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To Change a Name
By Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer
In Minnesota, "the land of ten thousand lakes," there is a large and beautiful lake named
Mille Lacs. Its outlet river is named Rum. The Sioux name for the Rum River is
Wakan, translated as Spirit or Great Spirit. According to
historical documents found in Minnesota Geographic Names (Upham, 1920), white explorers
gave the Rum River its current name in the late eighteenth century by way of a "punning
translation" that "perverted the ancient Sioux name Wakan" (384). When the white men
performed the punning translation, they did so by mistranslating the "Sioux's" (Dakota's) name Wakan,
turning a word that means Spirit to mean an alcohol spirit, the alcohol spirit
rum. Hence the word Spirit/spirit, which has different definitions, was used in a punning way to
mistranslate the sacred Dakota (Dakota-Lakota-Nakota) name for the river.
Because the name Wakan is the sacred traditional Dakota name for the Great Spirit,
the Rum River's current name desecrates the Dakota's traditional name for the Great Spirit. In a St.
Paul Daily Pioneer article from 1868, the Rum River name is listed, along with other geographic
names as "profane." When referring to the Rum River's name, an excerpt from the article reads,
"The profane name was already in use by some in the 1861, as was the animosity toward the
native people of Minnesota" (Wendel, 1868).
Twenty-five years ago I became aware of the profanation of the Dakota name for the Rum River while
researching the worldview behind the word wakan, which since the late 1960s has been embraced by
the counterculture as a part of a movement toward global unity and environmental sustainability.
In 1983 I attended the Tekakwitha Conference held at Saint John's College in Minnesota. This is
a Catholic Native American conference representing over 100 tribes, and there I heard missionary
priest Stanislaus Maudin present a paper on the juncture between the Dakota concept of wakan - the
term itself has been adopted by some other Indian tribes - and the Catholic Church's globalization
movement aimed at uniting humanity within a single united culture. Since attending that
conference, I have been active within the Catholic Church's countercultural movement to promote
respect for indigenous peoples and the environment as well as for the unity of all humanity.
My efforts to show due respect for the sacred word wakan led me to seek a change in the derogatory
name of the Rum River. I laid the foundation for establishing my Rum River name-change movement
by contacting Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1997 as well as by educating
citizens in the communities along the river. Officials in the DNR explained to me the name-change
process and the need to build a support base. In April 2003, I officially established a nonprofit
corporation, Rum River Name Change Organization, headquartered in Wahkon Minnesota, and created a
web site at www.towahkon.org.
Twenty years of work within the Catholic Church, countercultural organizations, and indigenous
communities gave me the experience and contacts I needed to inform my fellow citizens along the
river and throughout the state of Minnesota. I first approached the Upper Sioux, a band of
Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota), one of four bands living in Minnesota. The ancestors of this band bestowed
the original name of Wakan to the river. This group endorsed the name change, as did
Cankdeska Cikana Community College, a Dakota college established to bring higher education
opportunities to the people of Spirit Lake Dakota; the Mendota Mdewakanton Community, the National
Environmental Coalition of Native Americans; Joe Day, the executive director of the Minnesota
Indian Affairs Council; Indian activist Russell Means and Don Wedll; Pat Albers, chair of the
University of Minnesota's American Indian Studies Department.
I then contacted religious leaders. The first was Father Matthew Fox, a leader of the Catholic
Church's global-culture movement. Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of Minnesota and St.
Paul endorsed the effort, along with 30 pastors of Christian churches located within the Rum River
area. In my efforts to change the river's name, I have found that there is almost unanimous
support among Christian leaders of all denominations. Much of this has to do with heightened
awareness of the catastrophic consequences of white settlers introducing and selling alcohol
to the Indian people. There is an element of "white guilt" in this appeal, along with a desire
to make restitution and help indigenous peoples free themselves from the plague of alcoholism.
Beyond that, the religious leaders see that the harmful effects of alcohol and alcoholism are a
problem not only in Indian communities but also among non-Indian residents of the state.
Finally, I contacted organizations concerned with multicultural education, human rights, and
historical preservation. These included KOLA, an international Indigenous human rights
organization; the United Nations' Secretarial of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues;
the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME); the National Trust for Historic
Preservation; and the Indian Affairs Committee of the Minnesota Historical Society, which
endorsed the name change on March 30, 2004. The highly respected Minnesota Historical Society
is a powerful ally in the campaign to change the river's name, and its support is crucial to
moving local and state authorities on the direction of renaming the river to Wahkon River.
Geographic name change efforts like this one parallel recent efforts to rename team mascots.
Some of those have succeeded, though the more high-profile ones, like the Cleveland Indians
baseball team, have failed. Our strategy for getting the river's name changed is similar to
the strategies of those who seek to change an offensive name of a high school team, for instance
- assemble a base of support among Indian activist and organizations, educators, and community
groups - though the individual groups approached may differ. In terms of community groups, the
Rum River Name Change Organization has concentrated on religious groups for a variety of reasons,
including my own background working with the Catholic Church, the important place of the Catholic
Church and other churches in the area, and the controversial nature of a river named for a
frequently abused alcoholic beverage.
Nonethe less, obstacles remain. No campaign like this is a sure thing. Initially, the Wahkon
City Council opposed our efforts on fiscal grounds, citing the cost of changing signs during a
statewide economic crisis. The Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe violently forced the Mdewakanton Sioux
out of their ancient homeland centuries ago, and some Mille Lacs fear that the name change would
cause the Mdewakantons to acquire a renewed appreciation of their heritage, leading to demands to
establish a shrine or museum in the Mille Lacs area. Getting the support of the Mille Lacs for
the name change will take time. In fact, the entire process takes time. While a resident can
try to have a place name changed by getting a petition signed by at least 15 registered voters
in each county where the natural resource is located (in this case the Rum River runs through
four counties, and the West Branch Rum River through three counties), each county board must
decide to schedule a public hearing in which all four boards will meet together in a single place,
with approval of a name change contingent on approval of a majority of the county boards.
(The name change of the West Branch Rum River requires a separate meeting of three county boards.)
The county level is the most crucial, and I plan to submit my petition once my support base is
large enough to guarantee the county commissioners' approval.
In the past few decades, many people like me have become active participants in our nation's
multicultural movement on a variety of levels - in local communities as well as in academia.
Through multicultural education and activism people learn to understand and appreciate others
more, and in doing so, they grow as people. Those who have been introduced to other cultures
through multicultural education have acquired a respect for the culture and history of the
diverse groups that make up this nation, and many have become the leaders of movements to
redress the problems of the past like derogatory names. I believe that it is primarily due to
our nation's popular multicultural movement located in schools, churches, and community
organizations that many derogatory team and place names have already been changed, and because
of this process we have become a better nation.
Upham, W. (1920, repr. 1969). Minnesota Geographic Names. Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Wendel, V. (1868, January 22). St. Paul Daily Pioneer: 1.
Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer is the founder and director of the Rum River Name Change Organization,
located in Wahkon, Minnesota. He may be contacted at
Additional information: Another way a Minnesota resident can try to have an
offensive geographic place name changed is by
the legislative, or state bill, method. At this time (2006), I am pursuing the legislative method.
And because there are twelve other Minnesota
geographic place names that are offensive to Native Americans, I decided to add them to my proposed
state bill, believing that my proposed bill would stand a better
chance of getting sponsored and pasted if all of Minnesota's offensive geographic place names were on
My proposed Minnesota bill is now being sponsored by Rep. Mike Jaros, and it can be found by clicking