Minnehaha: a place to rest where the water falls

The Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis are located in a part of the metro area that now covers a sacred piece of Dakota history.

You will find Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, but its cultural significance far predates the city, state or country. The origin story of the Dakota people traces their roots to this general area. PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Slowly approaching a premature middle age I find myself firmly anchored in the woods of Northern Minnesota. Each occasional trip to our state’s Twin Cities metropolis is less a drive and more the unraveling of one life for the winding up of another. The rules change. People wear different stripes, gather in exponentially larger numbers. Up North you sometimes see a guy reading his cell phone in the rest room. Last week in Minneapolis I saw a man typing with both hands at the urinal. This is a new world under an old sun.

The reason for the trip was elaborate and modern, but can be summarized as family-oriented. We had days to spend in the shadow of tall buildings, but we ended up spending them in some of the most natural places we could find within driving distance of my dad’s place in South St. Paul.

I am thoroughly white and wholly descended from European immigrants to a relatively new nation called the United States of America. Still, in recent years I’ve been pulled toward the stories of the various peoples who lived on this land before my own arrived. In this loud Buzzfeed world of product placement and press releases, show me something with a 10,000-year-old story attached to it. I crave fixed points on the horizon.

Native histories only sometimes commemorate places of war; the most sacred places seem to derive significance for their peace and spirituality. Contrastingly, here on the Iron Range our towns follow lines of ore removed from the Earth. Our historical identity stems from conflicts over pay, safety and human rights. My family history plays hopscotch along many pieces of forgotten land, won and lost in waves of fiscal fortune and human drama. But when I was able to see the Hill of Three Waters near Hibbing a few years ago — a site held significant by Ojibwe and Dakota people for thousands of years — I could feel the difference. People didn’t declare it sacred; the Earth made it so.

So it went on our recent trip to the Cities. Having read in depth about the Dakota history in Minnesota for the first time just last year, I recalled the Dakota origin story: how the people emerged from the Earth in a place they called Bdote, the valley beneath the mouth of the Minnesota River underneath the falls of St. Anthony. Sacred sites abound all around this place, now obscured by concrete highways and glass towers. In fact, the most profoundly important chunk of land in the Dakota story is penned in by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, the V.A. hospital and various freeways.

Nearby you will find a place that has endured somewhat more intactly: Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, literally “water falls” on the “Little River” which feeds the Mighty Mississippi.

One particularly hot afternoon during our stay in the Cities, my family took a drive over to Minnehaha Falls. One of Minnesota’s best known landmarks, I’d never been there before and my three sons wanted to see what it was. After circling like a vulture for several minutes, I eventually parked and even figured out how to work the parking lot pay station. After a stop at the pavilion (that’s where I saw the guy texting and peeing at the same time), we wound our way down into the Sandstone canyon, carved by centuries of water. The street noise grew dimmer and dimmer as we approached the rush of the powerful falls.

They tell me the Falls aren’t always this strong, but they’re flying this year. A kayaker famously paddled over the top of them earlier this summer, setting Twitter and Facebook ablaze. Some lady got washed down river, too, but they managed to fish her out OK. That’s what they tell me.

I just know there’s a spot where you can stick your feet in the cool water, where the boys found interesting rocks to pile up and return to the river. You can spend a good long time wondering if the rocks are older than the water, or if the water is older than the rocks. You can do this while listing to the sound of falls that have run here since the first people. Since before.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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