The Mississippi is the Opposite of the Anthropocene

In the summer of 2019, I participated in the “Mississippi. An Anthropocene River”
project by Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, and the Max Planck
Institute. I wrote this essay on the inappropriateness of making the Mississippi
River a mascot for the Anthropocene.

Published January 2020 HERE

The Mississippi River is the Opposite of the Anthropocene

By Andrea Carlson
The title of this piece is a bold statement within the context of this project. The superimposition of the Anthropocene on specific colonized places may be further characteristic of abstracting Indigenous places into theoretical unoccupied zones. It is for that reason Indigenous histories of this place and our teachings about water that rely on relationships rather than on human domination are needed. Perhaps the Anthropocene could be better associated with the Danube or Volga rivers, but the Mississippi River makes an inappropriate mascot for the Anthropocene because this association forecloses on Native philosophies about water and place that implicate us as part of the river. We must consider the settler erasures of the histories, relationships, and Indigenous bodies that have existed in the area we are defining as Field Station One to better understand the nature of the Anthropocene.

The confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers is an area called Bdote by the Dakota people. According to the Bdewakanton (the first Dakota), the Dakota people originated at Bdote, and for that reason it is called the Maka Cokayaki (Center of the Earth). Many Dakota were forcibly removed and exiled from Mnisota (Minnesota) in the years following 1862. The Dakota who stayed behind kept a low profile, but remembered their Nation, their teachings, and their homes as they once were. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul industrialized over the years, and many once-exiled Dakota people found their way back home.

In 2006 a Dakota artist and media producer/director, Mona Smith, grew frustrated living in cities that were so proud of their settler histories. She created an installation called “City Indian” at All My Relations Gallery (then, Ancient Traders Gallery) in Minneapolis. The installation was about a genesis for the Dakota people, and the irony of relocating Dakota people back to their original homeland during urban relocation. Central to Smith’s installation was the trunk of a police car. A video of Native folks talking about how their families came to the city was projected into the trunk. Smith states that the trunk referred to “the time Minneapolis police put Native men in their trunk to transport them.” The installation also included another video about the Bdote area, its role in Dakota history, and a fine art Durand map of the region with Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) and Dakota names of places. The installation was the impetus for other interventions that followed. Smith teamed up with the Minnesota Humanities Center to create the Bdote Memory Map, an online presence that collects Dakota memories associated with the extended Bdote area. Smith leads tours of selected Dakota sites in the Bdote area. She shares memories, produces interactive maps of significant Dakota places and place names, records elders, and founded an Indigenous-artist led non-profit called the Healing Place Collaborative. Mona Smith and her collaborative efforts about a place aren’t field stations, aren’t anthropological or remote forts, but are homes and places of belonging.

Sometime in the terrible aftermath of the Dakota/US War of 1862, the war that lead to the exile of many Dakota people, a Dakota woman named Wiyaka Sinte Win (Tailfeather Woman) hid for several days in a swamp among the reeds as US Soldiers attacked her community. Wiyaka Sinte Win dove under the water at times to stay totally out of sight, and she breathed through a hollow reed. She suffered, and she prayed for survival. Towards the end of her ordeal Wiyaka Sinte Win received a vision instructing her on how to construct the Big Drum. She was told to give these drums to the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) people. When Wiyaka Sinte Win came out of hiding she did what the vision told her to do and established treaties between the Dakota and Ojibwe people through the gift of the Bwanni Dewe’igan (Anishinaabemowin for “Dakota drum”) or the Chi Dewe’igan (Ojibwemowin for “Big Drum”).1 The Ojibwe, and many other nations, practice Big Drum ceremonies and the story of Wiyaka Sinte Win is often cited as the origin of the contemporary Pow Wow. The Dakota and Ojibwe people will remain allies as long as we uphold our treaties with each other, as long as we dance to the sound of a heart beat given to us by Dakota people.

Although the Dakota and Ojibwe people have gained from each others friendship, Ojibwe people do not cite Bdote as our place of origin. A long time ago, the Ojibwe people lived around the mouth of what is now called the St. Lawrence Gulf. Sometime prior to the European invasion, an elder prophesied about the arrival of death from across the ocean. The elder’s vision linked our survival with migrating west until we reached “the food that grows on water,” which turned out to be minoomin (wild rice). The Ojibwe people followed the chain of Great Lakes through land where many other Anishinaabe and related Nations lived. We encircled Gichi-gaming (Lake Superior), and move onto Dakota land. The Dakota and Ojibwe are different Nations, and serious conflict between us was followed by learning each others’ medicine and healing each other. The word Mississippi is the Ojibwe word Misi-ziibi (Great River). The Dakota knew it as Ȟaȟáwakpa (River of the Waterfalls). The Ojibwe were brought to Mnisota by water, and it is central to our cosmology.

