Roger Brya, shows a wood burned image of an eagle he created to sell.
There is a Relationship Between the Land and the People
The history of the Mississippi River starts long before settlers arrived from Europe. Before trappers and traders meandered in from the east, the upper Mississippi River was home to Native American nations such as the Dakota and Ojibwa.
"Our oral stories of history talked about the place where food floats on water," said Anton Treuer, who is the executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University.
Treuer is from the Ojibwa nation. "Northern Minnesota is a hard place to live, but there was abundant food here that allowed us to sustain our people."
The food was reference to the wild rice that grows along the edges of many northern Minnesota lakes and rivers.
Wild rice seeds along the edge of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
Wild rice grows along the edge of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota.
The location is also strategic because of the area. Rivers flow east, north and south; this created an avenue for trade with other communities.
The traditional beliefs of the Ojibwa are that all things in nature have spirits. One of the core aspects is having a relationship with the land, resulting in creating a deep connection to place.
"We have a ceremony to pass on our traditions and beliefs. This in turn instills core values," Treuer continued.
One of these values is having a sacred relationship with the earth and all that it provides.
"The earth, when cared for properly, provides all these super foods that nurture and heal our bodies. An important thing about the animals and the plants is they would get by just fine without us. But we need nature for food and shelter, and it would serve us well to remember we are dependent on all these things. Our ceremony expresses our respect for the earth and its creatures. It is an expression of our relationship to life and the Great Spirit," Treuer concluded.
Another encounter with the Ojibwa provided more insight.
Roger and Glenda Brya of the Bear Clan in Cass Lake, Minn., had a stall at a swap meet along the highway. They were selling artisan crafts they had made.
"We go to the city and find it too busy and noisy. We prefer the quietness and pace of life here in the countryside," Roger said.
"I like to create images of eagles," Roger explained, as he showed me a stone carving of an eagle's head he was currently working on. "Eagles have great meaning for my people and for the people of the United States."
Native American beliefs hold the eagle sacred because it is closer to the Great Spirit as it flies high in the sky.
A young man approached with a beaded bear paw necklace hung around his neck.
I asked him about it.
"I wear this to show I am part of the bear clan," he replied.
The clan concept is like a community of family and extended family members, creating relationships that are fundamental to the strength of the community. Over the years, Native Americans tended to drift away from the clan concept. But things are changing.
"Our people are rediscovering the value of being part of a clan and the support it offers with our challenges," Roger said. "It's a positive step forward."
Anton Treuer is the executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University.
It left me wondering in what clan I would be a member. It also left me wanting to know more about the traditions of Native Americans. I have found it a challenge to connect with their cultures. But, I have a sense that our futures are tied together with the traditional wisdom Native Americans have about the earth.
As I canoed another section of the Mississippi River, I remembered Anton Treuer's words: "We have a traditional belief of the underwater spirit. Before a journey across the water, we make an offering for safe passage."
In the spirit of this tradition, I offered a prayer of gratitude for the continuation of this sacred journey down the Mississippi River.