Published in the Princeston Union-Eagle
May 06, 1999
By Joel Stottrup
Wahkon man's pushing name change for Rum River
Thomas Dahlheimer would like to change something during the early part of the next
millennium that has been around for more than two centuries, the name of the Rum
Most people probably take the name for granted, and might have heard an explanation
or two about how the name came about.
But Dahlheimer has become the spearhead of a drive to make people question why the
name shouldn't revert back to what he says it rightfully should be, that of Wakan.
Dahlheimer has been talking up his goals to civic groups, government officials and
media members. The tall, soft- spoken 52-year-old who lives in Wahkon near Mille
Lacs Lake, and who says the amount of Native American in his blood is "very
little," carries a case full of papers to back his objective.
On one of his 81/2xll-inch pages are two rectangles, each representing a historical
monument marker with information about the origin of the Rum River's name.
One historical marker is at Peninsula Point Two Rivers Historical Park in Anoka.
It reads: "In November of 1767, Jonathan Carver stopped at the Point. He is
credited with the naming of the Rum River from a faulty translation of the Dakota
words meaning "spirit river," which flowed out of Spirit Lake, now known as Mille
The other historical marker is located along the Rum River between Milaca and
Onamia and reads: "The Rum River history is as interesting as its name and is
thought to be the result of a mis-translation of the Dakota Indian name, spirit,
to Rum by white settlers. The Dakota were the original residents of the Lake
Mille Lacs and Rum River area. They referred to Lake Mille Lacs as the spirit
lake and the river was known as the River, of Good Spirits,"
Dahlheimer also has material from the historical society in Anoka, where he grew
up, and carries excerpts from a book by Elizabeth Ebbot called "Indians in
He uses some of the materials to press a point that be feels is the reason a lot
of Native Americans, he says, want to see "rum" taken out of the Rum River name.
Fur traders got the name Rum River started because of what some have described
as a Translation that is a pun, while another has called it a perverted
translation, said Dahlheimer, as he talked about the subject last Thursday in
Riverside Park, through which the Rum River flows.
What that means, Dahlheimer explained, is that the fur traders took the name
Wakan, meaning great spirit, and used the name of the liquor traded to the
Indians in that region at the time, rum, as a substitute.
"It perverted an ancient Sioux name," Dahlheimer said.
He says fur traders traded rum for furs and it was a fitting joke among the
antagonists that once the Indians received rum, it was the only sprit they
believed in. Dahlheimer called such talk racism and bigotry.
The book "Indians in Minnesota" devotes a chapter to chemical dependency among
The chapter says Indians were not familiar with alcohol until Europeans introduced
it to them, and that their culture did not have built-in controls for its use or
Whites on the frontier often took advantage of Indians by using alcohol as a tool
of economic control, an aid in getting treaties approved and land taken, it says
in the chapter.
The stereotype grew that drinking affected Indians in a specific and unusual manner,
and the federal government gave official recognition to it by prohibiting the sale
of alcohol to Indian people."
The ban lasted 120 years from 1832 to 1953. The books author states that the ban,
caused more problems there it was trying to solve, contributing to abusive ways
of drinking rather than leading to moderation."
The author says Indians strongly resent the assumption that as a matter of racial
heritage all of them have problems with alcohol, although it is widely acknowledged
that alcohol is a major problem for Indians.'
River File #26 from the Anoka County Historical Society, which is written by the
society's co-founder, Vickie Wendel, talks at length about how Lake Mille Lacs was
known as Medewakan, or Great Spirit Lake, and about the naming of the Rum River.
Wendel begins by saying that Mille Lacs Lake came to be known by the Indians as Great
Spirit Lake because of the"mysterious noises" heard over its water on clear, hot days.
It may be the gas pockets from deposits of coal or oil beneath the lake that explode
under the summer heat and pressure of the water, Wendel writes. 'The noises,
unexplainable by the Dakota, were attributed to the Great Spirit giving rise to
Wendel then notes how the St. Paul Daily Pioneer at one point in 1968 had a story
listing "profane names," and on the list was Rum River, according to Wendel.
The spirit most often traded to the Indians was rum and the dark coloring of the
river water led early trappers and explorers to think the spirits were of the distilled
variety," is a comment attributed to Richard Olensius in a publication called
"Minnesota Travel Companion."
"The profane name," Wendel continued, "was already in use by some in 1861, as was
the animosity toward the native people of Minnesota."
Will idea to change river's name fly?
Dahlheimer says he isn't rushing to get the name of the Rum River changed to Wakan,
but is working steadily on it nevertheless. He also called it a starting point for
changing other names that may be thought by many Native Americans to be derogatory
Work to change the name of the river has actually been going on for 25 years, according
to Dahlheimer, but it was about 18 months ago that he got the process opened to the
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has two criteria for changing the name of a natural resource, Dahlheimer notes.
One is if the name is commonly duplicated and the other is if it is "reasonable for
citizens to believe that it is clearly derogatory." Dahlheimer said this situation
fits the last category.
Dahlheimer says he has received support from many government and civic leaders and
has received "very little opposition." Also, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council
is supporting him and Don Wedll, the natural resources supervisor for the Mille
Lacs Band of Chippewa, has signed a petition calling for the name change, Dahlheimer
Although Wedll has signed the petition, the Chippewa are hesitant to rally at this
point for the name change so soon after gaining final victory recently through the
courts in their lawsuit to be free of the state's hunting and fishing rules, said
Dahlheirner. He said the Chippewa dont want to antagonize anyone to where someone
might ask, "What are you going to do now, make us change the name of the river?"
One step that must be for the name change before it goes before state and federal
officials is for the proposal to go before county commissioners as in the counties
of Mille Lacs, Sherburne, Isanti and Anoka, since the Rum River flows through all
of them. The river begins in Mille Lacs Lake and flows for 170 miles before ending
at the Mississippi River in Anoka.
Yet Dahlheimer, when pressed for when he thinks the river name change should
take place, said, It should be done in a year or two.
Dahlheimer, who grew up in Anoka fishing the Rum River and swimming in it, talks
about support from within the Catholic Church and is serious about his mission.
And he said the movement is on for respecting other cultures, something he points
out is often overlooked over the centuries.
As he said in a story in the Anoka Union, through multiculturalism, we appreciate
others more and understand others more. We can change to be better people."