What’s in a name? Spirits, water, stones, earth

Asking the Dakota to supply a unique name for Coldwater Spring, located near Fort Snelling, is a bit like asking the Catholic Church to supply the unique name for the front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul. For the Cathedral, the steps are important and derive their significance from their connection to the larger place, even though there may not be a name commemorating something or describing some unique aspect of those steps as apart from any other steps. Among the Dakota there are various names for the Coldwater area, some unique and some more generic. But the bigger question is what is the significance of such names, anyway?

In the case of Coldwater Spring, the National Park Service in St. Paul has seized on the significance of any possible name the Dakota might have for the spring apart from any other spring as determinative of cultural significance. But Park Service officials have yet to provide a cultural basis for assuming that having some kind of unique name should be overriding in this determination. 

The front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul, looking north, September 2008

The front steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul, looking north, September 2008

Among Dakota and Ojibwe in Minnesota many names are generic, that is they refer to factors that the place shared with other places of the same type. Many of these Native names for places have survived in English names such as Mud, Portage, and Rice lakes. So, the real special significance of such places derives from the oral tradition or knowledge that Native people might supply for them, such as the fact that a particular lake had rice that ripened much earlier or later than that in other lakes. But the characteristics of the rice might not be recorded in the name. Names of rivers were sometimes given simply because the river flowed out of a certain lake and might not be descriptive of any other special characteristics of the river. 

European-Americans have generic names too. There are Pilot Knobs all over the country, some adjacent to rivers, others out on the plains. The names refer to some characteristic shape in such places that made them unmistakable from a long distance. Other generic names just describe the place or the fact of the generic thing being at a place with a unique name. Appomattox Courthouse was the name given to a courthouse which happened to be located at Appomattox. This is a place of some traditional significance for European-Americans, though the unique aspect of the name derives from a particular community of the Powhatan tribe. The significance of the courthouse in history and tradition is not recorded in the name, that is, Appomattox Courthouse is not called: “the-place-where-Lee-surrendered-to-Grant.”

Among Dakota and Ojibwe there are some names which seem to be unique to particular places. For example, the large central Minnesota lake called Mille Lacs (in French, “a thousand lakes”) was a place of great significance for Dakota, who called it Mde Wakan, that is Spirit or Mysterious Lake. The origins of the name are bound up in Dakota traditions and creation stories and like most such names have yet to be fully explained. The most eastern branch of the Dakota call themselves the Mdewakantonwan, “the people of spirit lake,” a name which is still used today, 200 years after the people moved away from the lake. 

Another unique place name among the Dakota is Taku Wakan Tipi, which might be translated as “the dwelling place of Taku Wakan.” European-Americans in the 19th century believed that this name referred to a hill called by the soldiers Morgan’s Hill or Morgan’s Mound, which is the present location of the VA Medical Center. However, while the English name does refer to a hill, there is nothing in the Dakota name that specifically describes the Dakota place as a hill. Lower down the Mississippi River in St. Paul is Wakan Tipi (dwelling place of the sacred), said to refer to Carver’s Cave, though it may be that it describes a larger area that includes the cave. Assuming that a place one cultural group identifies in a particular area has the same boundaries as the place identified by another cultural group in the same neighborhood is an error of interpretation, though it is an easy one to make.

The name Taku Wakan, as many recorded in the 19th century is a polite way of referring to a powerful being or set of beings named Unktehi. The Unktehi were beings connected to sacred ceremonies and to more than one creation story. Male Unktehi resided in water, in lakes or rivers or waterfuls, but are often identified as being in water that is present or underneath landforms, such as Taku Wakan Tipi. Such landforms often have elevated springs that come out of them. The springs are dwelling places for this powerful spirit, but also avenues through which the spirit travels, just as a human being might sit on their front steps on occasion, but spend more time inside their houses.

Among the earliest European-Americans to take seriously and record Dakota beliefs were, paradoxically, the missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond. While they were intent on changing and “civilizing” the Dakota, they also wanted to understand them in ways that later anthropologists sought to do. In various books and articles, the Ponds recorded a great deal of information about the Unkethis, their role in the Dakota medicine ceremony or Wakan Wacipi, and their presence in Taku Wakan Tipi. This information provides a basis for understanding Coldwater Spring and its relationship to the area of Taku Wakan Tipi.

