The importance of Mille Lacs Lake in the history and culture of the Dakota people

Mille Lacs Lake is one of many places in Minnesota that need to be acknowledged for their connection to Dakota people. Known to the Dakota as Mde Wakan or Spirit Lake, it is a place of special importance in their history and culture. The name of the most easterly group of Dakota people, the Mdewakantonwan, memorializes the name of the lake around which they lived until the mid-18th century.

As the website of the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota community states it, the Mdewakakanton Dakota were “those who were born of the waters.” In fact one of the Dakota origin stories places that origin at Mille Lacs Lake. Dakota leader Leonard E. Wabasha stated (on a Mille Lacs Kathio State Park interpretive sign):

My people are the Mdewakanton Oyate. Mdewakanton means the People of Spirit Lake. Today that lake is known as Mille Lacs. This landscape is sacred to the Mdewakanton Oyate because one Otokaheys Woyakapi (creation story) says we were created here. It is especially pleasing for me to come here and walk these trails, because about 1718 the first Chief Wapahasa was born here, at the headwaters of the Spirit River. I am the eighth in this line of hereditary chiefs.

As described by archaeologist Lloyd A. Wilford (1944: 329), Father Louis Hennepin visited the Sioux at Mille Lacs Lake in 1680 and reported that it was the sacred lake of these Indians and the focal point of the whole nation, from which the tribes and bands spread out over a wide area.

The shore of Lake Mille Lacs around 1910, from the Edward McCann photo collection.

The shore of Lake Mille Lacs around 1910, from the Edward McCann photo collection.

In addition to Mille Lacs, Mdewakanton Dakota also described that origin as taking place at Bdote, near the mouth of the Minnesota River. The truth is that among different groups of Dakota and Lakota peoples there have been various origin stories told. Today for many Lakota the Black Hills is considered one of their most sacred sites, the center of the world, the place of the gods, where the warriors would go to wait for visions and to speak to the Great Spirit.” Black Elk, famous religious leader of the Dakota people, was taken to Harney Peak in the Black Hills– the “center of the world”– in his Great Vision.” A timeline of Dakota history states that in the 1830s:  “The Oglala become more centrally organized with most bands following Bull Bear [and] with many of the rest following Smoke. This was a change from their previous more loosely governed bands with many leaders of comparable influence. The Bear Butte area in western South Dakota, extending west to Devil’s Tower was the geographic and spiritual center of their world.”

When addressing the subject of Lakota/Dakota creation stories, Wilhelm K. Meya, one of the most active anthropologists working with the Lakota today, wrote, in an email: “The Mdewakanton are considered in the oral tradition, one of the most ancient divisions of the Sioux Nation or Ocetisakowin ‘Seven Council Fires’. The sacred lake (Mille Lacs) figures prominently in Lakota/Dakota creation stories. The lake is considered sacred because the Dakota people emerged from it as human beings into this world.”

In addition the Rum River originally shared the name of the lake, Wakan, but was mistranslated by early whites. In an Isanti County News article about a 2008 Wakan Wakpa (Rum River) Canoe Expedition that provided a group of inner-city Dakota boys from Minneapolis and St. Paul an opportunity to paddle the natural artery of their ancestors, LeMoine LaPointe, director of the Healthy Nations Program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, stated: “Their 165-mile paddle from Mille Lacs Lake to Minneapolis commemorated many important aspects of Dakota history and culture.” He further noted: ”The Rum, known for centuries as Wakan Wakpa (Holy River), is an important spiritual and cultural artery to the Dakota who, until 1745, lived at Mille Lacs (Mde Wakan) and considered it the center of their world.”

Because of my knowledge of the importance of Mille Lacs Lake and surrounding area as a Dakota homeland, I initiated and am spearheading the local, national and international movement to change the faulty-translation and profane name of Minnesota’s Rum River, the river that flows from Mille Lacs Lake, back to its sacred Dakota name, Wakan. There is more about this at my website:

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