Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Bassett Creek oral history project will be first gathering of suburban Indigenous stories in U.S.

Mouth of a creek
The mouth of Ȟaȟá Wakpádaŋ/Bassett Creek at the Mississippi River.
Courtesy of Sean Gosiewski

Ȟaȟá Wakpádaŋ or Bassett Creek travels from the Medicine Lake in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities to the Mississippi River.

And now, you can hear Indigenous voices from the Bassett Creek watershed area through an oral history project. It’s the first gathering of suburban Indigenous oral histories in the United States or Canada.

MPR News Native News senior editor Leah Lemm joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk more about the stories and the people telling them.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Lovely sound. You're hearing the sound of Haha Wakpadan or Bassett Creek. The Creek travels from medicine Lake in the Western suburbs to the Mississippi river, and now you can hear Indigenous voices from the Bassett Creek watershed area through an oral history project. It's the first gathering of suburban Indigenous oral histories in the country or Canada.

I'm joined right now by Native news senior editor Leah Lemm to talk more about the stories and the people telling them. Hey, Leah. How are you?

LEAH LEMM: Boozhoo. Boozhoo.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you. What an interesting story. This is great. You got a chance to talk to some folks involved in this oral history project. Tell us a little bit about the project.

LEAH LEMM: Yeah, of course. First off, great work with the pronunciation of Haha Wakpadan. I worked on that pronunciation for a bit myself and Haha Wakpadan is the Bassett Creek, which flows into the Haha Wakpa or the Mississippi.

And there are currently 14 Indigenous voices that this project uplifts all with a connection to the Bassett Creek area. And the project began when Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley wanted to write a land acknowledgment. And we know what that is. That's when an organization or group takes time to acknowledge the Indigenous land that they work on or benefit from.

And the church wanted to go beyond land acknowledgment to put some action behind the statement. And that interest led to an oral history project so they could meet and listen to Native neighbors and hear some of their priorities for the watershed. And the Hennepin History Museum was selected to house the oral histories for the public to access. And you can find the stories as a podcast on YouTube.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Hennepin History Museum does such a good job. So they could have done just the creek or the river, but they chose the watershed. So why is that at the center of this project?

LEAH LEMM: First, the project is led by an Indigenous advisory committee. So the project centered around the Bassett Creek because it emphasized more of an Indigenous viewpoint, so thinking more about the landscape holistically instead of by hard boundaries like a street or a city. So you might hear talk about the watershed or the creek or the Mississippi River, they're all sort of connected.

And another note about the project, Dr. Kasey Keeler is the host. She is Toulumne Miwok and citizen Potawatomi and grew up in the Twin Cities. And Dr. Keeler is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. So she guides the conversations along, much like what you do as a radio host.

CATHY WURZER: So as you mentioned, we're all on Indigenous lands for some folks might not realize, of course, that includes the suburbs. That's not apparent to everybody, right.

LEAH LEMM: Right. So even though there are many great Dakotan names of cities, Wayzata, Minnetonka, that's not always remembered. And Crystal Boyd is the project manager of the oral history project, and I think she sums that up nicely.

CRYSTAL BOYD: When I think about the oral history project, I'm excited that it helps people to think about the suburbs as Indigenous places. That's something that Dr. Keeler has been studying and talking about. I grew up in Golden Valley, and I had never thought about it as an Indigenous place. Even though I've been in the history field and I've learned about Native American studies, I hadn't made that connection to my hometown. So the oral history project really helped me think about that.

And also the importance of the Dakota language, I didn't know that the Creek had another name. And I think that's beautiful and enriches everyone's lives to know that the creek has a Dakota name, and that name came first.

LEAH LEMM: Right. So Crystal highlights the idea that many may not know who the original inhabitants are of the land and where they're living, and this project gives the opportunity to do so. So citizens get to know more about the history of the watershed and its people.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. See, who are the storytellers you talked with.

