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Episode Four: A River Blessing

This project is a collaboration between KBIA, The Columbia Missourian, The Mississippi Basin Ag and Water Desk, The New Territory Magazine, and PRX. Music for River Town comes from Gloria Attoun. And from the Album Audionautix: Acoustic by Jason Shaw, via the Free Music Archive. Creative Commons 3.0 United States License.

River Town Episode Four: A River Blessing

[river, wind sounds, fire lighting and burning of sage]

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Let’s see if we can get a sizzle out of this...

Tina Casagrand Foss: Saundi McClain-Kloeckener is igniting a bundle of sage and sweetgrass in a small bowl.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: We just smudge automatically, and smudging is a way of cleansing.

Sage is also an antibacterial and antifungal. The sweetgrass brings in good and it helps you to remember things you didn't know you forgot. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: She uses her hand to fan the smoke out over the group who’s gathered with her this morning at the Lincoln-Shields Recreation area, a park at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. It’s around 9 a.m. on a cloudy, windy day in October 2023. And Saundi and several others are here for their weekly river blessing. They are the Native Women’s Care Circle: a prayer group run by Indigenous women from St. Louis.

Sherry Taluc: I am Sherry Taluc of the Pawnee Otoe Nations. Uh, I come from the Echo Hawk family. And, uh, the women in the community here in St. Louis. Some of us met at the Indian Center when there was an Indian Center here, and when it did go away, uh, our friendships kept us together and wanting to keep doing things for the community.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Sherry Taluc is another founding member of the group. She and Saundi began these river blessings years ago.

Sherry Taluc: We decided that we would commit to, uh, praying for the water on, on Sunday. And it also gives us an opportunity to pray for our community and our people, our elders and whatever issues are going on in our country today. So we use this is kind of like a church, but first and foremost, we come here for the water to pray for the water, the healing of the water.  


Tina Casagrand Foss: From KBIA and The New Territory with PRX: This is River Town. A celebration of the Missouri River and how it shapes the people and places it flows through. I’m Tina Casagrand Foss and this is episode four: A River Blessing.

We sent our student reporters to search for stories about spiritual connections with the Missouri River. So today, we’re sharing what they found amongst people whose connection stretches back the furthest to this land and this river -- our Indigenous relatives.

Now, what we hear in this episode is just one small drop in the bucket when it comes to the connections that people -- Indigenous people, and any people -- share with the Missouri River. But even though I’ve been steeped in more than a decade of river lore and appreciation, the stories our reporters came back with were fresh for me, and I hope they give us all a little insight into the history and culture among the Missouri River, its Indigenous stewards, and even waters half a world away.


[sounds of river and wind]

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: It started off a gathering of water walkers who walked the whole Mississippi River. And when we were done, we didn't want to stop.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Saundi and the Native Women’s Care Circle in St. Louis are part of a large network of Indigenous activists who care deeply about the rivers of North America. In 2013, an Ojibwe activist named Sharon Day led a “water walk” from the beginning of the Mississippi at its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Saundi and Sherry both participated. They did another walk in 2017 along the entire length of the Missouri River. These water walks -- or nibi [nih-beh] walks, for the Ojibwe word for water -- are one-part protest of polluting practices, one-part spiritual ceremony. Day began doing walks like this over a decade ago and has since led walks across the country.1

In the water walks, women carry a vessel of water collected from the beginning of the river to its end. Along the way, there are songs and prayers for the health of the water. Day has said of this practice that “every step is taken in prayer and gratitude for water, our life giving force.” Saundi says praying for water is part of a long tradition.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Women have always done this ceremony. Women are responsible for the water. We're tied to the water. 

Basmin Red Deer: I got a chance to go with Sherry and Saundi to Wisconsin on a water walk back in 2018. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: This is another member of the St. Louis Women’s Care Circle:

Basmin Red Deer: Hi, I am, uh, Basmin Red Deer, and I'm adopted and self-identify as a daughter of all relations. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Basmin has been involved in a lot of activism on behalf of water health. In 2016, she visited the Standing Rock reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. And she also participated in the Missouri River water walk. She said that event was especially moving and powerful to witness.

