The Atlantic: Sioux tribes find harmony with Devils Lake

"The original inhabitants of the region surrounding North Dakota's Devils Lake are the Dakota, once formally called the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux. Their name for this place and its people is Mni Wakan—source of the more familiar Anglicization "Minnewaukan." Somewhere along the line it was translated to Devil's Lake, but in fact the name means Spirit Lake, a distinction that underscores the difference in attitude toward the water on these shores.

Today roughly 6,200 people, most of them official tribal members, live on a reservation that borders the lake's south shore. Former tribal chairman Skip Longie explained that the tribe's relationship to the lake has always been one of respect and, as I understand it, deference. Their canon involves tales of gods clashing over the waters and a spirit being that inhabits the lake. Children might play around the water's edge, but swimming and boating are mostly unheard of.

Regarding the water's more mundane act of rising these past two decades, people here are blasé. The lake comes up, the lake goes down—that's what it does.

"It's nothing that we're going to get too overly excited about," Skip told me, shrugging his shoulders. "It's something that's going to take place one way or the other. Granted, it will make us uncomfortable for a little bit, maybe for my lifetime. But it'll get better—it's just water. For Indian people—or at least the majority of Indian people who believe in cultural ways—this is just material things that can all be replaced. It's nothing earth-shattering." "

Get the Story:
Spirit Lake Rising: Living With a Neverending Flood (The Atlantic 5/31)

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