Essay on Madweyaashka: Waves Can Be Heard

Sarah Peters

This essay was commissioned for the debut of Madweyaashka: Waves Can Be Heard by Moira Villiard in February 2021 as part of Illuminate the Lock.  


Resilient: Searching for Connections through Waves
By Suenary Philavanh 


“Resilience: for a Native woman living in an urban, concrete jungle, what does that look like?”

Where St. Anthony Falls flows between concrete, a lone loon swims in the muddy water. Its eyes—bright, red beads and stark contrast to the man-made walls around it—were reminiscent of nature that has become rare in urban cities. The sound of water crashing into itself, echoing through ripples, can be heard from the nearby falls. The moon uses the water to vocalize that this space, where nature can exist between concrete, is sacred.

Moira Villiard’s Madweyaashkaa: Waves Can Be Heard highlights the strength of Indigenous women and explores ways people find and forge the connection within themselves with culture, ancestors, and nature. Her work reflects on the notion of missing Indigenous women beyond the literal and physical meaning of “missing”: going missing through addiction, assimilation and separation from culture, missing through misrepresentation. It acknowledges the hardship Indigenous women face and calls to celebrate their resiliency. This acknowledgement is especially important to have during a global pandemic, when people are missing connections in their lives. Recently, it has become especially important to find alternative ways to connect with other people, nature and oneself. In Madweyaashkaa, Dakota/Ojibway First Nation elder Millie Richard shares her wisdom on how one can reconnect and learn to heal so that they may become more resilient. 


Offering tobacco

The first sacred medicine the creator gave to the first people was tobacco. When burned, the smoke carried the people’s prayers up to the sky and was heard by the spirits. When set down on the earth or near water, people were able to express gratitude to Mother Earth for the life she gave. Today, tobacco is still used in almost every ceremony and ritual, and it serves as a way for the people to connect with the spirits and ancestors. It may also be given to show gratitude to elders for their wisdom, guidance and healing. This medicine is known to the Dakota as “cansasa” and to the Ojibwe as “assema.” 


Nokomis, the grandmother moon

Nokomis watches the earth and lights up the night, guiding us through the dark. She governs the water both inside and outside our bodies, pulling it—the tides ebb and flow. In the night, it’s easier to find her, for she is the moon spirit that the Ojibwe call “grandmother.” The grandmother moon commands the water that gives life. Women, too, have the ability to give life with the water in their wombs. Because of this power, women have inherited the duties of protecting the water and have a deep spiritual connection with the moon.

Elder Millie says to offer tobacco to Nokomis and ask for comfort and guidance. Her presence can serve as a connection with nature, the ancestors, and with oneself. While many are living in an urban setting, far away from nature, or feeling distant from their connections, Nokomis is always there in the night sky.


The importance of water

In the Dakota language, Mni Sota Makoce (where “Minnesota” comes from) is the land where the water reflects the clouds. The falls known today as St. Anthony Falls are in the traditional homelands of the Dakota. It was used for portage routes, a neutral place for other Indigenous nations to pass through. Traditionally, Dakota women would come to the falls and give birth to the next generations. It was and still is a sacred place to the Indigenous people. To the Dakota, this waterfall is known as Owmani-yomni meaning “whirlpool.” To the Ojibwe, it is known as Gakaabika meaning “severed rock.” 

Elder Millie says that St. Anthony Falls can help build a connection with nature and our ancestors. Listening to the tides of the falls can make us present in the moment and with Mother Earth and Nokomis. It can also give us the opportunity to listen to the waves, their spirit, within ourselves and how those tides shape who we are as individuals. When creating Madweyaashkaa, Moira drew inspiration from the tides at the site. She imagined our spirits existing like tides, fluid, constantly moving, ever-changing within us. Humanity mirrors nature, and while we may feel apart from it, we are still deeply connected to nature. 


Jingle Dress tradition

The first jingle dress came to a man in a dream. His daughter had fallen ill, and he worried about her wellbeing. One night, he dreamt of four women in dresses ornamented with metal. When the metals hit one another, the dress created a pleasant sound, like rain falling down to earth. In the Mille Lacs’ oral tradition, the man woke up, recreated the dress and taught the dance to the women in his community before the drum ceremony. On the day of the drum ceremony, the man brought his daughter, weak from illness. The women began to dance the jingle dress song, and as time passed the girl’s condition began to improve. By the end of the night, she joined the women and danced, her health restored.

The tradition of jingle dresses emerged circa 1920 during the global influenza pandemic and is believed to have the power to heal. This was also during the United States’ efforts to assimilate the Indigenous population in the country. Older dresses were created from tops of tin cans that were rolled into cones and sewn onto the fabric. Today, there are many different styles for the jingle dress in terms of colors, types and amounts of metals used, and accessories used with the jingle dress.

The Ojibwe believe that power moves through air, and the air carries the healing sounds of the jingle dress. The jingle dress dancers  typically dance at ceremonies and powwows, but in recent years it has gone beyond those spaces. It has become present in popular protest movements. Jingle dresses first appeared around the time the United States government outlawed ritual dancing in Native American reservations. Today, its tradition as a radical dance and medicine for community healing continues. It has empowered Indigneous people, especially women, and has come to symbolize resilience in their communities. In recent years, jingle dresses have appeared in popular protests to speak out against the pipeline project in Standing Rock, to call attention to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and to stand in solidarity against police brutality. 


Brief history of St. Anthony Falls

St. Anthony Falls had undergone major changes since the Industrial age. Industries began to appear along the banks to draw power from the falls. The construction of the Eastman Tunnels in 1869 promised to generate more electricity, though severely underestimated the power of the falls. It led to the falls’ collapse, devastating its islands and surrounding land, redirecting the course of the river, taking life with it.

In the falls existed six islands but have since been destroyed by industrialization. Spirit Island was one of those islands, once a nesting site for bald eagles, a sacred site to the Dakota. It became a site of attraction to the local Euro-American as the island was abundant in limestone. It was subjected to quarrying and milling. The total removal of Spirit Island occurred in 1960 to accommodate plans for the lock by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Of the six islands, only Nicollet Island remains today. 


“We are the backbones of our nations. We are the heart of our people, our children, our elders.”

During Moira’s first scouting of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam as a site for her projected animation, she saw a loon swimming in the water. She was curious about the sighting, a small minute detail of her experience at the site that felt personal and sacred. She wanted to pay homage to the loon. In the creation story, Maang, the loon, was responsible for creating the sky. He put the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars in the sky. Once he finished putting the stars up, the spirits asked Maang to watch the stars and become the leader of the earth and sky. He was able to do so by watching the stars’ reflection in the water at night. Although the creation story did not initially influence Moira’s decision, the loon’s appearance at the site reflects the deeply embedded importance the loon holds in Ojibwe tradition and society to this day.

Madweyaashkaa:Waves Can Be Heard was inspired by Indigenous women’s resilience through going missing and surviving a pandemic. The appearance of the jingle dress in Madweyaashkaa is a visual acknowledgement to the strength of Indigenous women and encourages strength during today’s pandemic. Even in hard times something new and healing can be created and found. While we are in need of finding alternative ways to reconnect with our world around us, we may not actually need to do something different or complex. Instead, the solutions may lie in tradition and in ourselves. 



Illuminate the Lock is a partnership with All My Relations Arts, a program of Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), and Northern Lights.mnMississippi Park Connection, and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and is supported through a grant from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.