Thursday, October 20, 2016

Melissa Townsend - Water: The First Medicine

Melissa Townsend is an independent reporter and audio producer. She now reports and produces Minnesota Native News, a weekly news broadcast that airs on tribal and community radio stations around the state, funded by Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund. Melissa interviewed people in and around St. Peter, Minnesota for the Water/Ways exhibit at the Nicollet County Historical Society/ Treaty Site History Center. As part of the project, she interviewed Glenn Wasicuna [wah-SEE-chew-nah]. Glenn is a Dakota elder with roots in Minnesota.

The first time I met Glenn he told me a story from when he was a teacher in a Dakota tribal school. At the end of the academic year, faculty conducted exit interviews with graduating students. One boy, who was very successful in school, chose to do his exit interview first in the Dakota language, and then in English. He talked very eloquently about his experience in school and his future plans. When it was over, the teachers talked amongst themselves - what an impressive young man with exceptional academic and Dakota knowledge.

Glenn said, he listened and then, he spoke up - Why are we so impressed? He is a Dakota boy. This is what a Dakota boy looks like. This is what we should expect from all our Dakota young people.

When our conversations turned to the subject of water, Glenn said it’s much the same. He said there was a time you could take a dipper to the river and get a drink. He brought his hand toward his mouth as if holding the handle of a dipper. Maybe it was made of metal or wood. It reminded me of constellations of stars in the sky.

Glenn said water that we can drink with a dipper or a cup should be our expectation for all rivers, lakes, and streams. And then he asked me — Why can’t I take a cup to the river and get a drink of water?

With this in mind, I went out and stood on the banks of the Minnesota River where it meanders through Mankato. It was January, and I watched the long, wide slabs of ice float downstream between the river banks. I was amazed at its volume — there is so much water there.

If this were a river of dollar bills, or cars with keys in the ignition — we might have an overwhelming sense of gratitude. How fortunate we are to come across such a treasure. Oh thank God, we might say.

But much of the time we don’t react that way. Farmers in this area drain their fields to get rid of it. City dwellers build walls to keep it out. I was trained as an urban planner. In my coursework, water was generally an adjective, i.e., water source, water treatment, water feature. We were taught how to manage water, direct it, use it and yes, take care of it if its use required it.

But Glenn proposes something else. He says we already know that all waterways are parts of one enormous, life-giving body — the first medicine. We already know that our own well-being is linked to the health of this body of water. And as such, we already know our primary responsibility is to keep the entire body clean enough to drink.

He says, “We already know what to do.”

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