Article: Published in the Anoka County Union

Rewriting history

Wahkon man wants to change Rum River's 'derogatory' name

by Tad Johnson
Union editor

For the past two and a half years, Thomas Dahlheimer has built a foundation of support for changing the name of the Rum River to its original Native American designation in a very quiet manner.

During that time he has gained support of his effort from some Native American, church and civic leaders in the four counties through which the Rum River flows.

Like his mellow demeanor, Dahlheimer isn't attempting to antagonize anyone who might oppose his movement, but rather he seems more interested in teaching. But having the name changed is the ultimate goal.

"There is no time line, there is no hurry," Dahlheimer said of changing the Rum River name, which has been around for more than 200 years. I will let it work up slowly through the process."

The process to change the Rum River name, which Dahlheimer calls derogatory toward Native Americans, will likely take years to accomplish. For that reason, Dahlheimer is only working part time jobs and devoting the rest of his energies to changing the name.

What's in a name?

A marker at Peninsula Point Two Rivers Historical Park in Anoka reads that in November 1767 Jonathan Carver named the Rum River from a faulty translation of the Dakota name for the River, Wakan, which means "Great Spirit."

Carver used "spirit" to name the river after, rum, which was the most common liquor brought to the Northwest, according to a 1920 geographical names book by Warren Upham. Dahlheimer has referred to the use of rum by the "white men as a chemical weapon of warfare to try to destroy the Sioux's belief and faith in their Great Spirit (Wakan)."

In a letter he sent to the Anoka County Board, Dahlheimer said that when white men gave Rum and other distilled spirits to the Native Americans, there were often exploiting their weakness and temptation to drink to excess. History recounts that the Native Americans' excessive use of distilled spirits weakened their belief in the Great Spirit and made them vulnerable to the "white man's schemes to steal their land," he said.

Dahlheimer said some people are aware of the story behind the name, while others are learning about it for the first time.

There are a lot of things about the culture that we overlook at first: Dahlheimer said. "Through multi-culturalism, we appreciate others more and understand others more. We can change to be better people.

"To respect other people's culture and to respect others is something that is happening."

He equated his effort to rename the river to other name changes, such as schools dropping mascot names such as Redmen and Indians.

Glen Yakel, hydrographics supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waters, said he is currently processing requests for four name changes in the state.

The one most similar to Dahlheimers is a change from JAP Lake to Paulson Lake in Cook County. JAP Lake was not named to be derogatory toward those of Japanese descent, but rather it is an acronym for longtime local residents James and Ann Paulson (JAP).

Dah1heimer's movement differs in the fact that the river flows through four counties. According to statutes pertaining to renaming geographic features, a public hearing must take place and approval must be gained at a joint meeting of county commissioners in each county. The proposal must then gain state and federal approval.

"He is plowing new ground," Yakel said. "He knows it is a job that he has in front of him."

"Names can have an interesting impact on generations of people, so we have to be careful what we name (features)."

Meeting the criteria:

To have a chance of gaining the commissioners' approval, the name, because it has existed for more than 40 years, can only be changed for one of two reasons. The first is if it is a commonly duplicated name and the other is if it is clearly derogatory.

Dahlheimer has talked to countless people about his effort to have, the Ruin River renamed. He hasn't received much opposition to the effort, he said. He has been in contact with both the city of Anoka Park Board and the Anoka County Parks Committee, but no action has resulted to this point.

"The (Anoka County) Parks Committee, they were over whelmed with it:" Dahlheimer said?.' "They said they needed to get some response on the issue (from residents):."

His effort right now is concentrated on gaining support for the name change. Among the groups that have supported him are church and Native American leaders.

Initial interest
Dahlheimer became interested in making a concerted effort toward his movement in 1993: while he was living in Wahkon. He attended a Native American Catholic Church conference and heard one of the event's speakers' talk about a universal concept based on the Native American view of Wakan, the Great Spirit.

This world view in Wakan intrigued Dahlheimer. Now he is working to share this world view with others. As he aims to change the name of the river, he hopes to educate people about the derogatory name. By emphasizing the world view concept, be hopes others will catch on with the Wakan name, too.

"It is not just a local Indian name, there is a universal concept behind it," Dahlheimer said.

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