Lincoln Spring, photographed in the 1860s may be present day Coldwater Spring, or the falls where the stream from Coldwater falls into the Mississippi River. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

Lincoln Spring, photographed in the 1860s, may be the spring known earlier and later as Coldwater Spring, or the falls where the stream from Coldwater falls into the Mississippi River. A man named George Lincoln lived at Coldwater Spring in the 1860s and 1870s. Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

The Ponds noted that the Unktehi lived within Taku Wakan Tipi and traveled through underground passageways into the Minnesota River. The entire ground adjacent to the hill called Morgan’s Mound, including Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is full of water, fed by an elevated water table. Massive dewatering was necessary to build the tunnels for the new light-rail system under the airport. There may be Dakota who would define the dwelling place of Taku Wakan as including the airport.  As for Coldwater Spring, it happens to be closer to the hill European-Americans call Morgan’s Mound than are Fort Snelling or the airport. The spring flows out of a cleft in the rock below the hill. Long before the construction of Highway 55 which is now what separates the hill and the spring, the intervening area was described as a wetland.

Do I have to connect the dots for you? In fact some people already have. John Hotopp, Randall A. Withrow, and others working with the Berger Group in 1999 drew the connection between Coldwater Spring and the area called Taku Wakan Tipi. They were working for the Federal Highway Administration in relation to the construciton of Highway 55. Of course at that time the highway was not believed to have any effect on the spring, so it was an easy thing for a federal contractor to admit. Now ten years later, another federal agency, the National Park Service, working more directly in the area of the spring, has rejected the conclusions of Hotopp and Withrow, and of other later experts working for the federal government, about Coldwater Spring as a place of traditional cultural importance for the Dakota.

Does it bother the National Park Service that the Ponds referred to the underground passageways flowing into the Minnesota River when in fact Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground and flows into the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Minnesota River? Is that aspect of the wording of the description by the missionaries enough to suggest that the spring that flows from Morgan’s Mound has nothing to do with Taku Wakan Tipi and that Dakota people are blowing smoke when they state that Coldwater Spring is a place of traditional cultural significance for their people? These are questions for government agencies and for others who would like to argue with Dakota people about what Dakota beliefs mean. Such agencies and individuals may continue to insist that the area of Coldwater must have a Dakota name that spells things out a little more than the name Mni Sni, or Mni Owe Sni–a Dakota name for the spring which essentially translates as “cold water spring.” Why don’t the Dakota have a name for the spring or the spring area that refers to events or special characteristics of the place, say one that begins “the place where . . .”

Did I forget to mention that there is a special name for the Coldwater area that refers to events or special characteristics of the place? In addition to all the other documentation about the importance of the Coldwater Spring area for Dakota people in the 19th century, which I have discussed in the past, I recently came across the record of a unique name for Coldwater in Paul Durand’s book Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet: An Atlas of the Eastern Sioux. Durand (1994: 36) refers to a place called KA-HBO-KA TE, meaning “Where-the-Drifter-Was-Killed.” The Drifter was one of the Dakota chiefs who took up farming at the instigation of the Pond Brothers. He was shot in early April 1841 within fifty rods from the house where Samuel Pond was living at the time, the Baker House at Coldwater Spring. Samuel Pond heard shot and came to give the man aid. The Drifter lived a month and died while recovering from his wounds.

Why would the Dakota give this unique name to such a place, especially since there were other Dakota people killed by Ojibwe near Fort Snelling. The reason is that despite the warfare between the two groups, they had met peacefully at Coldwater Spring for several decades at least, as recorded in the records of the Indian agency. There were continuing peaceful relations between some of the Mdewakanton Dakota groups and the Mille Lacs and St. Croix Ojibwe, who were, in fact united by ties of kinship going back to the 17th century. But in the 1840s relations between all groups of Dakota and Ojibwe worsened. The death of The Drifter was clearly a marker, a sign that even in a place of neutrality, peaceful relations were hard to maintain. Things would get a lot worse in the years ahead.

So, what is in a name? Lots of things, spirits, water, earth, beliefs, history, and much more, but sometimes the actual words used in the names belie the complexity of rich, historic, and culturally important places.


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