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 River.

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 Lacs Lake."

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 Minnesota."

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 Native Americans.

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 abuse.

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 the name."

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 to them.

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 noted.

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."

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