Basmin Red Deer: So I went to the final place that they would bring all of the prayers and all the water to put it back in the river. And when we arrived there was, there was an oily green algae sheen across the riverbank. And we all gathered in a circle and they laid out a blanket. Everybody told about their experience for the walking. They put gifts within the blanket to be offered for the river. We made prayer. We made song. When we turned around to put that blanket in the water, the water did not have the green oily sheen. It was clear. I've seen prayers work. So, if we come together and learn how to honor the water and the water within each other, healing is possible, but it takes work. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Now, Sharon Day leads stationary river blessings at her home in St. Paul, Minnesota every Sunday. The St. Louis Native Women’s Care Circle does the same thing here -- to honor the tradition Day started.

Basmin Red Deer: It is a spiritual church, so it may not have an edifice around it, but creator and, uh, water and the ancestors are all here. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: The group asked us not to record the River Blessing ceremony itself out of respect and privacy. The purpose of the ceremony is to connect the participants with the water inside themselves… and everywhere the water has been and will go.

Sherry Taluc: I think our prayers are a good analogy of what the water represents. Uh, cause water is life, water is healing, uh, we give life through, uh, nine months of being in water. So I do believe it’s a good analogy for what we experience out here.

Basmin: There's no life on the planet without water. And it's an element that's within all of us and needed by everything that's gonna grow and live. Water never stops moving. Water has memory.  So when we put the prayers in the water, you know, it joins with the ancestors and those yet to come.

[river sounds]

Greg Olson: Everywhere we go, we're on Indigenous land. No matter where we are on this continent, we walk in the footsteps of people who came before us.

Tina Casagrand Foss: This is independent author Greg Olson. He released a book this year titled "Indigenous Missourians: Ancient Societies to the Present." In the book, Greg explores the history of Indigenous people in present-day Missouri. Greg is not Indigenous himself, he’s a white guy. But he says he’s passionate about including Indigenous history in our written canon because it’s been overlooked and misaddressed for so long.

Greg Olson: You've heard of the Louisiana Purchase, right?  The Louisiana Purchase is actually not what it, it doesn't live up to its name. And this is only something I discovered when I was working on my book, is that it didn't really purchase anything. When we got the land from France, what the United States got was preemptive right to buy the land from all the native people who lived here.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Greg joined Missouri School of Journalism students and reporters on a trip down the Missouri River in September 2023. The bumping and thumping sounds you hear are from the boat everyone was sitting on. Think of it like a natural soundtrack.

Greg Olson: Uh, everybody says, well, we paid 15 million for all this land, it was such a great bargain, but in fact, we had to go through 200 years of treaties, pretty much. I mean, the last treaty of the Louisiana Purchase wasn't settled until, uh, 1970. 

So it ended up costing us, the Louisiana Purchase ended up costing us billions of dollars. And like I said, 200 years of  court cases. Um,  so like I said, but people have lived here. The thing that kind of amazes me and what I really want you to think about is people have lived here for a long, long time.

And historians, what we've done is we have taken pretty much, uh,  white, the first time white people saw natives, suddenly that's history. Anything before that we call prehistory.  And so that leads to us kind of thinking about people before white contact in a different way. And so what I really would encourage you to do is to think about Those 12,000 years, not as pre-history in history, but as one big sweep of people living here.

And where we are right now is really the very heart of Indigenous civilization. Okay, they would have been attracted to the rivers.


Tina Casagrand Foss: Greg says all sorts of Indigenous groups relied on the rivers of Missouri. The bottomlands provided rich soil good for planting crops. And the bluffs surrounding the river were great areas for hunting. The rivers themselves were thoroughfares for trade.

Greg Olson: Where we are right now, would have been sort of a border between three or four really big tribes.  On this side of the river would have been the Osages, on the south side of the river. … The Osages were a huge nation. They were strong, uh, populous. They were really good traders. They owned, or claimed, they didn't really own, but they claimed land all the way down into Arkansas, all the way into Oklahoma. What's Oklahoma now in Kansas…

Upriver to the north and to the west of us would have been the Missouria. The people that we get our, uh, state name from. They were another very, very strong nation. 

