When Ali and I were little, Mom used to take us to see the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha at Minnehaha Falls. I remember feeling so inspired by the sculpture, even as a little girl, and I immediately created a love story between the two bronze figures. I’m sure my Disney-influenced brain assumed the two people were John Smith and Pocahontas. To be honest, it wasn’t until I started doing some research for this post that I realized the sculpture actually depicts two Native Americans from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s work, The Song of Hiawatha. The plaque even features a line from the epic poem, “Over wide and rushing rivers/ In his arms he bore the maiden.”
This lifelong misinterpretation of a famous Minnesotan work of art got me thinking. Not only was I unaware of the correct history behind the statue at Minnehaha Falls, but I realized I knew very little about Minnesota’s Native American history. This realization embarrassingly sunk in as I strolled through the US-Dakota war exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society a few weeks ago. If you find yourself similarly uninformed, then I recommend visiting this detailed display of the Minnesotan war between settlers, soldiers and Native Americans. It’s enlightening, heartbreaking and left me wanting to know more. There’s also a great week-long piece on Chief Little Crow in the Star Tribune this week. The exhibit, the newspaper articles, and other nods to Native American culture are no coincidence. Minnesota seems to be making an effort to come to terms with a dark spot in our state’s past, while observing the 15oth anniversary of the US-Dakota war.
In hopes of contributing my own nod to Native American culture, I compiled a list of just a few of the Native American place-names that still exist in Minnesota today.
We’ll start with the most obvious …
Minnesota – Based on the Dakota name for “Sky-tinted Water” (Mni sota).
Minneapolis – A Dakota and Greek language hybrid for “Water City.”
Minnehaha – Translates to Curling Water, but the Dakota actually called Minnehaha Falls “Wakpa Cistinna” for little river.
Minnetonka – Big Water
Minnetrista – Crooked Water
Minneota – Much Water
Minneiska – White Water
… noticing a theme yet?
Mahtomedi – Grey Bear Lake
Manitou Island – “Habitation of Great Spirit.” This place-name surrounds the Dakota legend about forbidden love, a secret meeting spot, and a great white bear. Appropriately, you can find Manitou Island on White Bear Lake.
Hiawatha – Name of a legendary Mowhawk chief, “He Makes Rivers.” This name also appears in the previously mentioned poem, The Song of Hiawatha.
Owatonna – This city is named after the Dakota’s name for the Straight River, “Wakpá Owóthaŋna”
Shakopee – “The Six.” Chief Shakopee was given this name after his wife had sextuplet boys.
And if any of you are in Michigan or Wisconsin …
Tahquamenon – “Our Woman.” An Ojibwe legend says that the Spirit Woman roams these falls in the Upper Peninsula. She was in love with a man she couldn’t marry and threw herself over the falls.
Menomonie – or Manoominii which stands for the “Wild Rice People.” This name was given to another group of Native Americans by the Ojibwe.
The list goes on and on and each name takes some digging. I was surprised to discover that the definitions are not easy to find. I also had a hard time uncovering credible websites that were dedicated to Native American history. Although, I did find a Minnesotan author, Paul Durand, who shared my interest in this unique history that surrounds us. His book, “Where the Waters Gather and the Rivers Meet,” documents all the original Dakota and Ojibwe place-names in the area. I have yet to track down a copy, but I’m excited to take a look.
So whether you take a trip to the Minnesota Historical Society, sit down with a coffee and the Star Tribune, or just happen to notice Minnehaha Avenue as you drive by, take a minute to remember those before you and the importance of keeping history in mind.