Traces of the Dakota


At the Dakota gathering last year, John and I were drawn not to the fry cakes but to the book stall, where John bought a Dakota grammar and a Dakota dictionary. I chose a beautiful book by Mary Henderson Eastman called simply Dahkotah, or Life and Legends of the Sioux. Then it started to rain, we paid quickly, the clerk covered the books with tarps, and we hurried home.

Mary Henderson married Seth Eastman, a gifted artist who had graduated from West Point. In 1841, at the age of 23, Mary moved with Captain Eastman and their three children to Fort Snelling. Seth's watercolors illustrate her book.

As I began Mary Eastman's book, the Indian names I had been surrounded by for nearly forty years jumped off the pages at me. Of course I knew that Wapasha, or Wabasha, was the name of a Dakota chief whose band lived in the area around Winona, and whose descendant, Wabasha VII, was visiting Winona that very weekend for the Homecoming. Perhaps I had read at one time that his name translated to The Leaf. I had heard those Dakota referred to as the Mndewankantons. I knew that Winona meant firstborn daughter.

But as Eastman wrote of the other bands nearby - Wahk-patons, Wahk-pa-koo-tahs, and the names of the chiefs in addition to Wapasha who were regular visitors to Fort Snelling "” Wah-ke-on-tun-kah (Big Thunder), Wah-coo-ta (Red Wing), Muzza Hotah (Gray Iron), Ma-pe-ah-we-chas-ta (the man in the Cloud), Tah-chun-coo-wash-ta (Good Road), Sha-co-pee (the Sixth), Wah-soo-we-chasta-ne (Bad Hail) and Ish-ta-hum-bah (Sleepy Eyes), suddenly the map of Minnesota became not just a tool to get from here to there, but a history lesson.

Stephen R. Riggs, a Presbyterian missionary who arrived in Minnesota in 1837, became a scholar of Dakota literature and language. In his Dakota Grammar, he wrote, "In all primitive states of society the most reliable history of individuals and nations is found written in names. Sometimes the removals of a people can be traced through the ages by the names of rivers or places which they have left behind them. The Dakota people, on the other hand, carry with them, to some extent, the history of their removals in the names of the several bands."

This led me to the Minnesota Historical Society's web site, where they have reprinted Warren Upham's book, Minnesota Place Names. Upham gathered Minnesota's geographic names from 1879 until his book was first published in 1920. According to these sources, the Dakota were called through the years Sioux, but that is not what they called themselves. Dakota means "league," or "allied," because Seven Council Fires made up the Dakota. The word Sioux, the French version of Nadouessioux, was what the Huron called the Dakota. It means enemy, and refers to the fact that the Dakota were often at war. It also can mean "snake."

When the Dakota were first encountered by the white missionaries and fur traders, they were based at Mille Lacs, part of which the Dakota called Spirit Lake, or Mdewakan "” Mde meaning lake, and Wakan, meaning spirit, or mysterious. They called themselves the Mdewakantonwan. The Winona Dakota were descended from the Dakota who lived at Mille Lacs.

Westward expansion by the English, French and finally Americans, drove the Indians farther and farther west, until finally they were forced to sell their land to the Americans and then were moved to reservations. The Ojibway, mispronounced Chippewa by the French, started to move in on the Dakota when forced west by the Iroquois in the 1600s. Ojibway wanted rice fields, and many fierce battles were fought near Leech Lake between the two nations. Ojibway had rifles, and drove the Dakota out of Kathio, the Dakota capital. After that the Mdewakanton band of Dakota became the prairie people of Southwestern Minnesota and the river people of Southeastern Minnesota.

We owe the word Mississippi for our river to the Ojibway. The first part of the name, Missi , means Great, being akin to the modern Ojibway word, Kitchi, great, or Gitche, as it is spelled by Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha"; and the second part, sippi , is the common Algonquian or Ojibwe word for a river.

But moving south, we come to Dakota country, where we live surrrounded by the evidence of the centuries that the Dakota occupied Minnesota. Here are some of the names I found most interesting.

Shakopee is named for the Dakota chiefs of that village site and is Dakota for six. The last Chief Shakopee was hung in Mankato in 1862 after the "Sioux Uprising."

Wacouta, which means Red Wing, and Wabasha, are named for Dakota chiefs. Red Wing in many histories is the father of Princess Winona of Maiden Rock fame.

Wabasha III, the last to live on Wapasha's Prairie, tried to be a peacemaker, but his efforts didn't get him any more from the Americans than if he had been a warlord, and now his descendants live in the Dakotas. His father and grandfather, however, were important players. His grandfather was given a British general's commission and was named a chief by the British for whom he led war parties against the French. His father fought the Ojibway, but then died from smallpox in 1836.

Anoka is Dakota meaning on both sides, because it is on both sides of Rum River. The name of the Rum River may be a misunderstanding of the Dakota word for spirit. Wayzata is named for "god of the north." Wayzata is a Dakota word meaning "at the pines, the north." Wazi is defined as "a pine, pines," and Waziya , "the northern god, or god of the north; a fabled giant who lives at the north and blows cold out of his mouth. He draws near in winter and recedes in summer."

Witoka was named for "the daughter of the war chief of Wabasha's band. Witoka was captured by the Sacs (Sauks) near the present site of Witoka, but rescued by her father.

Whitewater is a translation of its Dakota name (Minne or Mini , "water"; ska , "white"), where of course we get our Minneiska's name.

Rollingstone is translated from the Dakota. Hokah is the Dakota name for the Root River.

Mankato means blue earth in Dakota, and describes the black mud along the banks of the Minnesota River.

Mendota is Dakota for where the waters mingle - Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.

The common Dakota word for waterfall is haha, which they applied to the Falls of St. Anthony, to Minnehaha, and in general to any waterfall or cascade.

Eyota, organized in 1858, was at first named Springfield, but was changed in 1859 to this Dakota word meaning "greatest, most."

Mahtomedi is "the Dakota name of White Bear Lake" (from mato , the "white or polar bear," or matohota , the "grizzly bear," with mde , "a lake").

The Dakota name Minnesota means sky-tinted water (Minne, water, and sota, somewhat clouded). The river at its stages of flood becomes whitishly turbid.

Owatonna was the Dakota name of the Straight River, which is its translation.

Tepeeota, an early village in Greenfield, was founded in 1856 on an island of the Mississippi, a former camping ground of Wapashaw's band. This Dakota name means "many houses"

Watopa is a Dakota verb, "to paddle a canoe."

For more on the Dakota, visit the Homecoming next weekend. Interested in more place names?

Apologies to historians of the Dakota. I hope I came close to the real thing.


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