And then, uh, east of here, along the Mississippi River, uh, would have been the Illinois Confederacy. And that was a group of probably about I think 17 different nations… and they controlled pretty much all the traffic on the Mississippi River.

Tina Casagrand Foss: But the river hasn’t only been a source of economic and practical benefits for Indigenous culture. It’s also a center of spiritual life. Greg passes around a book he brought. In it, there’s an image of a carving or pictograph on a cave wall in Warren County, Missouri. The pictograph is likely at least 1,000 years old. It shows a creature with dark eyes and sharp teeth.

Greg Olson: A horned underwater panther, He kind of looks like a cartoon character, and he's almost comical, but I think he's supposed to be scary because he's got big teeth, and he's got these, uh, teeth. deer antlers, which is kind of interesting. The native people definitely respected this because if somebody drowned or somebody, you know, went out on the river and didn't make it, it was because the underwater panther got them. Okay, and the underwater panther lived under here and he had a place, a lair where he would take people. Okay, so it was kind of this whole realm of the underworld and things were a little murky and a little, a little scary. And, uh, you didn't want to mess with that guy. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Bluff tops overlooking the river also held a special, spiritual use for many Indigenous groups. As the j-school boats pass by the tall river banks, Greg points toward a cliff face.

Greg Olson: These bluffs up here that we've been going by, especially on this side of the river, are full of burial mounds. Boone County is known for its burial mounds. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of burials here from people who lived here previously. They liked to put the mound, put the mounds on the above bluff tops and bury people up on the bluff tops because those were places of significance. And, and the one thing to think about when you think about Indigenous people in traditional times is there was really no difference between the spiritual world, and the secular world. Everything had a spiritual connotation to it. If you're out here on the river, you're definitely in a spiritual place. You can kind of feel that now, right? And they definitely had a lot of spiritual connotations, um, uh, connected to this place. 

Tami Buffalohead-McGill: Now, I can tell you, as, as a Ponca person, as somebody who grew up, um, disconnected from large bodies of water, I still feel that affinity, I still feel that connection, and I still feel that it's a very much a sacred space and a sacred place.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Tami Buffalohead-McGill is a member of the Ponca Tribe, a nation that was historically located in what is now Nebraska, along the Upper Missouri River.

Tami Buffalohead-McGill: Just being there makes me feel better. You know, it, it basically feeds my soul in a way that, you know, other things can't do. Um, being confined, for example, inside a church doesn't give me that same feeling and connection to the Creator that it does being outside, on the water, or near the water, or in the water. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Tami lives in Omaha now, but she was raised in Oklahoma. In the late 1800s, the US Government forced the Ponca to vacate their ancestral land and move south to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

Tami Buffalohead-McGill: And actually, the Missouri River is significant because that's also the route, uh, when we were relocated to Oklahoma that they went through, which was our Trail of Tears. And so many of our people were lost and passed away, um, around that route. You know, I'm going from Nebraska to Oklahoma.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Tami was born generations later, but she says she can see the repercussions that removal caused in her people.

Tami Buffalohead-McGill: It changed us. In many, many ways, because not only we were taking away from the land, but we were taking away from our ancestors. And our ancestors are also our healers. They're our connection. You know, our connection to our ancestors was integral to our cultural preservation, to our spirituality, to our identity, all of that. And then being put into an environment where, A, we couldn't harvest, You know the plants that we normally harvest we couldn't find the medicines that we normally found. 

If you think about the river, I mean, our spirituality and our stories talk about how the they were given medicines and things that were indigenous to the area. It had to do with the water, you know, to heal our people.

You put them in an area where they can't have access to forage those things that traditionally healed them and sustained them. And then you completely change their diet by giving them commodity foods, which we call survivor food, like things like fry bread, which were never a part of our diet. And then we wind up getting diabetes, we become obese, Um, and then we're spiritually bankrupt because we're not connected to our ancestors and to the land and to those sacred sites, the water, things like that, that they're there. So you see what you see today. Native Americans basically, unfortunately, hitting the highest marks for depression. You know, anxiety, um, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic health, and spirituality, um, in terms of that loss of connection and identity.

