Following Rivers

I didn’t have a particular objective in visiting Osage sacred sites this month. It came about by being next door in Oklahoma for a while, closer than I’ve been in my life spent mostly in California. The last couple years our Historic Preservation Office hasn’t been able to organize sacred site trips as they have been and I wasn’t sure I’d find out where any were I’d be able to visit on my own. Amazingly, they were able to share info on publicly accessible ones with me, mostly in state and national parks, and so my stay in Oklahoma this year became a trip to Missouri also.

At some point during my planning I became more interested in water than anything else. Maybe it was looking at water quality reports in Osage County. Maybe it was Dr. Hunter’s article on the significance of water to the Osage/WahZhaZhe, translated as water people or name givers, and our older name Ni U Kon Schka translates to “Children of the Middle Waters.” In any case I asked my cousin Chelsea Hicks to write a water prayer as part of her Osage language painting project, and I took this with me to talk to the water in a language it heard for thousands of years but rarely hears anymore, to get to know this place and what it might need.

It was good my first campsite was along the river. I could easily begin and end each day with the prayer. However, the springs there were disheartening, having been developed into a mill in the 1800s that contained the water into an algae-ridden pond and only allowed water flow through a two foot diameter hole in stone. The river itself along the campsite was practically a highway for speedboats. It became clear that I should be following the water, so I went up the Black river and found the “end” of the river and then Clearwater dam, a playground for even bigger speedboats.

I’ve been reflecting on the difference between predominantly white-working-class recreation activities on rivers and lakes, and what I know of the Osage relationship to water. I know we’re currently struggling to retain/expand our water rights in Osage County. I know we work with the EPA to do water quality testing. I know traditionally women have a special relationship to water and were usually the ones to harvest yonkapins, while men weren’t allowed to enter the water or had to learn the prayers and protocol to do so. For a people with the name “Children of the Middle Waters” it’s interesting to me that I’ve yet to hear or read reference to any kind of canoe culture or fish culture on our part. It seems we were and are walkers, following rivers, but not in them. Keeping our distance and only in the water as necessary.

Many of our sacred sites are springs and the surrounding lands, including these medicine plants. I saw horsemint, a plant we use to this day in ceremony, at nearly every spring that was allowed to flow and the land managed. At one spring I was able to collect a bit of water after my prayers and make a horsemint flower essence. When I walked up to this stand of Paw Paw trees, more than I’d ever seen in my life, I was moved to tears at what we lost by being removed from here. I grew up with its South American relative the cherimoya in the back yard, but have yet to eat a Paw Paw, historically an important food source for Osage people.

At Blue Spring I sat down immediately in awe at the sight of dragonflies with shining blue bodies. I spent nearly an hour there, watching families come and go, watching insects make patterns in the water. I visited with a blue-black butterfly puddling near my feet, who responded to my question if I could take its picture by flying around in small circles until it stood still again. Before I left, a blue-tailed salamander gave me side-eye as I caught it with my camera. I’m not sure why so many things there were blue, or if I may have turned the color had I stayed longer, but I felt like it was a reminder of the importance of this place to these beings, the importance of water that it was made visible through them.

While no one is allowed to swim in the springs protected at State and National parks in Missouri (as far as I’ve seen), just a half mile down from the spring people were in the water, speedboats racing to nowhere.


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