DULUTH — The St. Louis River, a sacred and spiritual place for Anishinaabe and Dakota people, will soon have an outdoor classroom and Indigenous ceremony space alongside it near Munger Landing in the western end of the city.
A water and naming ceremony was held last week near the planned site, a project shared by the Indigenous Women's Water Sisterhood and the city of Duluth.
Water walker Sharon Nagaamoo Ma'aingen Day, who has walked the length of the Mississippi and the St. Louis rivers, named the area Gichi Gami Zibi Zagiswe'iding, or Place Where We Light Our Pipes.
Attendees offered tobacco to the land and faced the river, swollen with spring snowmelt, as Day sang in Ojibwe. Sisterhood member Arianna Northbird returned the ceremonial water to the river and the group shared wild rice and smoked fish in celebration.
"We should have access to all of our sacred spots," Day said, but so many travel through private land. "It's our responsibility as Ojibwe women to take care of the water, the best way we know how."
Grant money awarded to the University of Minnesota from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation helped pay for the design of the space, which will include a fire pit, stones and interpretive signs. The city is also using grant money to pay for construction. The area will be part of the Waabizheshikana Trail, which will eventually extend 10 miles along the river corridor to Chambers Grove Park/Nagaajiwanaang.
Once pollution remediation is finished at Munger Landing — part of federal Area of Concern legacy cleanup — the city will build the new trail segment and improve the landing with a handicap accessible canoe and kayak launch, a picnic area and restrooms and the ceremonial space. It could be completed by fall of 2024, said Cliff Knettel, a senior parks planner for the city.
Roxanne Biidabinokwe Gould is a member of the Indigenous Women's Water Sisterhood and an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Her research at UMD has focused on Indigenous people, climate change and water scarcity, and the sisterhood focuses on the Lake Superior watershed.
Larger goals include influencing decisionmaking on water policy, but others have been to build an area for meditation and prayer, Gould said, and teach about the river and the importance of its health. The group has written a book geared toward children, written in Ojibwe and English, that shares the journeys of water (nibi) walkers like Day, and encourages protection and care for what it sees as a living being.
"The St. Louis River has been so, so abused," Gould said of a century of pollution stemming back to the birth of Duluth. "People are beginning to see we are in water crisis, even in the land of 10,000 lakes."
Day, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, has done more than 20 water walks, spanning 10,000 miles in total, and has walked with Josephine Mandamin, considered the grandmother of the water walker movement. Day will circle Lake Superior by foot beginning Aug. 1.
She walks to pray for water, she said, and to "speak to the spirit of the water."
At the start of her travels from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in 2015, Day said she and others gathered water clean enough to drink, carrying it all the way to the river's end where it's polluted and oxygen-deprived.
There, they returned the water to the river.
"We wanted the river to have a taste of itself," she said. "This is how you began, and this is how we wish for you to be again."