Published in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Minnesotan hoping to rename Rum River

Traditional Indian name would be better, he says

staff writer

Thomas Dahlheimer is trying to accomplish something intangible: boosting self esteem in the American Indian community by changing the name of Minnesota's Rum River.

More than two decades ago, the Mille Lacs County resident read the book "Minnesota Geographic Names," convincing him the river should be restored to it's original name "Wahkon," or "Great Spirit" in the Dakota language.

For years, Dahlheimer never really pursued the matter, but in the past two years he began lobbying to change the name of the river that flows 175 miles through Anoka, Sherburne, Isanti and Mille Lacs counties.

European settlers renamed the Wahkon, the Rum River more than 200 years ago. The change reflected the popularity of liquor brought into the Northwest at the time, according to "Minnesota Geographic Names" by Warren Upham. The river's new name also created a pun on the interpretation of "spirit" because liquor often was referred to as spirits.

But the modern-day name is insulting and derogatory, said Dahlheimer, 52, a part time handyman who lives in the town of Wahkon in Mille Lacs County.

The use of "rum" in the river's name, Dahlheimer said, implies that the Ojibwe, the regional tribe, prize alcohol above spirituality.

Dahlheimer is on a mission to change the name of the Rum River back to Wahkon to honor the importance of spirituality for American Indians. He said the restoration of the river's original name also would help uplift the Indian community, which has been historically plagued by alcoholism.

"The word (Wahkon) is sacred,"Dahlheimer said. "To me (Rum) is a profane name. It desecrates the spirituality." He said the river's name has become "like a joke-an antagonistic joke that's very antagonistic and racist."

Joe Day, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, has given Dahlheimer his "blessing," but the council is not formally supporting the change.

"If he wants to do it fine, but . . . don't call on us to testify before the Legislature," he said. (See footnote for our response.)

Day said the Indian community's problems with unemployment and welfare make Dahlheimer's efforts to change the name of the Rum River a low priority.

Some residents in the counties where the Rum River flows say Dahlheimer's plan is ludicrous.

"To change the name of the river is the dumbest thing anyone dreamed up. That's stupid, " said 73yearold Wally Benson, a retired maintenance worker from Wahkon.

"It's the Rum River, leave it that way," Benson said ' "People could spend their time and money on something more constructive than that, They talk about offending people but they're not offending anybody. That's crazy. There's been alcohol in this country since day one."

Suzanne Bebert, a home health attendant in Anoka, agreed. "I don't think it's offensive. I don't really support him at all."

Dahlheimer, though, is continuing his quest.

"It was like part of a puzzle coining together," he said. "Certain things are supposed to happen by way of divine intervention.

Certain things are set up and that was part of a plan that was unfolding."

Dah1heimer must gather signatures from 15 registered voters in each of the four counties the river flows through and present the petitions to an auditor in the county of his choice. He said he has obtained signatures in Mille Lacs and Anoka counties, County officials and residents then will discuss and vote on the proposal in a four county meeting.

Any name change ultimately must be approved by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In 1995, the Legislature changed 19 place names containing the word "squaw" in response to complaints from activists involved with the American Indian Movement. The organization's leaders contended "squaw" was the white settlers' slang for "vagina. "

If Dahlheimer succeeds in changing the name of the river, he said, he, believes the revision would serve as an informal apology from whites for past abuses against American Indians.

Dahlheimer envisions the day when the Rum River once again will be known as the Wahkon and the Ojibwe will be a stronger nation. "I just keep right on working on it and proceeding with it and I can see it coming together," he said.

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