- Mnisose/the Missouri RiverA Comparative Literary Analysis of River Stories from the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the #NoDAPL Movement
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s firm opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), an underground conduit that cuts across the Missouri River twice as it transports 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to Illinois, has recently thrust the river into public discourse. However, as Lakota scholar Nick Estes points out, Mnisose/the Missouri River has been a source of contention between tribal and federal governments for more than two hundred years, beginning with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the nineteenth century and followed by the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Project in the twentieth century and, most recently, the #NoDAPL movement in the twenty-first century (1). The long-standing tension surrounding the continent’s longest river is recorded in an eclectic range of literatures—from oral stories to newspaper articles to travelogues, books, poetry, and, more recently, social media—that reflect a seemingly endless and highly adaptable cycle of settler colonialism.
In recent discussions of colonialism and nationalism, many literary, religious, and political scholars have suggested that books, newspapers, and other literary texts have long been used to colonize and decolonize Indigenous people and communities. Dakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. wryly observes: “When missionaries arrived they had only the Book and we had the land; now we have the Book and they have the land” (101). This critique links print literature (i.e., “the Book”) to a colonial system that has long sought to oppress and silence Indigenous people. Although “Books” capitalized denotes the Christian Bible, both religious and secular texts have been used to colonize Indigenous people and communities.
Indigenous colonization or settler colonialism, according to Eve Tuck [End Page 72] and K. Wayne Yang, occurs at two different levels: externally and internally. External colonialism denotes “the expropriation of Indigenous land/water/air/subterranean earth” (Tuck and Yang 5), while internal colonialism refers to “supplanting indigenous laws and epistemologies” with Western beliefs and values (8). Briefly stated, the impetus of external colonialism is avarice for material wealth, while internal colonialism refers to the institutions and mechanisms used to justify that greed, theft, and corruption. Many scholars argue that literature is one such mechanism.1
Although literature has the power to colonize tribal people and communities, it also has the potential to decolonize them. In Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence, Stephanie Fitzgerald convincingly argues that oral, print, and electronic literatures have each been used to, respectively, empower, disempower, and reempower the Cherokee, Navajo, Ojibwe, and Dakota nations. The third chapter of Fitzgerald’s book examines “the effects of illegal land transfers on Native land and lifeways,” specifically focusing on the impact that the Pick-Sloan Project had on the Missouri River and the Dakota nation (70). Fitzgerald describes the Missouri River as a “land narrative,” or “palimpsestic landscape imprinted with physical, cultural, or spiritual narratives that have retained their resonance for centuries” (4). She urges scholars to study this and other land narratives carefully and to read Indigenous landscapes as “a microcosm of the Native world, which is recreated again and again through each retelling of the creation story” (19). This article also considers the land narrative, Mnisose/the Missouri River, amplifying discussions of the ancient and sacred river by examining some of the texts not covered by Fitzgerald and bringing the discussion up to date with the #NoDAPL movement.
Whereas Fitzgerald’s book explores multiple tribal creation stories, this article further traces the genealogy of Mnisose/the Missouri River from the mid-nineteenth century to the present to examine the transformation of these river stories across different time periods, genres, and nationalisms. Over the past two centuries, Mnisose/the Missouri River has been translated and retranslated numerous times by both Native and non-Native writers to serve various and often contradictory political agendas. In 1851 early missionary translators such as the Reverend Stephen R. Riggs and the Pond brothers helped transform Mnisose/the Missouri River from an oral to a written form. Since then, several [End Page 73] other writers and scholars have...