Village Vitals


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Rivergator #013: Winds, Out of the Southwest

There are winds out of the South/Southwest.

Most of the wind patterns on the Mississippi River are out of the South, or Southwest.

Coincidentally, I think of the American Southwest region for its unique culture. The art and artists who spend time there. A formidable landscape - city and residential buildings entirely their own. And the Native culture.

Native American culture is more palpable there, more palpable here on the river. When walking through the center of Santa Fe, it feels New Mexican; it feels not entirely authentic at times, but it is a good feeling. It is good that it exists because it is different. Turquoise, jewelry, crafts - all subjects of tourist transactions, brought in by Native Americans who sit, placid, along tile floors abutting adobe facades.

John Ruskey has a special penchant - a special connection, too - to the intrinsic value placed on Native American culture. Before paddles, we will receive a blessing and prayer to Mother Earth, pleasantly enveloped by smoke wafting from a sage smudge. This bundle of dried white sage from Washington state purifies, smells excellent - like cleansing - and is tied deeply to more sacred Native practice.

An artist joined our trip, Michel Varisco, and she thinks Native understanding of Mother Nature is going to be the key to our future ecological prevail. She says we should look to their beliefs and guidance in order for the earthly foundation to our country to prosper and succeed.

How can we better and more fundamentally engage Native history as a whole? Certainly not only by elementary school teaching it. I didn’t learn anything in the traditional educational setting - nothing about Native American culture really stuck, save a few tribe names, customs, and aesthetic detail. John and his sister, Abby Ruskey, grew up in Colorado and attended an alternative school that was not based on grades, but student-driven, experiential learning. That sounds nice, and they are wildly connected to our land, our native culture, and they exude authentic knowledge of self. I can only imagine the power of an educational experience like this would be, or even the power of going to a reservation, and what that might feel like. Something as big and elusive and inclusive as Standing Rock fits right in there.

I didn’t think going to Standing Rock was important enough, at the time, to spend money or my energy in a potentially dangerous or challenging environment. The harsh weather through winter, the unknowns. Now I realize, it was. The hundreds of tribes who came together in solidarity for clean water and preservation of sacred Native American land - that’s one instance that epitomizes something larger and more important than anything we as a country can do or say about the (capital) “gains” from the pipeline.

I capture this expedition and more on video - the smudge ceremony, a dialogue about Native culture and tradition, what it’s like to live in the Southwest - all while paddling the length of the Lower Mississippi River, a river named for the Mississippian people - Natives known for their mound-building. 

While paddling for nearly two months in wooden canoes, made by hand, in the voyageur-style, it all fits together. The French-Canadians traversed the initially Native rivers and streams in these style boats. These French-Canadians were the “Acadian” people, and it was the Acadians, as a group, sent down to Louisiana to propagate the land when not wanted/allowed in the north (among other reasons). These Acadians evolved into Cajun culture, a lot of the French influence we see in Louisiana culture is due to this, these people, that decision many years ago.

You can feel the connection on the water, in the canoe, you can feel it in the Delta, you can feel it in New Orleans. I’m starting to delve deeper and actually begin understanding Native culture. Perhaps we should all do the same.