A scouting party for the future: canoeing the Wakan Wakpa

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Photos by Jon Lurie

WakanWakpaIn June, two Dakota youth from Minneapolis participated in a Healthy Nations canoe trip down the Wakan Wakpa (Sacred River), also known as the Rum River. The canoe trip, part of a larger effort to help Native people reclaim their tribal legacy, exposed serious problems with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ maintenance of the river.

Native youth Ches Lorenzi and Joe Deala, and Healthy Nations’ Active Lifestyles Facilitator Jon Lurie set out on a165-mile canoe trip from Mde Wakan (Spirit Lake), or Lake Mille Lacs, to Minneapolis. The expedition was to both commemorate and renew important aspects of Dakota culture.

WakanWakpaLaPointe believes the river’s name is important. “Rum is a

pollutant, but the river is not a poison,” he said. “It is a holy

river that contributed to generations of successful tribal communities.”

Two

years ago, Healthy Nations looked at historic practices and realized

everything the ancestors did contributed great health to their people.

“We thought such activity shouldn’t be relegated to history, not when

all our people did and all the elements they utilized are still here

today,” LaPointe said. “The activities are part of our future, not just

our history.”

Healthy Nations hopes Native children and families

will recover this knowledge and understanding by visiting the same

routes as their ancestors. The June canoe trip down Wakan Wakpa is part

of this overall effort.

The trip began in a beautiful setting.

Lurie said both the weather and Spirit Lake were gorgeous. Deala and

Lorenzi placed tobacco in the mouth of the river to ask for permission

and guidance from relatives in the spirit world. Then the group paddled

from the headwaters at the southwest section of the lake.

WakanWakpaThe

first day, they paddled through three lakes. The men saw a variety of

wildlife and caught several fish. They observed the river’s flow

through the lakes and the increasingly rich wetlands. The third lake

was dense with healthy green plants.

Lurie said he could see why

the river is sacred. As it progresses through the lakes and their

wetlands, the water is filtered and purified even as it feeds the plant

and animal life along the waterways.

“Minneapolis gets its clean water from that river,” Lurie said. “It is an incredible natural system.”

On

the second day the river grew shallow and they often had to walk

through the water, guiding the canoe to avoid running aground. Under a

hot sun, they covered 32 miles in ten hours and were exhausted when

they reached Milaca. Lurie said they were concerned they would not be

able to paddle if the river remained shallow.

“The significance of the trip,” said LeMoine LaPointe, Director of

Healthy Nations at Minneapolis American Indian Center, “is to begin

scouting areas that we have historically and culturally utilized for

health and wellness.”

LaPointe says the Wakan Wakpa brought

success and health to the Dakota community when it lived around Mde

Wakan. The Lakota people also utilized Wakan Wakpa to reach the

Mississippi River.

The third day

brought another concern: log jams. For 25 miles, the expedition had to

carry the canoe over, or portage around, fallen trees and logs that had

filled with both natural and human-made debris. At one point, they came

across four barrels that appeared to contain chemical waste. They also

saw old boats gnarled into trees in the middle of the river.

Mosquitoes

added to their troubles. “Each time we came to a pile of trees, we

disturbed the mosquitoes that had been breeding in the slow water,”

Lurie said. “There wasn’t an exposed part of our bodies that wasn’t

covered in bites. It looked like we each had a rash.”

That night

they camped near Princeton, but the state campsite they planned to use

was not cleared. In some places the grass reached their necks, and

mosquitoes and tics were everywhere. So the group left the riverbank

and carried their equipment a quarter of a mile to get around a log jam

and reach a private campground.

The next day brought a clean

river through Princeton – no log jams and a clear sandy bottom. But 20

minutes outside of town, log jams reappeared every five minutes. The

canoers only made 24 miles and were falling behind schedule. The men

decided they had experienced enough hardship on the un-navigable river.

They stopped at the next town and called for assistance. Support from

Healthy Nations picked them up and they drove back to Minneapolis.

WakanWakpa608 172.jpgDeala,

who participates in many Healthy Nations canoe trips and often serves

as a staff leader, was disappointed. “I thought of it as a trip where

we could reclaim a few things,” he said. “I was shocked by the river.

It’s not taken care of. The state of Minnesota claims it as a canoe

route. But if the state sees it as an asset, they are not taking care

of their asset. It was pretty disturbing.”

Lurie has facilitated

cane trips on the Kettle and St. Croix Rivers and kicked off the

Healthy Nations Outdoor Program with a 2006 canoe trip with Deala from

the Red and Hayes Rivers all the way to Hudson Bay. He was dismayed at

the current condition of Wakan Wakpa.

“Although the state

promotes the river as an official canoe route, the river is clearly not

maintained,” Lurie said. “No state campsites we saw were maintained

either. We were able to paddle in some areas, but the river has been

neglected and is not suitable for recreation or travel.”

“The

river was taken from the original caregivers,” Deala said. “The task of

upkeep and maintenance passed to the state, but I don’t think they’re

doing a good job.”

Deala believes the trip was the right thing to

do, especially because he and Lorenzi received a good sign. When they

were on the river, they heard something big coming off the trees. Deala

turned to see an eagle swoop and dive toward the river before flying

high and away.

“It left an eagle feather in the water,” he

said. “It floated toward us. We picked it up, and it felt like a sign

that we were supposed to be there.”

Lurie and LaPointe appreciate

the young men’s efforts. “It’s hard to get people to volunteer for what

we went through,” Lurie said. “That’s why I asked Joe and Ches. I knew

they had experience and could do the trip and give it all they had.”

“They

met all I hoped for with this trip,” said LaPointe. “They were a

scouting party for the future. We as a people are always looking ahead.

History is important, but Native culture is about vision, about

standing and seeing all there is to see.”

LaPointe hopes more

Native people will become involved in the Outdoor Program. There are

novice canoe groups on the lakes in Minneapolis for girls, women, and

fathers, as well as youth activities throughout the seasons, including

hiking, skiing, and skating.

“We sometimes have elders on the

outdoor trips to share indigenous knowledge,” LaPointe said. “I want

the youth to know this knowledge belongs to them. It’s older than the

Greeks and other people in their textbooks. And the challenges they

face on the trips prepare them for life, for making decisions,

negotiating problems, and serving their community.”

For more

information on participating in the Outdoor Program with Healthy

Nations, contact Jon Lurie at 612-879-1736 or at: jlurie@maicnet.org.