Mde Maka Ska is Dakota for "White Earth Lake", the ancient name of Lake Calhoun, where for generations Dakota people lived, hunted, gathered, and fished, using birch and dugout canoes to move between the inland village and Haha Wakpa (Mississippi River).
These canoes – ideal instruments for travel along Minnesota’s extensive network of water arteries – represent a level of technological perfection that modern methods are unable to improve upon, and which was only achieved through thousands of years of trial and error. And yet, just 151 years after Minnesota’s statehood, an indigenous canoe culture that was perhaps the strongest and most sophisticated in the world, has all but vanished.
“For too long Native people in this area have watched as others paddled across our rivers and lakes. We’ve stood by watching others do what our people introduced thousands of years ago,” says LeMoine LaPointe, Director of Healthy Nations at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
On August 14, Healthy Nations will host The First Annual Mde Maka Ska Canoe Nations Gathering, an event that seeks to reconnect the area’s Native American Communities to the waterways that once sustained them.
“The resurgence in the use of the canoe by Native people in Minnesota is a testament to the adaptability of Indian cultures,” say LaPointe. “Our way of life was impacted by genocidal practices that caused the almost immediate disappearance of indigenous canoe culture from this region.”
In 1863, Minnesota’s Dakota population was banished from the state, and relocated to the prairies of South Dakota and Nebraska, where birch trees and the other raw materials necessary to build canoes were absent.
“We may have been removed from the raw materials,” LaPointe says, “but the real raw material for canoe building – the indigenous knowledge – remained, and that’s what is allowing this resurgence to occur.”
For the past three years the Healthy Nations Canoe Program has led groups of indigenous Minnesotans on multi-day canoe trips along their ancestral waterways.
Healthy Nations seeks to recreate through these journeys the conditions that were present when Native people lived in vibrant and healthy communities along the river valleys. To this end, their canoe groups include three generations, with younger people pulling more weight on the rivers, and elders taking leadership roles in camp: preparing meals, leading discussions and prayers, and passing on oral tradition around the campfire at night.
At the event, which is open to the public, participants will be offered, free of charge, the opportunity to compete in canoe races, design their own canoe paddle, play cooperative canoe games, learn fishing skills, paddling techniques, and water rescues. They will also get to take canoe rides paddled by members of Healthy Nations’ Canoe Society, a group of men and women who have dedicated themselves to becoming expert canoeists. All participants are invited to attend a community dinner at Beard’s Plaisance Park on the west side of Lake Harriet.
The Gathering is dedicated to Waste’win Gonzalez, an early visionary of a resurgent Native canoe culture in Minnesota, who passed away on August 16, 2008, at the age of 22. Before her thirteenth birthday, Waste’win had participated in a canoe journey from the Mississippi Headwaters to Minneapolis. She had paddled several times on Mde Maka Ska with Healthy Nations Canoe Society, and at the time of her passing, was working on details of a plan to take her infant daughter on a river journey. All five of the canoes originally used on Waste’win’s Mississippi trip will be in use at the Mde Maka Ska gathering.
A dedication to Waste’win will kick off the event at 11:00 a.m. Canoe races and all other activities begin at 11:30. Shuttle vans will run throughout the day on August 14, beginning at 9:45 a.m. Dinner at Beard’s Plaisance Park will be served at 5:00 p.m. and will take place rain or shine.
For more information or to get involved call Joe Lurie at 651-230-2161 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Lemoine LaPointe at email@example.com
Mde Maka Ska Schedule of events:
• 9:45 am: First shuttle leaves Minneapolis American Indian Center parking lot.
• 10:00 am: Registration begins
• 11:00 am: Welcome and dedication
• 11:30 am 3:30 pm: Sprint races, canoe rides, canoe games, and paddle art.
• 5:00 pm: Community dinner at Beards Plaisance Park (west side of Lake Harriet at 45th and Upton Ave. S.)