Environmental Activism On The Rum (Wahkon) River
By Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer
Wahkon River in Cambridge, Minnesota
I am an indigenous peoples' rights advocate who initiated and am spearheading the local, national
and international movement to change the faulty-translation and profane name of Minnesota's "Rum River"
back to its sacred Lakota/Dakota Indigenous name Wahkon, which when translated into English means
Spirit or Great Spirit.
In April 2003, I established a non-prophet organization to help me change
this river's derogatory name. My organization's name is Rum River Name Change Organization. I,
along with the other members of this organization, established an
environmental committee that is in the process of establishing an environmental movement
with a mission to help clean up this beautiful but badly named river.
Nowdays, Wahkon is often spelled Wakan. Russell Means, an internationally renowned
American Indigenous activist, sent me the
following Nov. 04, 2003 letter of support. "To Whom it may Concern: I hereby support
the movement to change the derogatory name of a Minnesota River, the White Man named
Rum River. In my language, "Wakan" is Holy. I support the effort to return this Minnesota
River to its rightful name Holy Water. Perhaps it will quit being polluted as well.
The Lakota/Dakota word wakan often means holy or sacred, however, the traditional
Dakota name for their Great Spirit is Wakan or Wahkon - the Great Wahkon. I believe that this
is the correct translation for the Dakota's name for the "Rum River."
ref. see page 314
David Gonzales, an American Indigenous environmental activist wrote an article that was
published in Minnesota's best selling state-wide daily newspaper, the Star Tribune.
It advocated the formation of a group of Indigenous environmental activists who would
canoe from Mille Lacs Lake down the badly named "Rum River" to its confluence with
the Mississippi River. And do so, "in an effort to change the dominant culture's collective
attitude toward the rivers in particular and water in general." The plan was to stop
along the way and set up colorful tepees and camps at key environmental locations along the river as "environmental schools" to promote Indigenous/Native environmental awareness.
In his article, David Gonzales wrote: "The environmental crisis necessitates that we
speak for the rivers and water as a place to care for, make safe, and enjoy."
The environmental crisis also necessitates that the Rum River Name Change Organization's
proposed Wahkon River Watershed environmental movement becomes manifest and that
it too speaks for the Watpa Wahkon and to all the water within this watershed,
as well as for other bodies of water, as places to care for, make safe, and enjoy.
If this proposed environmental movement becomes manifest, its activists, in an attempt
to change the collective attitude, will canoe from Mille Lacs Lake down the Watpa Wahkon
to the sacred two-rivers area where the Watpa Wahkon meets with the Mississippi
River in Anoka, Minnesota.
During this canoe journey, these environmental activists will come in contact with
riverside communities, and this will symbolize our theme that the Watpa Wahkon,
and all other rivers, are sacred arteries for life.
We will set up colorful tepees and camps at key environmental locations located along
the Watpa Wahkon as environmental schools to promote public awareness.
We will make use of the Lakota/Dakota and Ojibwe language to change attitudes. During our
canoe journey we will be promoting respect for the sacred traditional Lakota/Dakota people's
traditional name for their Great Spirit Wahkon as well as for their sacred name for the "Rum
According to a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota Geographic
Names: Their Origins and Historic Significances (by Warren Upham), white people, in the late 1700s,
took the sacred Lakota/Dakota name for their river Watpa Wahkon, and then, by way of a
"punning translation", intentionally mis-translated their sacred
name for the river to incorrectly mean an alcohol spirit, the
alcohol spirit rum. They then, unfortunately, named the river "Rum". By doing so,
the sacred Dakota name for the river was desecrated. And because the Lakota/Dakota name
Wakan is the traditional Lakota/Dakota name for their Great Spirit, the
"Rum River" name, therefore, indirectly desecrates the traditional Lakota/Dakota name
for their Great Spirit. And what makes the white men's naming the river "Rum" even worse is the
fact that...at the time when the river was named "Rum", Rum (according to Upham)
"was bringing misery and ruin to many of the Indians."
Jim Anderson, the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community's chairman, wrote: "We, as Dakotas, are
very happy that there are people out there that are trying to understand that
by using names like "rum" and "devil" to label sacred sites and places is degrading to
our children, our elders and also to our ancestors. These places were already named
in our language by our people because of their special meaning. When we have to tell
our children why these places have been named after a poison or the worst words in
their language. It is demoralizing to us to have to explain why a place is named after
the same things that helped to steal our land and language. To have to be reminded
of the cultural genocide that has been perpetrated on all Indian people. So,
in changing the name back to the Dakota language, it will help in the healing process
that our people continue to deal with."
