An Introduction to Spillway Stories

by Marcia Ratliff, photograph by Mai’a Williams

Spillway is a place we go to bear witness.

Folks in Winona know it as a low concrete wall, a stairstep on the horizon, visible from the boat launch at Prairie Island campground. The water moves over the dam, and in the spring flood the wall appears as barely a ripple on the surface, dangerous currents swirling underneath. In the summer, the spillway is part balance beam, part fishing dock, magnet for those of us who seek proximity to a boundary.

This project combines artists and community leaders who, in ways both formal and informal, are making change in Winona—change that is rooted in their lived experience, their culture, their way of being and moving in this river town. The project explores memory, what is shared across differences, what is on the cusp of transformation.

There are aspects of our shared geography that are inescapable. In the summertime, we watch the weather roll into the river valley, swirl around, and lift away. We know the shape and density of the fog that hunkers over the lake and river in the shoulder seasons, carrying with it a riverine musk. We seek the river’s edges, many of us with a special place we go that feels secret, even sacred, known only to ourselves.

There’s no part of our region that isn’t shaped by the big river. And there’s no part of our region that hasn’t been shaped by the humans who live here. The spillway itself is evidence of the way we have altered our environment. It’s a buckle in the fabric of the river, a fault line that reveals the decades of sculpting that transformed the river into a 9-foot channel. Yet it remains a place we cherish.

The same goes for the sandbar that Winona sits on, once called Keoxa and Wapasha’s Prairie, an expanse of tall grass two miles across and eight miles long, criss crossed with horse trails worn 6 inches into the dirt. The Dakota living here managed this place as an abundant game reserve teeming with birds, deer, and antelope, the families living on the prairie in the summer and moving to the tree cover of the river islands in the winter. When European settlers took this land through predatory treaties and violence, they planted trees, dismantled mounds, desecrated graves, and imposed a street grid on what was once grass that rippled in the wind like the surface of water.

This project weaves a diverse range of artworks, photographs, written features, and oral histories in a community where past and future are, as one community member put it, as close together as East End houses. There’s a richness in the individual personalities and practices of each maker and changemaker featured here, reflecting deep differences in the way we experience this place depending on our identity.

At the same time, a current of interdependence and community flows through these stories. Consider Kiesha Morgan’s relationship building through food, Gloria Alatorre’s coaching that is rooted in the plants and water of the region, the way Maurella Cunningham nurtures social change in community groups, the embodied storytelling of Fr. Paul Breza. Woven in are references to our cultural memory and shared geography, our collective understanding of where we came from and where we are. We hear calls to create a place that feels like home for more of us, newcomers and lifelong residents, from Alexis Hayes and calls to deeper compassion from Paul Kisho Stern.

These Spillway stories are curated by Marcia Ratliff and Mai’a Williams of Engage Winona, in collaboration with Matthew Fluharty of Art of the Rural. These six stories are a beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing project, and also a continuation of the gathering and storytelling work that is central to Engage Winona’s community practice. There’s an element of storytelling in everything we do, from bingo games to community conversations—an invitation to deepen our understanding of each other, to expand our narrative of what Winona can be. This project comes as our community grapples with the indeterminate aftermath of Covid-19, racial justice reckoning, and increasing political division. Our task now is to pay attention, to observe how the present informs our intersecting future.
Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.