Tina Casagrand Foss: According to the US Office of Minority Health, the suicide rate in American Indian adults is 20 percent higher compared to the white population2. Tami sees this in her own community. And she’s part of a wave of Indigenous folks who are trying to reconnect with and reclaim their culture and idenrtity. For Tami, that means educating herself about her people’s traditions and spending more time outdoors.

Tami Buffalohead-McGill: Everything that the Creator created is all connected. We're all connected and we are caretakers. That's our job. We are not masters. We are not to be dominators. We are not to, uh, come in and claim everything is ours. We are supposed to live in harmony with our environment because the earth, the water, it all sustains us. It gives us life. Without it, we don't exist, you know?

Our society has become so commercialized and so monetized that we've moved so far away from that connection that we're out of balance And I think that's a problem because when you prioritize profit, over things that sustain people, life-sustaining things, then we really need to step back and reevaluate who we are and what our goals are and what our purpose is.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Back in St. Louis, Basmin Red Deer tells our reporters she feels the same way. Our consumptive way of life jeopardizes something essential for people all around the planet.

Basmin Red Deer: The commodification of water has already begun. The fact that we have bottled water, the fact that there are corporations that draw water from communities and don't allow them access. There are, uh, reservations and, uh, relatives on this continent right now. Our Diné relatives, our Navajo in the Southwest that do not have running water. There are communities of color that do not have running water. Right now, our relatives in the Middle, Middle East, uh, that are trying to escape war are without water. So if we intend for there to be life, we need to honor the water, learn how to respect the water, and take care of the water everywhere and within ourselves. It is not a commodity. It's not something to be exploited, and we've forgotten that. 

[saying hello, ambient sound from water blessing]

Tina Casagrand Foss: As Rivertown Reporters are speaking with the women at the River Blessing Ceremony… Saundi, one of the organizers, gets a call.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Oseiyo, how ya doing? 

Tina Casagrand Foss: It’s a young woman named Tess Eckerd. She’s calling in to take part in the ceremony virtually -- all the way from Australia.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: So, what time is it there? 

Tess Eckerd: 1 a.m., 1:30. 

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Oh, wow. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: The Prayer Circle group is happy to have Tess join this way. It reminds them of their connection to a global water system. Saundi turns her phone to show Tess the Missouri River.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Let me show you her… she is jumping today! 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Tess first joined to the water blessings while she was studying at Washington University in St. Louis. After she graduated, she started working with an organization that sent her to Australia, to help an Indigenous community recover from devastating flooding. She said she still feels connected to what she learned and practiced at River Blessings in St. Louis, even though now she’s all the way across the world.

Tess Eckerd: You know, the river, the floods are a response or are the natural world's response to how we're treating the earth and how we're treating each other.  Um. And so. In that healing process, it's not just about healing ourselves post flood, it's about healing country, it's about healing the waters. 

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: It's not a metaphor. Each one of us is 70% water. And so of course, when our water is unwell, our own waters are unwell. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: That’s why Tess is calling in to the ceremony today. To be in community and to connect. This is especially important for her given when and where she’s calling from. In October, Australia voted to not officially recognize Indigenous people in parliament.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: So they're really upset, and this was, when was the vote? 

Tess Eckerd: So two days ago.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: They're really having a hard time. The Indigenous folks are. They've been given a slap in the face.

Tina Casagrand Foss: The nationwide referendum Saundi and Tess are talking about is called the Australian Indigenous Voice. Its failure was disappointing for many Indigenous people, not just in Australia, but the world over.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: We're invisible. And that's one of the things that's important for us is that we're visible that people know that we're not the people of the past. We're just people with a past. We're resilient. We have needs but we also have gifts we’re still giving this land. We want people to take care of this land and tread on it gently. So that's an important thing. We're still here.

Tina Casagrand Foss: After the ceremony ends, people start leaving. Saundi begins packing up, collecting the wooden bowls, drums, and other items used during the ritual. One of our reporters asks if they can record the sound of the drums before the day wraps up…

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: Let me do part of a song.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Saundi suggests a song.

