Today marks the solstice, a Latin word for standstill, when the sun seems to stop on the horizon before turning back toward winter. It’s the longest day of the year and the celestial start of summer.
That means countless Minnesotans are heading Up North. And for those flocking to the popular Brainerd and Lake Mille Lacs area and beyond, there will be multiple crossings of bridges spanning the meandering Rum River.
So what better time to consider renaming a river whose name many find offensive and historians consider either a translation gaffe or a hurtful pun?
Rolling through the towns of Onamia, Milaca, Princeton and Cambridge, the Rum River rambles south about 150 miles from its Mille Lacs source — tumbling from 1,250 feet above sea level and dropping 145 feet before it reaches its confluence with the Mississippi River in Anoka.
The river has carried many names along the way. Dakota Indians, whose ancestors lived in a vibrant village for thousands of years at the river’s starting point, called it Wakpa Wahkon or Watpa Wakan. Wakan translates roughly into great spirit, sacred, spiritual or mysterious. They called the lake Mde Wakan, or Spirit Lake, and the river that flowed from it the Spirit River.
When the Ojibwe — and their French, gun-toting allies from the east — showed up and pushed the Dakota south, they called the river Missisawgaiegon or, later, Ishkodewaaboo-ziibi. For decades, the Dakota and Ojibwe pitched major battles along the river — with climactic clashes in 1750 and 1839. An 1825 treaty signed in Prairie du Chien, Wis., used the river as a boundary aimed at separating the rival tribes.
More than 200 years before that, in 1620, French explorer Louis Hennepin of the Franciscan Recollets order tried to christen the river after St. Francis, a name that stuck — but only on a smaller, parallel river about a dozen miles east of the Rum.
Early maps from white explorers’ forays into the region show other names, including Riviere de Mendeouacanton (River of the Mdewakanton Dakotas) in 1702 and the Flume de Lago (River of the Lake) in 1778.
Somewhere along the line, white traders selling alcohol to the native people botched the translation of the Wakan, or spirit — twisting the meaning of the great sacred spirit to reflect the word spirit’s other definition meaning booze or liquor.
“It’s offensive because rum was used to steal native lands and culture and wreck a people’s spirituality,” said Tom Dahlheimer, 68, who lives near the village of Wahkon on the southeast shore of Lake Mille Lacs.
For nearly 25 years, Dahlheimer — a white guy — has been leading a movement trying to change the Rum River’s name. He would like to return to its original name and called it the Wahkon or Wakan River, or at least the Spirit River.
“This sacred river currently has the faulty English-translation name,” Dahlheimer says on his website, www.towahkon.org. “It is a profane name.”
He points to businesses and locations adopting Wahkon or Spirit in their names, such as a new Spirit River Trail between Cambridge and Isanti.
Kriste Ericsson, leader of a loosely organized, largely environmental organization called Friends of the Rum River, says the group’s members “are all over the board.” Some want to keep the name because they grew up with the Rum River’s alliteration.
“I don’t speak for our 250 members, but Wahkon River would be more sacred and wouldn’t be bad,” she said. “It rolls off the tongue.”
Ericsson said the river is clean but often tea colored, so that might have been a factor in calling it the Rum. But when she spoke with an Ojibwe elder at the trading post museum on the southwest corner of Mille Lacs, she realized “the cultural considerations are important.
“He said fire water, whiskey and rum were our downfall,” she said.
In his 730-page book published in 1920, “Minnesota Geographic Names: Their Origins and Historical Significance,” renowned geologist, librarian and archaeologist Warren Upham weighed in on the debate.
Spirit River “was changed by the white man to the most common spirituous liquor brought into the Northwest, rum, which brought misery and ruin to many of the Indians,” Upham said, calling it a “badly named river” and a “punning translation … a white man’s perversion of the ancient name.”
Jim Anderson, a leader of the Mendota Mdewakanton band, says he’s thrilled by those ready to make the change and rename the Rum River either the Wakpa Wakan or Spirit River.
“Using names like ‘rum’ to label sacred sites and places is degrading to our children, our elders and our ancestors,” Anderson said. “These places were already named in our language by our people because of their special meanings. When we have to explain why these places have been named after a poison, it is demoralizing to us.”
Getting the river’s name changed is possible, but a long shot, according to Peter Boulay, the assistant state climatologist who oversees such geographic place name changes for the state.
He said supporters would need petition signatures from Isanti, Sherburne, Mille Lacs and Anoka counties before a joint, multicounty public hearing.
“And they would want to know what the cities along the river think of a new name, if they can agree upon one,” Boulay said.
He said there are more derogatory names, such as Savage Lake near Little Canada in Ramsey County, that might be easier to switch. If the local governments passed the necessary resolutions, the name change would go to a federal panel that approves geographic name changes.
Boulay notes that Minnesota has banned the term squaw from lake, river and other geographic place names. “So I wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” he said.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org