Finding spiritual connections, a sense of place on the Mississippi River

Amoke Kubat
Amoke Kubat, a writer, activist and retired schoolteacher who lives in north Minneapolis and feels a spiritual connection to the Mississippi River, poses for a portrait by the riverfront in March, 2019.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

As part of The Water Main's work on social and racial equity in north Minneapolis we spoke to residents about their connection to the Mississippi River.

More than 30 years ago, a spiritualist in San Diego told Amoke Kubat she'd be "crossing the Mississippi River a lot." Born and raised in Los Angeles and a west coast denizen through and through at the time, Kubat didn't quite understand what the message meant.

But 30 years later, Kubat finds herself crossing the Mississippi every day over the 42nd Avenue bridge in north Minneapolis, and the little regional park on the west bank of the river has become one of her favorite hangouts.

"I had never thought I'd be seeing this river," she said in March, sitting on a bench close to the edge of the Mississippi. "Mama Mississippi is my favorite place."

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Kubat moved to Minnesota in 1987, chasing a dream of working with Prince to create movies and music. She never got to meet Prince in person, but she did develop a deep love for the river that flowed through his hometown.

She started practicing the Yoruba religion, a set of spiritual concepts and practices which originate from that West African culture. Whenever she went down to the river, Kubat said she would feel the presence of Yemoja, the chief deity, or "Orisha," of the Yoruba religion.

"My Orisha would be Yemoja, who is a river goddess, but she became an ocean goddess because of the transatlantic slave trade," she said, "so I feel much, much more in touch when I am by water."

Over her years spent in north Minneapolis, Kubat came to believe that African Americans in the community have lost their connection to the Mississippi River.

Amoke Kubat
Amoke Kubat looks out at the Mississippi River April 1, 2019.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

"I think that there's an estrangement from the land and the water here. And that's not just by people's designs and personality. There's some historical context to it as well," she said. "Historically, we weren't allowed to swim in swimming pools or specific parts of the river."

Kubat said that disconnect has made it harder for them to find their place.

"We are not indigenous, we are not immigrants, we are not settlers, we are not colonizers and we are not refugees," she said. "So we're still trying to figure out where we are, and I think one of the best ways to do it is beginning to form that relationship to the natural forces."

For her part, Kubat has taken many people down to experience the river. She remembered a boat trip on the east bank of the river with particular fondness.

"We took 100 people down to the river on the other side. And it was just, the joy of that reconnection in the boat and being out, putting offerings in the water, singing songs and reading poetry," she said.

Kubat also said it is important to reconnect the new, urban generation of African Americans to the river running next to their homes. She took her grandson down to her favorite spot in the Mississippi River regional park.

"He was so anxious. How could you be in this place and be so anxious?" she said. "But it was a new environment, you know? He's an urban kid. He got really excited about it, and pretty soon, with the fresh air and the movement of the water, you could see his body relaxing."

There are a few upcoming projects proposed by the city that involve the river, like the Upper Harbor Terminal. Kubat's hope for these projects is simple: get all the different communities living along the river involved in the process, and give them the room they need to reconnect to the river that runs through the heart of the Twin Cities.

"I'd like it to be a sacred place where everyone is invited and included. So I'll see monks walking down here chanting, I'll see Native Americans down here, I will see children and their families," she said. "And I think that is when we start thinking about place and space for people, and not profit."

Amoke Kubat lead a conversation in north Minneapolis about the historically black community's connection to water, the Mississippi River and the environment. You can watch the video on our Facebook page here.

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