The Rum River Name Change Organization's environmental activists who will be
canoeing down the Watpa Wahkon will be promoting the effort to
revert the name of the "Rum River" back to its sacred Lakota/Dakota name
Wahkon. And we will, by means of promoting respect for the sacred
Lakota/Dakota name for the "Rum River", attempt to change
the collective attitude, so that our nation's cultural mainstream people become
eco-conscientious protectors of the Great Spirit's rivers and other bodies of
water. And as environmental activists on the Wahkon our search for a
way to change attitudes toward rivers and water - and of course the earth -
American Indigenous language will become more and more important to us, hence we will become more
diligent in our mission to revert the badly named "Rum River" back to its
sacred Lakota/Dakota name Wahkon.
Wahkon is often spelled wakan. Near Summertown, Tennessee there is a large and very
successful youth of the 1960s hippie countercultural community with a world-view
around the word wakan. This hippie countercultural community's founder
and leader is Stephen Gaskin. Gaskin was a Green Party candidate for President in
the year 2000. And in the 1960s, another leader of the hippie countercultural revolution,
who occasionally met and spoke with Stephen Gaskin, visited me in Wahkon, Minnesota,
the headquarter of the Rum River Name Change Organization. His name is Richard H. Carter.
For a while he was a bi-nationally renowned environmentalist and one of the Governor
of Arizona's top environmental advisers.
At the 1983 Tekakwitha Conference, a conference that represented over one hundred
tribes, I was interviewed by the conference's keynote speaker (Reverend Matthew Fox).
Matthew Fox is an world renowned environmentalist. And during that interview,
I spoke to Fox about my world-view around the word wahkon mission. During the interview,
Matthew Fox told me that he would like for me to keep in touch with him, so as to keep
him informed about the progress of my mission. After sending a letter to Matthew Fox,
wherein I informed him about my movement to change the
profane name of the "Rum River", he sent me a letter of support for my effort
to change the river's name.
The National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans has also given its
support for the effort to change this river's derogatory name.
And Tom Wisner, a nationally renowned singer, song writer and environmentalist
made the movement to restore the sacred Lakota/Dakota name for the badly named "Rum
River" the centerpiece of his 2005 Winter Solstice radio broadcast, a two
hour show that was presented live on the internet. Mr. Wisner is known nationally
for his song "Chesapeake Born," which became the title song for
the 1986 National Geographic Special on the Bay region. Wisner's classroom
techniques were filmed by Washington-area NBC-TV and other stations, and
he received national, state, and local awards for excellence in teaching.
He was given citations by two governors and was named a major figure in
land-conservation work by President Reagan's Commission on the Out-of-Doors.
In an email message to me Tom Wisner wrote: "Thanks for including the affirmation for my support
of the Wahkon River cause in your recent writings about the Rum River name change! I will
continue to think through and to refine commentary as time goes on! More will be
included in this coming cycle of programs and broadcasts about the Year of the
River! I think the idea of a Native American canoe journey down any river
could be beneficial to the political interest to legislate for clean water.
I'm not as sure about the placement of 'Colorful Teepees' as I am sure
about the presence of powerful men like Banks or Means or the native voice
like that of Winona La Duke who recently was quoted saying, 'we don't
need sustainable development we need sustainable community". The
image of the whole watershed is an important ecological piece in
the story. Thanks for the work you are doing! I believe the work of bringing
integrity to the naming of place, issue and cause is a legitimate part of the work to
clarify our place in building a better world."
I am hoping that the proposed Wahkon River Watershed Environmental Movement will
soon become manifest and that its participants will then fulfill our environmental
committee's initial mission, by canoeing from Mille Lacs Lake down the Watpa Wahkon
to its confluence with the Mississippi River; and in the process
stopping along the way and setting up colorful tepees and camps at key environmental
locations as "environmental schools" to promote native people's environmental
And I am also hoping that there will soon be a formation of a group of America Indigenous
environmental activists, who will then canoe from Mille Lacs Lake down
Watpa Wahkon to its confluence with the Mississippi River, and
in the process also stopping along the way and setting up colorful tepees and
camps at key environmental locations as "environmental schools" to promote
indigenous people's environmental awareness.
Promoting Native Environmentalism And The Ecotheology Of Matthew Fox