De Wakpa Taŋka Odowaŋ / Song for the Mississippi River: a poem from Gwen Westerman

Gwen Westerman reads a poem

Gwen Westerman performs "De Wakpa Taŋka Odowaŋ / Song for the Mississippi River" for our sold-out fall event in 2018. (Photo by Anna Botz)

If you're visiting this page via Mississippi Messages, please note that this is our final "Quote of the Month" feature. We couldn't think of a higher note to end on. Thank you, Dr. Gwen Westerman!

Award-winning fiber artist, celebrated educator, writer and poet Dr. Gwen Westerman wrote "De Wakpa Taŋka Odowaŋ / Song for the Mississippi River" and performed it at FMR's fall event, The River Inspires: An Evening Celebrating the Mississippi River on September 20, 2018. Before she read, Westerman gave this preface:

"I stand here today, a Dakota woman in the 21st century. By all rights, I should not be here. We have survived storm, prairie fires, wars, declarations from Alexander Ramsey that we should be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of this state. But I stand here today as a Dakota woman."

De Wakpa Taŋka Odowaŋ / Song for the Mississippi River

By Gwen Nell Westerman
20 September 2018

Long before Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.
            Before Ol’ Man River.
            Before Wade in the Water.
Long before Schoolcraft and verItascaput.
            Before Father Hennepin and St. Anthony,
            Before Misi Ziibi.
Long before Hernando de Soto.
In the beginning,
De Dakota Makoce
was a Dakota place.
The water was pure.
The water was wakaŋ.
pejuta tokaheya heca.
Water was
Water is
our first medicine.
The water was part of the land.
And therefore part of the people.
And in this place,
We flourished.
From Bdote,
where the Mni Sota Wakpa joins
the Wakpa Taŋka,
We followed the rivers,
interconnected waterways,
interconnected lifeways,
southward to ḢeMniCaŋ and
Bde Iṡtamni, the “Lake of Tears.”
Northward the Big River
took us to Owamniyomni
the whirlpool created by ḢaḢa Wakpa
the curling waters of the falls.
We knew the river’s rise and fall,
channels and gorges,
every meander, every floodplain,
from Bde Wakaŋ to Mniti
Mille Lacs to the Lake of the Woods,
Rainy Lake to Thunder Bay,
where our burial mounds remain.
Westward to Saskatchewan
the head of the Churchill River,
along the Ballantyne River,
named Puatsipi by the Cree—
            Dakota River.
To Bdote, the beginning
of the Mississippi of the North
and the Little Minnesota.
These were our waterways
and our lifeways.
Our medicine.
And we, too, want to sing
a song for the water,
a song for wakpa taŋka
so we listen
we listen
and then
on the edge of a dream
the songs come.
Condensed from the fog
Like dewdrops on cattails,
They form perfectly clear.
Whispering through leaves,
heavy voices rise up,
drift beyond night
toward the silent dawn,
and sing.
            Hekta ehaŋna ded uŋtipi.
            Heuŋ he ohiŋni uŋkiksuyapi kte.
            Aŋpetu dena ded uŋtipi.
            Heca ohiŋni uŋdowaŋpi kte.

            Mni pejuta
            Mni wiconi
            Mni wakaŋ
Always on still morning air,
they come,
connected by
connected by

Watch Gwen Westerman's performance at The River Inspires


Gwen Westerman is co-author of "Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota" (2012), and author of a book of poetry, "Follow the Blackbirds" (2013). She teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato.