Darlene Prois, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.), October 2, 2006
For the better part of a decade, Thomas Dahlheimer has been on a lonely mission. The retired handyman wants the name of the Rum River — which wends its way 140 miles south from Lake Mille Lacs to the Mississippi River — changed to Spirit River, a name he says is more closely aligned to its Indian roots.
According to Dahlheimer — and a number of historical documents — “Rum” was the white man’s derogatory perversion of the river’s Dakota name, Watpa Wakan, or Great Spirit River. The 59-year-old activist has garnered support from an eclectic group, including Indians, politicians and religious groups, but until recently, he has had little to show for his efforts.
Last month, the Cambridge City Council took its own stand in Dahlheimer’s crusade, voting to rename West Rum River Drive to Spirit River Drive. Along with the Cambridge campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College and the Isanti County Active Living by Design, the city also has named part of a new community trail system Spirit River Nature Area.
“We understand we can’t rename the river on our own, but we wanted to at least recognize the Native American history of this area,” said Stoney Hiljus, Cambridge’s city administrator.
Dahlheimer, of Wahkon, Minn., has found another potential ally in a legislator, state Rep. Mike Jaros, DFL-Duluth.
Jaros, a 30-year representative, has ordered the drafting of a bill that would change offensive names on more than a dozen geographic features in the state, including the Rum River and its tributaries. He plans to present the bill next session.
State has authority
There’s a precedent in Minnesota for changing the Rum’s name. In 1995, Minnesota became the first state to ban the name “squaw,” resulting in the renaming of 20 state geographic features. Since then, several other states, including Oregon and Maine, have banned the word.
Dahlheimer contends that the Rum River’s name is similarly offensive. Over the years, he has sent letters to city officials in Anoka and Princeton, receiving polite but unsatisfying replies.
“It’s another derogatory term,” said Jim Anderson, cultural chairman and historian for the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. “Naming a sacred river after what they were bringing up to our people is just wrong. We’re in favor of the name change.”
According to state law, the renaming of geographic features comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources. In fact, Minnesotans request such name changes so often that the topic is listed under “Frequently Requested Items” on the Web page of the Waters Division of the Department of Natural Resources.
“The question comes up weekly,” said Glen Yakel, the DNR specialist who has been in charge of the renaming process for 24 years. “We’ve done five name changes this past year, and some years we’ve done as many as 15.”
Most name changes, however, are far less complicated than the one Dahlheimer is requesting. The Rum River and its tributary, the West Rum, run through six counties, so the statute requires petitioning all six affected county boards, who in turn must set up common public hearings. The petitioner also is required to post bond to cover expenses involved in the proceedings.
Because many public and private entities — school districts, street names, parks, athletic associations, businesses and the like — draw their names from a major waterway such as the Rum, officials are often loath to consider such a change.
Daunted by the logistics of dealing with six counties, Dahlheimer was pleased to learn there was another way to change geographical names, particularly offensive ones: legislation.
Several months ago, Dahlheimer began writing letters to state legislators, hoping to enlist their help. All politely declined, except for Jaros.
“It’s a good idea not to offend anybody,” Jaros said. “We should wipe out any of those derogatory and negative things that we have in our history about Native Americans. The least that we can do is accommodate the first Americans by not using offensive names.”