The following story was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger, a Minnesota county newspaper. I [Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer], the Founder and Director of Rum River Name Change Organization, wrote the story. I am an indigenous peoples' rights activist.
When Europeans first traveled up the badly named “Rum River” and arrived at the lake that is now named Mille Lacs, they found the Isanti Oyate of the four tribes of the Eastern Dakota located in 24 villages around the lake. These four tribes, the Mdewakantunwan, Wahpekute, Sissitunwan, and the Wahpetunwan, were recently honored during an Isanti County historical event that took place on Nov. 20 in Cambridge.
The event was the unveiling of the Cambridge-Isanti Spirit River Trail interpretive sign. The trail connects Cambridge and Isanti. It is an eight mile bike/walk trail. It was named the Spirit River Trail and not the Rum River Trail because of the growing movement to change the name of the river, for the purpose of showing due respect for the native Dakota people who named this sacred river of theirs Wakpa Wakan (Spirit River). Rum is a spirit, a spirituous liquor, but the word “Rum” is not the correct translation name for the river. Rum is not the type of spirit being referred to in the sacred Dakota name Wakpa Wakan, sometimes spelled Watpa Wahkon.
The Dakotas’ Wakan is the Supreme Divine Spirit, or mystical force, that permeates the world. Among the Dakota the term “Wakan” is used to denote all that is mysterious or divine. The gods are the embodiment or medium of Wakan. And it has many names: Wakan, Tunkashila, Taku SkanSkan, Wakan Tanka, Great Spirit and Grandfather.
The word “wakan” in the name Wakpa Wakan can be translated to mean holy, sacred, spirit, mysterious, divine and also Spirit or Great Spirit. Thus, various correct translations, such as Holy River, Sacred River, Mysterious River, Divine River, Spirit River and Great Spirit River have been given to this river.
A historical statement on the Spirit River Trail interpretive sign reads: “The Cambridge-Isanti Bike/Walk Trail is part of a large ancient trail connecting the Issati villages on Mille Lacs with the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes, St. Anthony Falls, St. Paul and the Minnesota River. The Manomin Trail was a logger’s segment connecting Anoka and Brunswick. Using canoes, the native Issati used the Great Spirit River as their main connection between Mille Lacs and the area around St. Anthony Falls.”
The concept to connect Cambridge and Isanti with a bike trail began in the 1980s. Recently, the concept evolved into a project. Isanti Council Member Sue Larson asked Mayor Palmer of Cambridge to start a new bike trail committee and recruited Bill Carlson as a member. The committee solicited interest from the Isanti County Commission, which has supported the project since it was revived in 2001. Bill Carlson contacted the commission when he was recruited. He informed them of the benefits and aimed to encourage them in the process.
Bill Carlson is the project director for Isanti County Active Living and he has been on the forefront of the Isanti County mission to show due respect for the Dakota people, their ancient culture, and sacred sites.
The Rum River Name Change Movement was started about 25 years ago, and thanks to it and Chief Leonard Wabasha’s Spirit River statement on a Mille Lacs Kathio State Park interpretive sign … nowadays, all up and down the river — parks, trails, businesses, and even a city street have been named Spirit River, such as Spirit River Drive, which was originally named West Rum River Drive.
In the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Communitys letter supporting the effort to change the river’s name, Jim Anderson, the community’s chairman, wrote, “I believe that renaming the river Wakpa Wakan or Spirit River is a great stride in mending the circle that we share with all four colors of man. We, as Dakotas, are very happy that there are people out there who are trying to understand that by using names like rum and devil to label sacred sites and places is degrading to our children, our elders and also to our ancestors. These places were already named in our language by our people because of their special meaning. When we have to tell our children why these places have been named after a poison or the worst words in their language, it is demoralizing to us to have to explain why a place is named after the same things that helped to steal our land and language.”
Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer is Director of Rum River Name Change Organization, Inc.
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