Student crouches near the banks of the Mississippi River on the University of Minnesota campus.Kristi Rudelius-Palmer has reenvisioned her own settler story through the waters of Wakpa Tanka, the Mississippi River. Photo credit: Jairus Davis

Wakpa Tanka and Misi-Ziipi: Today’s …. Mississippi River

OLPD PhD student reflects on sacred river, human rights, and her own ancestral story.

“The Dakota People called the Mississippi River ‘Haha Wakpa,’ which means ‘river of the falls’ and also ‘Wakpa Tanka,’ or Great River.” 1

What is this place?

What is my relationship to it?

I grew up knowing that the Mississippi River was both “great” and with falls. From my earliest memories, I remember trying to spell M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I orally the fastest. Yet, I never knew the Dakota language for this precious, life-giving source. As an adult, I had to look up the Dakota language term and now have a commitment to use the Dakota language for this beautiful ‘Wakpa.’

I am the first generation in my family to be born on Dakota homelands near the Wakpa Tanka and raised in and around Minneapolis. I never thought of reenvisioning my own settler story through the water. This idea connects to my ancestral roots and encourages me to look at “my settler colonial” story differently. I reflect on being the first generation in my family born near the northern part of this “river of the falls” and close to its source.

Wakpa Tanka is the second-longest river in the United States, surpassed by only 100 miles by the Missouri River, and the fourth largest in the world. Wakpa Tanka is the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent behind Hudson Bay and flows generally south for 2,340 miles to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. It has tributaries from two Canadian provinces and 32 U.S. states.

The significance of Wakpa Tanka for Indigenous Peoples spans thousands of years. In the 16th century the first European explorers and then settlers used this powerful source, initially as a barrier. It created borders of “New Spain,” “New France,” and early “United States” and then as a crucial means for transportation and communication. At the height of the “manifest destiny” era in the 19th century, the Wakpa Tanka served as a vehicle for western expansion and the “land grab” migration.

The headwaters of Wakpa Tanka is glacial Lake Itasca. The Anishinabe name for “Lake Itasca’’ is Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan (Elk Lake) and for Wakpa Tanka is Misi-ziibi (also Great River). I have traveled with hundreds of international visitors and family to the headwaters of Misi-ziibi. This source provides energy for the more magnificent water flow that separates the east and west banks of the Mnísota Wóuŋspe Waŋkántuya 2 (University of Minnesota) campus. Further down the river, it joins the Mnisota Wakpa, also known as the spiritual “Bdote” for the Dakota. 3

What do I hold as sacred for this place?

What do I dream for it?

This powerful Wakpa is sacred, holding stories and earth beings to whom the Great River has provided life and wisdom. I also have memories of boating, canoeing, sailing, and just watching its movements along its shores and witnessing eagles swoop into its waters.

As a settler student, I want for those of us who come to this place to learn how to be good caretakers of Wakpa Tanka. It provides healing energy as we reflect on its life-rendering power and connections among Indigenous Peoples and newer visitors and settlers. Through storytelling and dialogue, I hope that we can learn how to honor the water with our songs and care as it teaches us how to remember all our relations.

My hope is that this sacred river will continue to provide an environment where people can gather to: (1) connect, enabling individuals and communities to share their truths; (2) dialogue and confront atrocities and restore peace and humanity; (3) mediate disputes and foster trust among groups in conflict; and (4) integrate memorial and learning spaces to reflect on our ”interwovenstory,” openly and honestly and with humility.

The Wakpa Tanka and human rights

As a human rights educator, I believe that local and global water rights struggles are informed by and related to the human rights struggles of our past and future in a number of ways:

Honoring water, land, and air to protect future generations.

• Providing a cultural bridge between ancestral legacies and human rights movements.

• Grounding human rights learning in lived experiences of knowing, being, and acting—linking water rights to shared community values.

I hope to work with Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members to create human rights learning spaces, honoring our ancestors, their stories, the land, air, and water and to foster cross-cultural understanding for the next generations.

On November 11, 2021, I attended the Veterans for Peace celebration of Armistice Day at the Sheridan Veterans Memorial Park located on the Wakpa Tanka in North Minneapolis. I listened to a Dakota elder pay tribute to Armistice Day of Peace. A large sphere of shields in the center of the circle honors veterans and reflects vibrantly at night. I had a vision while circling the different war markers, beginning with the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Was the place for the human rights learning museum revealed to me?

 Only time will tell whether a collective dream of a human rights museum will continue to have a ripple effect along Wakpa Tanka and Misi-ziibi—this Great River. What I do know is that this powerful body of water is sacred and collectively we need to love, respect, honor, and protect it. Wakpa Tanka holds a mosaic of stories within each drop of moving water.


1 Retrieved from Mississippi River | Bdote Memory Map on May 1, 2022

2 Translation from the Dakota Dictionary Online site at the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

3 Retrieved from Bdote in Mni Sota—Sacred Land on August 29, 2022

Kristi Rudelius-Palmer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development and a 2021-22 Leadership in Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Fellow. She wrote this article as a reflection activity in Professor Elizabeth Sumida Huaman’s course, DSSC 8310: Comparative Indigenous Research and Learning: Methodologies, Social Movements, and Local and Global Interconnections.