Our teachings about water are often described as traditional beliefs, but this is not an accurate description. Water is ancient, but we cannot propel any life into the future without it. A phrase from ceremony that was made popular by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests is Mni Wiconi (Dakota for Water is Life), but the phrase Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (Dakota for We are all Related) further connects us to our environments, animal and plant life, and one another. For Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, and other Native people living in Bdote, our relationship to water isn’t something kept in a river alone but kept inside our bodies. Women are often described as the water carriers within Ojibwe culture, but we have now been forced to become water warriors and water protectors when confronted with settler environmental dominance.

In the spring of 2003, Josephine Mandamin of Wikwemikong First Nation, began a 1,555-mile-long walk around Lake Superior while carrying a bowl of water. This beautiful act brought awareness to water pollution and it lead to the creation of the Water Walkers Movement. On February 22, 2019, Mandamin passed away leaving behind a legacy of inspired water activism. One year before she passed, Mandamin’s 13-year-old niece, Autumn Peltier, addressed world leaders at the United Nations about the importance of protecting water. On the significance of water to Anishinaabe people she said,
We believe our water is sacred because we are born of water and live in water for nine months. When the water breaks, new life comes. But even deeper than that, we come from our mother’s water, and her mother’s water and so on. All the original water flows through us from the beginning and all around us.
The water within our living bodies is an ancient river. The poem Water, by Ojibwe poet Al Hunter, states,“It is said that the amount of water that covers the earth’s surface directly correlates to the amount of water that makes up the human body. We are the same. The earth is mostly water. We are mostly water.”3 All water is connected as all living things are to one another, and should be maintained without dominance, without human dominance. With these few teachings about water and histories of Bdote that don’t even begin to scratch the surface of Indigenous knowledge about the Mississippi River, I want to consider the Anthropocene.

What is meant by the term Anthropocene?

I cannot answer this question in a way that satisfies my philosophical views of animal interdependency, time, and place. It is not a term meant to satisfy my worldview. The Anthropocene is simply the name of a theoretical geological epoch defined by significant human impact on the Earth. Some scholars want to place the beginning of the Anthropocene on June 16, 1945 when the first nuclear bomb was tested in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. What could be more ominous than giving an entire epoch an exact start date centered around such violence? Others have suggested that the industrial revolution, or the onset of colonization should be where the epoch begins. All of these proposed beginnings share the feature of being disastrous to human survival. They all locate power in what Edouard Glissant would call “the project of the West.” Beyond the doomsday implications of placing the Anthropocene’s origins within these contexts, are the extended implications of naming the current epoch. We aren’t leaving it to future generations to look back and decide what distinguishing parameters characterize this epoch. We aren’t surrendering to the judgement of future generations to make these evaluations. We aren’t waiting for them to name the current epoch, because we don’t believe that these future humans will exist.

The Anthropocene is the last epoch that will see humans through to the end of our impactful existence on Earth. No matter where we put its beginning we know that any beginning implies an end. A human-centered beginning infers a human-centered end, and perhaps, the end of humanity itself. But no one knows how humans will meet our collective end. We make predictions with science and observations, visions and prophecy, and we apply what we learn from histories passed down from time immemorial. We’ve generated many speculative ends for humanity. Unfortunately for many Indigenous people, our past and continuing genocides are ever present. It should come as no surprise that adjacent to popular speculations of humanity’s end are art movements like Indigenous Futurism and Afro-Futurism, and more and more artists are citing healing as a motivation for the creation of art. It isn’t coincidental that when the end of humanity is so robustly imagined some of us imagine our survival in rich, glittery ways. Perhaps we are hoping to undermine or curtail the Anthropocene in order to simply survive. We’ve been forced to contemplate our annihilation since European arrival; we are trying to imagine the end of on-going efforts to disappear us. 
1. Vennum, Jr., Thomas. “Ojibwe Drum Decor: Sources and Variations of Ritual Design” in Circles of Tradition. Minnesota Historical Press, St Paul 1989:60-62.

2. retrieved July 26, 2019.

3. Hunter, Al. ed. Patrick McKinnon, Andrea McKinnon and Ellie Schoenfeld. “Days of Obsidian, Days of Grace” Poetry Harbor:Duluth, MN 1994:30.

4. Edouard Glissant. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. University of Virginia Press, 1989:2.

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