The Many Names of Minnesota’s Rum River

The Rum River in Minnesota follows a lazy course from Lake Mille Lacs to the Mississippi River. For centuries it was a popular route for natives traveling between these two majestic

Rum River in Minnesota

Rum River in Minnesota

bodies of water. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the upper valley of the Rum has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric sites in Minnesota, some of which date back more than 3000 years. Burial mounds, copper tools, ricing pits, and other artifacts have been found throughout the area.

Though the river was called the Rum even as far back as 1776, when Jonathan Carver explored the area, many attempts have been made over the years to change the name, and for brief periods it has been referred to as the Anoka, the Temperance, the St. Francis, and even the Volstead, in honor of the Minnesota legislator who introduced the bill that brought prohibition to the United States.

Carver’s reference to the Rum, was no doubt a translation of an Indian name, because no whites had been in the area for about a hundred years. Various interpretations have been given for what that translation entailed.

In the 1930s, under the auspices of the Minnesota Historical Society, one researcher came up with the following line of reasoning.

1. Early maps of this territory label the stream “Iskootawaboo,” which means “warm water.”

2. The rum is generally a shallow stream running through largely open country, which gives it a warmer temperature than deeper streams flowing through heavily wooded areas or fed by springs. Hence “Iskootawaboo’: warm water.

3. The highly alcoholic beverages introduced to the natives by the white traders seemed “hot” to their tastes. Therefore they also referred to rum or whiskey as “iskootawaboo” –a hot liquid.

More recently another theory has been advanced: Because the Rum flows out of Lake Mille Lacs, which several local tribes refer to as the Lake of the Great Spirit. The Mdewakanton Dakota called the river Mdotemniwakan, meaning Mouth (of river) + water + Sacred. ” The early European explorers interpreted the Dakota word for spirit in a somewhat different sense—hence the Rum River.

Rum River

Rum River

What may seem like an issue of largely antiquarian interest has become more heated, as yet another movement to rename the river gathers force—this time, to return it to its Dakota name of Mdotemniwakan. The movement has been endorsed by tribal organizations far and wide, the Minnesota Historical Society’s Indian Advisory Committee, several prominent Christian religious leaders, and even the United Nations’ Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Those who oppose such a change often point out that the Mdewakanton Dakota people do not actually name rivers. Rather, they name the land surrounding rivers. Mdotemniwakan is actually the Dakota name for the land surrounding the mouth of the Rum River.

However the current dispute is resolved, it seems doubtful it will alter the speech habits of those who have lived and worked near the Rum River since childhood. The name “Mdotemniwakan” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. In any case, it’s interesting to ponder the ways that a poky river has been a source of communication, commerce, and conflict, over the centuries. We might even be tempted to take a closer look, by canoeing a stretch of the largely peaceful river. The entire course of the Rum is navigable, and has been designated a Minnesota Wild and Scenic River.

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