Saundi McClain-Kloeckener: And the important thing in the Native community is we don't just take a song, you're given a song. You ask someone if you can use their song.

So this song is from Pura Fé from a group called Ulali, and Ulali song and their group led the climate justice March in New York and in Paris. And they're starting to realize that we've been at the frontlines of this and that we should remain there now that it's more of a global issue. So this song's called Idle No More.

[music starts]

Wey-o Wey-ah (repetitions)

We come to the land 

With our brothers and sisters we stand and fight

With a drum, a song, a prayer, this change in time.  
This is the true reckoning, 
A human awakening.  
Together brothers and sisters
Idle no more 
Together brothers and sisters
Idle no more 
Together brothers and sisters
Idle no more 

[song fades out]

Tina Casagrand Foss: The next episode of River Town is our last! In it, we’ll consider what it really means to live in small a River Town. Could this life have anything to offer one of our student reporters? We’ll find out. Don’t miss it!

Check out our website at https://www.columbiamissourian.com/rivertown. And see more Missouri River stories from River Town and beyond at newterritorymag.com/rivertown.

River Town was reported by Tadeo Ruiz, Ailing Li, Ellie Lin, Kaylin Hellyer, Olivia Mizelle, Kiana Ferandes and Abby Lee. Abigail Keel is our producer and editor. Jessica Vaughn Martin is our project manager. Music for River Town comes from The Burney Sisters and from Jason Shaw.

Our audience teams and our photo teams are led by Professor Kara Edgerson and Professor Brian Kratzer at the Missouri News Network. Special thanks to the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

River Town is a collaborative project from KBIA, the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri News Network, and The New Territory magazine

Executive producers of River Town are Janet Saidi, and me, Tina Casagrand Foss, in partnership with PRX.

Kiana Fernandes is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Tina Casagrand Foss is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of The New Territory. Raised in the Gasconade River Valley of the northern Ozark border, her love for mossy woods knows no bounds. She graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in magazine journalism and anthropology and worked as a freelance environmental journalist before starting The New Territory. As executive director of The New Territory Magazine’s newly formed nonprofit, she looks forward to a long future of reaching more readers, fostering Midwestern writers and editors, and nurturing connections among New Territory readers both on and off the page. Tina lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, just a mile away from the Missouri River.
Kaylin Hellyer is a senior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism studying cross-platform editing and producing and minoring in history. She has been a reporter and afternoon newscast anchor with KBIA, and is currently an afternoon newscast producer.
Abigail Keel is a senior student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and grew up hating the drone of public radio in her parent's car. In high school, she had a job picking up trash in a park where she listened to podcasts for entertainment and made a permanent switch to public-radio lover. She's volunteered and interned for Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, IL, and worked on the KBIA shows Faith and Values, Intersection and CoMO Explained.
Abby Lee is a student at the University of Missouri studying journalism and women’s and gender studies. She has interned with mxdwn Music and The Missouri Review.
Ellie Lin is a senior Journalism student at the University of Missouri. She’s studying Cross-Platform Editing and Production with an emphasis in Multimedia, UX and UI Design.
Jessica Vaughn Martin is a food journalist and gastronomic enthusiast. Her work centers around the people involved in food and agriculture, and the idea of food as memory, tradition, and cultural roadmap. She is a co-founder of Leftovers Community, an emerging food media platform that celebrates and sees potential in the scraps of life: leftover food, overlooked places and unheard voices. Jessica is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism and a former contributing editor for Feast magazine; she has also contributed to Food Network, Farm Journal, and COMO magazine, among other publications. Most recently, she’s taken a dive into audio, managing the Canned Peaches and River Town podcasts for mid-Missouri’s local NPR affiliate, KBIA. She lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, with her young family in an old bungalow, where she’s running out of space for her growing collection of vintage Missouri cookbooks.
Olivia Mizelle is a student reporter at KBIA
Tadeo Ruiz is a Freshman in the Missouri School of Journalism from Mexico City. He's a reporter and producer for KBIA.
Ava Neels studies journalism and Chinese language at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She was born and raised in South City St. Louis.