A History of Owamni Yomni: Lock Closures Signal Healing for Mississippi River


history of owamni yomni.jpgTo 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


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.

history_of_owamni_yomni-port_of_minneapolis.jpgWhen 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


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


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.”history_of_owamni_yomni-upper_saint_anthony_falls_lock_and_dam.jpg

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.