The Spirit River Trail historical interpretive sign is now in place near the Isanti County Government Center in Cambridge depicting the history of the trail.
Local officials gathered for an unveiling celebration in recognition of the new sign during a Nov. 20 presentation led by Bill Carlson, project director of Isanti County Active Living by Design and chair of the Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail committee. The Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail opened in July 2011.
The sign’s main descriptive paragraph reads as follows: “The Cambridge-Isanti Bike-Walk Trail is part of a large ancient trail connecting the Issati villages on Mille Lacs with the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes, St. Anthony Falls, St. Paul and the Minnesota River. The Manomin Trail was a logger’s segment connecting Anoka and Brunswick. Using canoes, the native Issati used the Great Spirit River as their main connection between Mille Lacs and the area around St. Anthony Falls.”
The idea of a trail for non-motorized traffic linking Cambridge and Isanti was originally proposed by students in 1988, but plans stopped a year later when the committee was unable to obtain easements from the townships. The project was resuscitated in 1999 by a vanguard of activists, including then-rookie Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer, who followed the trail through to its final form, which stretches nearly 3 miles for a cost of $1.2 million.
The Cambridge-Isanti trail was also one of 25 projects nationwide to receive a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to promote active living, and it received other outside funding as well.
Carlson acknowledged the work of Jim Oberstar, who was the area’s congressman at the time of the trail opening, as well as Rick Olseen, who was the area’s state senator at the time.
“We are hoping this new interpretative sign will get people interested in history and more about the native people who were here before us,” Carlson said.
Palmer said the sign is a nice asset to the area.
“From the very first time I saw this sign, I fell in love with it,” Palmer said. “It’s a historical marker that will hopefully be here or somewhere along the trail forever.”
Palmer said it’s important to acknowledge history.
“It’s important to remember where we came from, as well as where we are going,” Palmer said. “We are surrounded by two major highways, the railroad and this trail. They are all great modes of transportation that live on and on.”
Palmer reminded those gathered that it took 22 years to get the trail accomplished.
“It started with Isanti County Public Health Director Kathy Minkler, and then we had school students interested in this,” Palmer said. “Then it kind of went on hiatus and then we had Bill (Carslon) come on board with Active Living by Design. We also had federal funding from help of Congressman Jim Oberstar and Sen. Rick Olseen. This project cost more than $1 million, and it’s amazing. It took the whole village to build this trail.”
The following was written by Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer, founder and director of Rum River Name Change Organization:
Spirit River Trail
When Europeans first traveled up the badly named “Rum River” and arrived at the lake that is now named Mille Lacs, they found the Isanti Oyate of the four tribes of the Eastern Dakota located in 24 villages around the lake. These four tribes, the Mdewakantunwan, Wahpekute, Sissitunwan and the Wahpetunwan, were recently honored during an Isanti County historical event that took place Nov. 20 in Cambridge.
The event was the unveiling of the Cambridge-Isanti Spirit River Trail interpretive sign. The trail connects Cambridge and Isanti. It is an 8-mile bike-walk trail. It was named the Spirit River Trail and not the “Rum River Trail” because of the growing movement to change the name of the river, for the purpose of showing due respect for the native Dakota people who named this sacred river of theirs Wakpa Wakan (Spirit River). Rum is a spirit, a spirituous liquor, but the word “Rum” is not the correct translation name for the river. Rum is not the type of “spirit” being referred to in the sacred Dakota name Wakpa Wakan, sometimes spelled Watpa Wahkon.
The Dakotas’ Wakan is the supreme divine “Spirit,” or mystical force that permeates the world. Among the Dakota, the term Wakan is used to denote all that is mysterious or divine. The gods are the embodiment or medium of Wakan.
The Dakotas’ Wakan is the essence of all life, pervading all nature, animate and inanimate. And it has many names: Wakan, Tunkashila, Taku SkanSkan, Wakan Tanka, Great Spirit and Grandfather.
The word “wakan” in the name Wakpa Wakan can be translated to mean holy, sacred, mysterious, divine and also spirit or Great Spirit. Thus, various correct translations, such as “Holy River,” “Sacred River,” “Mysterious River,” “Divine River,” “Spirit River” and “Great Spirit River” have been given to this river.
In 1680, Father Louis Hennepin was taken unwillingly by a war party of 33 canoes of Isanti somewhere around Dubuque and taken to Mille Lacs. He published his adventures along with a map where the name is spelled “Issati.” Isanti refers to the principal villages by Mille Lacs and also to the four tribes of the Eastern Dakota.
The concept to connect Cambridge and Isanti with a bike trail began in the 1980s. Recently, the concept evolved into a project. Isanti City Council Member Sue Larson asked Cambridge Mayor Marlys Palmer to start a new bike trail committee and recruited Bill Carlson as a member. The committee solicited interest from the Isanti County Commissioners, who supported the project since it was revived in 2001. Bill Carlson contacted the commission when he was recruited. He informed them of the benefits and aimed to encourage them in the process.
The Rum River Name Change Movement was started about 25 years ago and, thanks to it and Chief Leonard Wabasha’s “Spirit River” statement on a Mille Lacs Kathio State Park interpretive sign, nowadays, all up and down the river, parks, trails, businesses and even a city street have been named Spirit River, such as Spirit River Drive, which was originally named West Rum River Drive.
In the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community’s letter supporting the effort to change the river’s name, Jim Anderson, the community’s chairman, wrote: “I believe that renaming the river ‘Wakpa Wakan’ or ‘Spirit River’ is a great stride in mending the circle that we share with all four colors of man. We, as Dakotas, are very happy that there are people out there that are trying to understand that by using names like ‘rum’ and ‘devil’ to label sacred sites and places is degrading to our children, our elders and also to our ancestors. These places were already named in our language by our people because of their special meaning. When we have to tell our children why these places have been named after a poison or the worst words in their language. It is demoralizing to us to have to explain why a place is named after the same things that helped to steal our land and language.”
Bill Carlson is the project director for Isanti County Active Living, and he has been on the forefront of the Isanti County mission to show due respect for the Dakota people, their ancient culture and sacred sites.