Jim Walsh, columnist, 2008-2020

Walsh, Jim
Jim Walsh

Ouch. I’ve been going through the Southwest Journal archives, ruminating on the notion of a “paper
of record” while revisiting random stories about friends, strangers and neighbors, and lingering over various photographs of all sorts of businesses and breaking local news. And all the while sitting on my desk, close enough to pick up and page through, is the latest issue, highlighted by a righteous pandemic winter survival guide on the cover and, inside, a rave Carla Waldemar review of Brasa, the new diner at 46th & Bryant (RIP Jack’s-Java-Jack’s-Studio-2; can’t wait to try the creamed spinach).

I’m grateful for the years I had as a columnist at one of the finest and most durable neighborhood newspapers in the world, and as I’ve written many times, it has been an honor to have landed on your doorstep as part of the Journal all these years. But today in farewell I want to unpack exactly why the Journal was important to me as a longtime reader of the paper.

For me, everything that was great and powerful about the Journal can be found in how it felt to read Michelle Bruch’s 2017 cover story on Cloud Man. I remember the day like it was yesterday: I picked the Journal up off the sidewalk, took it inside and out of its plastic wrap, and was amazed by the above-the-fold front page headline, “Here stood CLOUD MAN VILLAGE,” the subhead, “The Park Board plans to commemorate the Dakota village near Lake Calhoun with public art” and a photo of the new Cloud Man plaque.

Right then and there I sat down and read it word-for-word, wire-to-wire, shared it and put it in my large “keeper clips” file, right next to another memorable SWJ front page feature, my 2012 profile of legendary Annunciation Grade School music teacher Mary Strickland. As a reader, I was impressed by the editorial decisions that led to the above-the-fold headline and story treatment. This was beyond the “shopper rag” free newspapers too frequently get hung with; this was an important story and short-form journalism and storytelling at its finest.

It began:

There is a story behind Cloud Man’s decision to plant a permanent village in 1829 next to Bde Maka Ska, or Lake Calhoun.

As buffalo became scarce, Cloud Man — Chief Mahpiya Wicasta — traveled on farther flung hunting trips to find food. He became caught in a blizzard near the Missouri River, and he buried himself under the snow for three days to keep warm. While he waited out the storm, he made a pact with God, said Kate Beane, a descendant of Cloud Man.

“He would not be afraid to try something new, because what was going on wasn’t working,” she said.

The decision to try large-scale agriculture became the basis for Cloud Man Village, located east of the lake with boundaries that stretched slightly north of present day 34th Street, east past Fremont and south into Lakewood Cemetery.

Beane and other descendants of Cloud Man are working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on a public art project to honor the Dakota.

From there I learned the rest of Cloud Man’s story, which ended at the concentration camp that was Fort Snelling after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. I’ve never been prouder to be part of this newspaper than
I was that day, but more importantly, I’ve never felt luckier to be a reader of this newspaper than I was that day, and I couldn’t wait to check out the village.

I looked at the reporter’s byline (“by Michelle Bruch”) and from there, though I’d read her work before, I became a fan of Bruch’s writing, reporting and curiosity. That was true of other Journal writers who came and went over the years, but that story spoke to me, and so, yet again, I found the Journal to be a smart and trusted news source — no small feat these days. The lasting impact was that it was obvious that real freedom and trust had been given to Journal journalists to cover beats and tackle stories that were important to them and therefore the community. Every time I’ve biked past Cloud Man Village since, I’ve thought about Bruch’s story.

Point being, reading the history of Cloud Man and Bde Maka Ska in my neighborhood newspaper was fortifying in a way that nothing else is. That story changed me. It dovetailed with projects and personal interests I’d been following, and it helped set me down a better-late-than-never white man path of learning the history of this state’s and country’s troubled roots once and for all.

George Catlin. Dakota village, circa 1835.
George Catlin. Dakota village, circa 1835.

It introduced me to the book “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota,” which landed me in the aisles of Birchbark Books & Native Arts, to which I often return for all sorts of books, music, culture and history.

In that way, the Journal served its purpose to me, the reader, on a very basic level. It was both mouthpiece and meeting place where we exchanged ideas, stories, poems, recipes, news and obituaries, and as a result, we were all led to participate in the community, be it keeping up on the chaos of the times; learning about a live music gig, restaurant or pub; buying local products, goods and services; discovering some cool volunteer gig; or learning about hard times, hard news and the kindness of strangers.

It’s no stretch to say the Journal has been the sinew of this neighborhood, a light in the darkness and a solid read in good and bad times, and Janis Hall and Terry Gahan and everybody involved deserve much respect and kudos for fighting the good fight and keeping it afloat and relevant for so long.

In her Dec. 4 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, “How the death of local news has made political divisions far worse,” Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project wrote, “Across the country, more than 1,000 websites with the look of local journalism are publishing articles, ordered up by political operatives to cast a favorable or unfavorable light on candidates and issues. These websites, like weeds thriving in vacant lots, have grown to fill the void left by the collapse of local newspapers. Readers, eager for information, often can’t tell the difference because these sites are good at masking their purpose.

“In the last 15 years, according to a report by Penelope Abernathy, a scholar at the University of North Carolina who tracks ‘news deserts,’ more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have closed and 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were left without any at the beginning of 2020. Without local newsrooms, the basic work of reporting — gathering accurate information and demanding transparency and accountability from local governments and powerful business interests — vanishes.”

Tougher to measure is the impact of a story like the one about Cloud Man, read by one reader on one sunny March day years ago and, like the Journal itself, gone now but never forgotten.