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Sacred Water

DURING THE SIXTEEN YEARS I lived in Saint Paul, I grew to love the lone tamarack that lived in the backyard of my little bungalow, far from its natural habitat farther north. This majestic tree turned a dusky gold in autumn before shedding its needles. In spring, it attracted aphids that drew a visit from the ruby-crowned kinglet, a tiny khaki-colored bird that was one of several hundred species that followed the Mississippi River flyway during migration.

As much as I loved Saint Paul, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to move an hour north to a place with ten acres that included a tamarack bog. After reading about the bog in the house listing, I drove through an ice storm the next morning to see it. Behind the house stood several acres of tall, skeletal tamaracks bare of needles, branches dusted with snow. The bog was a sanctuary for birds and pitcher plants, surrounded by well-worn deer trails.

In the years since I left Saint Paul to steward this bog, I have learned how dependent this unique habitat is on water. In spring, the snowmelt replenishes the moat that surrounds the bog, spilling over to refresh nearby marshy areas that are home to spring peeper frogs, their song a delightful, cacophonous declaration of the season. The jungle call of the pileated woodpecker is complemented by the rough song of the sandhill crane that nests nearby. Since my house is within a few miles of the St. Croix River, I’m still visited in spring by migrating birds that use the river as a flyway, just as Indigenous people had used the river as a trade route for thousands of years.

As a Dakota woman from the Mdewakanton Oyate, I do my best to uphold the teaching Mitakuye Owasin: We Are All Related. This means I have a responsibility to care for the land and the water that nourishes it. On a practical, daily level, there are things I can do, such as conserve water, express gratitude through prayer, and avoid using pesticides and fertilizers that could be washed downhill by the rain into the bog.

But there is another, deeper level of understanding that informs how I care for this place. The Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, which includes the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples, carries an origin story that teaches the sacred nature of water. This relationship is embedded in our language, our understanding of the world, and our cosmology. The elders teach us that water is every being’s first medicine.

At a time when modern-day thinking values water as a resource to be used, negotiated, and sold, we have to remember what it means to be in an Indigenous relationship with this precious relative. The courageous people at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota who challenged the Keystone XL pipeline showed us how to protect what we love, to always remember Mni Wiconi, water is life. Not to protest the short-term thinking of an extractive industry, but to protect—a critical difference in the way we view the world. In the words of Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Cheyenne River, “We are not defending Mother Earth. We are Mother Earth in defense of herself."

Story: DIANE WILSON, a Dakota writer, has published a memoir, Spirit Car: Journey to a Dakota Past, which won a 2006 Minnesota Book Award and appeared in the 2012 One Minneapolis, One Read program, and Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life. She was a 2013 Bush Fellow and 2018 AARP/Pollen Fifty Over Fifty honoree. Diane’s latest novel, The Seed Keeper, won the 2022 Minnesota Book Award for Novel & Short Story.


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