Minnesota’s “Sky Tinted Waters”


The state of Minnesota was once a very different place. This was the message at the Sky Tinted Waters: Minnesota Before Borders conference held last Thursday at the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul. Through the use of Native American stories and personal narrative, the presenters stressed to the mix of educators and interested public that made up the audience the importance of looking at the world with a historic perspective.

Joe Day, a recently retired tribal liaison for the state of Minnesota, began his talk with a timeline of Minnesota history stretching back to the end of the ice age 13,000 years ago. “We are arrogant to think that humans have control over Mother Earth,” he said, referring to the vastness of empty space compared with that of human development. Tom Ross, a member of the Upper Sioux Community and fellow presenter, regaled the audience with a story about the naming of White Bear Lake. “It’s a very romantic story,” he concluded. “White Bear Lake is really like the Paris of the Dakota… I don’t think many people know that,” Mr. Ross said.

The Minnesota Humanities Center, tucked next to the green border of southern Lake Phalen, has been working with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council as well as other cultural organizations such as the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans and the Chicano Latino Affairs Council to hold this kind of discussion. Casey DeMarais, the Center’s director of programs, says that much of the emphasis of the center’s work has been on enrichment of K-12 education. “We bring in the scholars on a particular subject and let them work through the content,” she explained.

One of the centerpieces of the Minnesota Humanities Center’s work in this area is the Bdote Memory Map. The Memory Map was designed by media artist Mona Smith as a way for individuals to discover the history of Minnesota on their own through the internet. Bdote is the Dakota word that can mean the confluence of two rivers. At the conference, Ms. Smith explained that the bdote formed by the meeting of the Minnesota and Missippippi Rivers, in what is now St. Paul, is considered to be a place of great importance in Dakota spirituality. According to the Memory Map website, the place is believed by some to be the center of the Earth and the place location of the Dakota people’s genesis. One of Smith’s hopes is that “when you visit the place, you should take the Dakota voice with you,” something she says the Memory Map will help people to do.

It’s this kind of education that Day believes will help Minnesota’s children grow to become better people. The goal, he says, is to “help them to be analytical thinkers, rather than just pass the test.”