falls called "A New Discovery."

The Frenchman, upon arrival in Mni Sota Makoce (Dakota Homelands) wasted no time imposing his vision on the area's natural features. He renamed Owamni Yomni "The Falls of Saint Anthony," after Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of finding lost things and people. Why Father Hennepin chose Anthony of Padua – a man who lived and died in Europe (1195-1231) – as the new namesake for Owamni Yomni is shrouded in the mists of time.

Hennepin was first to record a written account of Dakota interaction with the falls. His descriptions, while colorful, bear no resemblance to the oral history or other historical records. Whether Hennepin had a translator available proficient in both French and Dakota in those nascent days of intercultural contact is doubtful. Rather, like the missionaries of his time, and those who would follow over the next three centuries, Hennepin's written observations of the Natives seem to reflect his own biases toward a people he had prejudged as savage and heathen.

He wrote in his Description of Louisiana (published in 1683), that one of the Dakota men in his party chanted the following prayer while observing the powerful waters: "You, who are a spirit…destroy our enemies, and bring here captives, some of whom we will sacrifice to you."

In the years that followed Hennepin's visit, a series of white explorers, missionaries, business tycoons and politicians came through the area and – following Hennepin's lead, renamed sacred sites to reflect their claims to the area and erase the memory of the Dakota's special relationship to the land and water.

Mde Maka Ska ("White Earth Lake") became Lake Calhoun; Wita Tanka (Big Island, near present day Fort Snelling), the site of a Dakota creation story, became Pike Island; Kaposia (Swift of Foot, Little Crow's Village) became South Saint Paul; and Oheyawahe (A Hill Much Visited), a long standing Dakota burial site above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, became Pilot Knob.

When European settlers began arriving in Mni Sota Makoce following the completion of Fort Snelling in 1825, they were naturally drawn to the magnificent waterfall on the Mississippi, where – like so many people before them – they found inspiration and power.

The outsiders established homesteads around Owamni Yomni, an influx of migrants which would eventually result in the establishment of a new city and the name of which, was derived from the Dakota word for water (mni) and the Greek word for city (polis). The invasion also resulted in the displacement of the Dakota following the treaties of 1805, 1837 and 1851, which ceded almost all Dakota land within the Minnesota Territory to the United States and forced the indigenous population onto a small tract along the Minnesota River.

The settlers renamed Wita Waste, the island above St. Anthony Falls, Nicollet Island after the French cartographer Joseph Nicollet, who traveled throughout the Dakota Homelands during the 1830s. And Wita Wanagi, the Hemlock and Spruce covered island below the falls, while never renamed, was translated into English and called Spirit Island for the remainder of its limited existence.

In the 1860s, industrialists who coveted Saint Anthony Falls' massive hydropower produced by the gushing waters dug channel after channel into the rocky escarpment in order to divert the cascading waters through their milling facilities. Tourists began shying away from the falls. Those who arrived in Minnesota Territory hoping to see something akin to Hennepin's majestic descriptions went away sorely disappointed, as industrial pollution from the mills had spoiled the waters and shores of Saint Anthony Falls.

When Minneapolis was established in 1867 it was, perhaps, the last time Dakota stewardship of Owamni Yomni was acknowledged by the now-dominant European population. This acknowledgement was a final nod to the Dakota who, four years earlier, following the US-Dakota War, were forcibly removed from Mni Sota Makoce, and sent to the Crow Creek prisoner-of-war camp along the Missouri River in Dakota Territory. (Today, Crow Creek is classified as a reservation, and is consistently one of the five most impoverished places in the United States, boasting a per capita income of just over $4000).

Meanwhile, a handful of business leaders built fortunes appropriating the natural resources of the vacated Dakota lands. Many of those resources were conveyed on the Mississippi to Minneapolis, where they were processed into consumer and industrial products in the mills and factories along Saint Anthony Falls. These goods were hauled off to markets on the coasts on rails build by James J. Hill, who had been granted millions of acres of Indian land to build his transcontinental Great Northern Railway.

Some of the most recognizable names in American industry made their vast wealth exploiting Minnesota lands and waters during this era: Cargill Incorporated, which today is the largest privately held American company, was founded by W.W. Gargill in 1865; General Mills was founded by Cadwallader Washburn and James Ford Bell in 1866; Pillsbury Company, whose historic mills along Saint Anthony Falls are currently being converted into artists' lofts, was started by Charles Alfred Pillsbury in 1872.

It was these very men whose malfeasance and greed ultimately destroyed Saint Anthony Falls. On October 5, 1876, the falls began breaking apart as the river crashed through the top of one of the mills' water diversion tunnels. The falls were in danger of total collapse, and with them would go all of the region's water power. Hundreds of men volunteered to help fill the gaping hole in the rock wall. Work continued day and night for weeks to construct dams to divert water from the area. The efforts stabilized the falls but would not provide a long-term solution.