LEAH LEMM: Yeah, Jim Rock and Bradley Blackhawk. First, Jim Rock is a Dakota. He's a Dakota educator and a very interesting person who talks about the stars and history. So Jim spent some time reflecting on how the watershed used to look.

JIM ROCK: There were hills, of course, and there was a trail that we actually still have, where the Dakota footpath, the [INAUDIBLE] went from Medicine Lake to the river. And you could go down through the chain of lakes or up North. It's sort of a triangular footpath around what is today considered Golden Valley. So it follows that creek, and there were springs, natural springs, that we would get really good fresh water from.

LEAH LEMM: And Jim also noted that there was-- that as there was more and more human intervention, changing the riverbanks, using chemicals on lawns, it really did change the area. And Jim rock is a grandparent and hopes that these stories can leave a legacy that positively impacts society's relationship with water.

JIM ROCK: To be a good relative means that we do no harm, and we reverse harm done. That's that old Greek medical ethic from the old world, too. But we always had that. And we admit when we've messed up.

We're the last to come along as humans in our different creation stories. So we need the most help from all of those who were here for billions of years before us, all the plants and animals. They've had more experience. So they're the older teachers to us. So we should be very observant, paying attention to those who can teach us.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I love that. All the plants and animals, they've had more experience than us. I love that. What else did you hear?

LEAH LEMM: Yeah, I also heard from Bradley Blackhawk. He's from the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska. And he was also interested in helping with the project to teach about the Creek to help raise awareness and protect the water. So Bradley grew up in the Western suburbs in Crystal, and he went to school in New Hope and spent a lot of time on the water as a youth. Though he hasn't been in a canoe in over 50 years, he still remembers navigating the creek.

BRADLEY BLACKHAWK: It's just a small creek, but we used to know it as a usable waterway when we were kids because we used to canoe and put canoes in when it was up high enough and all that. Right now, the water is real high. And so I'm pretty sure you could probably canoe the whole thing now again today.

But even then, you know we had smaller stuff like inner tubes and stuff that would just floated. We used to fish in there and all that. And the spring time when the water was running good, there was fish in there and everything.

LEAH LEMM: Bradley was actually employed by Minneapolis Public Works for over 30 years, so he's keenly aware of how connected we are by water. Bradley noted that he wanted to make sure people became more aware of the impact their actions have on water quality.

BRADLEY BLACKHAWK: That's kind of really what we really want to be-- make people aware of, you know, that just everything you dump goes down to somebody's Creek. You know, somebody's water. Somebody's trying to use that water.

LEAH LEMM: So again, being considerate of the water in the area, Bradley stressed that we can all help keep the water clean. So Bradley Blackhawk and Jim Rock were two of 14 Indigenous voices that took time to share their own experiences from the area and serve as a reminder that Native people have and continue to call the Haha Wakpadan area home.

CATHY WURZER: So with all these voices coming together to talk about the Bassett Creek watershed, what's next for the project?

LEAH LEMM: Yeah, so I asked the project manager, Crystal Boyd, exactly that, what's next. And she emphasized that she takes those cues from the Indigenous cultural advisors.

CRYSTAL BOYD: At the end of the oral history project, we had a thank you brunch with the advisors and the narrators. And they provided us with three main priorities. And those were truth telling, which can be using Indigenous place names or land acknowledgment statements, the importance of we are all related, building relationships between each other and with the Earth, and the importance of land back. Some of the other key themes were water is life, the importance of water, and education for all ages, so multigenerational education.

LEAH LEMM: So I know I'm definitely learning something, already learning new words, Haha Wakpadan. So that's-- it's already taking effect. And the team is planning more outreach, and a water ceremony is on the calendar for this fall. So the answer to what is next is a lot. And as Crystal pointed out, it's all done in collaboration with cultural Indigenous advisors leading the way.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Leah, thanks for stopping by and talking about this.

LEAH LEMM: It's been great, Cathy. Leah Lemm is NPR News senior editor of Native News.

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