Eventually, the United States Army Corps of Engineers intervened. The Corps built a protective apron, robbing the site of its original character, before the falls were fully stabilized. What was once—under Dakota stewardship—one of the most impressive natural sites on the continent, had been reduced by business interests in a handful of years to an industrial concrete waterslide.

The very bounty which made Minnesota's oligarchs wealthy destroyed what was left of Owamni Yomni's. In the 1880s, millions of mill-bound logs—clear-cut from Minnesota's northern forests—tumbled over Saint Anthony Falls and hacked away at Spirit Island's rocky edges. The quarrying of limestone to build saw and flour mills along the banks of the falls further reduced the island's height and length.

Once the preferred birthing place of Dakota women, Spirit Island's fate was sealed in 1960 when it was removed by the Corps of Engineers to make way for the two new Saint Anthony Falls navigation locks. Minneapolis officials wanted to spur economic development in the city, and claim bragging rights to being the uppermost port city on the Mississippi. With the removal of Spirit Island, the desecration of Yomni Owamni was nearly complete.

One month before the first barge came through the lock, Life magazine denounced the project as a "glaring example of pork.


In 1963, Upper Saint Anthony Lock, which could carry two barges at a time over Saint Anthony Falls, opened its gates to river traffic for the first time. Millions of dollars had been spent, and much of the natural beauty of the area sacrificed. As Life magazine had predicted, the prestige, and financial boom of which city fathers had dreamed never came to fruition as only a small handful of river shipping operations ever opened in above the locks. Because the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock could carry only two barges at a time—when other locks on the Mississippi could handle nine—those who opposed the Lock's construction predicted from the outset that the vision of Minneapolis as a port city was doomed.

Dakota spiritual people predicted the development's eventual downfall for other reasons.

Lakota chief Arvol Looking Horse has noted the tendency of humans to settle and develop societies in powerful places, such as Minneapolis/St. Paul (the conjunction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, known in Dakota as Bdote), which Looking Horse considers a "spiritual vortex." Reflecting on that notion in a 2003 interview with Bruce White and Bob Brown, the late Prairie Island Dakota spiritual leader Chris Leith warned that people should leave spiritual places alone. In the long run, he said, the places would not be harmed or lose their spiritual power, rather, the nature of the place would harm what was built there.

Some familiar with Leith's assertion pointed to his words four years later when, on August 1, 2007, the 35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River—just downstream from St. Anthony Falls, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The bridge was Minnesota's second busiest, carrying 140,000 vehicles daily. The National Transportation Safety Board cited a design flaw as the likely cause of the collapse, noting that thin gusset plates ripped along a line of rivets, and asserted that additional weight on the bridge at the time of the collapse contributed to the catastrophic failure.

The 35W Bridge was quickly rebuilt at the same location as the original, but another prominent structure built on Owamni Yomni met its permanent demise last month. On June 15, the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock was closed by congressional order. The closure was intended to stop the spread of Invasive Carp. Also known as Asian Carp, these large, plankton-feeding fish are moving northward in the Mississippi River, and pose a threat to Minnesota's rivers and lakes. While no breeding populations have been detected in Minnesota's Mississippi waters, individual fish have been caught near the Twin Cities, and in the St. Croix River. The carp are known to destroy aquatic ecosystems by overfeeding on indigenous species. They can weigh up to 110 pounds and jump when spooked by approaching watercraft. Boaters have been seriously injured when struck by the fish at high speeds.

By closing the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock, Congress has acted to return Owamni Yomni to function as it had for centuries, as a divide between the upper and lower Mississippi River's unique natural systems. At least one important food supply to Minnesota's Native population will now be protected from invasive carp: 90% of Minnesota's wild rice grows north of Saint Anthony falls within the Mississippi watershed.

After three centuries of destruction, and the remaking the Dakota homelands in their own image, it appears efforts are underway by the non-Indian population to repair at least some of the damage. The closing of the Upper Saint Anthony Lock is just one step in that direction.

There are proposals floating among community groups within the halls of government to rename prominent landmarks to reflect the way Dakota people have long understood them. The Rum River, which runs from Lac Mille Lacs (Mde Wakan, Holy Lake) to Anoka (The Village on Both Sides), could once again bear the name Wakpa Wakan (Holy River); and Lake Calhoun in South Minneapolis—named for the 7th vice-president of the United States, John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina slave owner who ordered government surveyors into the area around 1820, but who has no other ties to the region—could once again be called by its Dakota name: Mde Maka Ska.

Perhaps the most exciting possibility under discussion is a proposal to remove all three lock-and-dams that control the water running through the Mississippi Gorge in the Twin Cities. Just 30 feet beneath the surface of the lethargic Mississippi lie the structure of a whitewater rapids that once roared over immense boulders, around rocky islands and through the great river's only gorge on its way from Owamni Yomni to the Minnesota-Mississippi River Bdote eight miles away.

Imagine the healing effects of the rushing waters as they burst from behind their confinements, scouring the long-buried banks and beds of the natural river, cleansing everything in their path, obliterating a long history of malfeasance and disregard for the Dakota, and for the sacred systems upon which they relied.

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