Minnewaukan

Sorting through boxes yesterday I found an old toy airplane. The toy is metal and you can tell that it had been painted so the wings were yellow and the fuselage red, though the red has faded to pink. On the left wing is hand painted the letters MHS and on the right the date 5-25-37. On the bottom of the airplane the initials WH are etched. I know the story of the plane, but am pretty sure that it is a story I have not told to my children. Once the toy is separated from its story it will have no meaning for anyone.

The toy was a favor for a high school graduation of a very small school. Minnewaukan High School is still in operation next to state highway 281 on the west side of Devil’s Lake, northwest of the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. My father was a member of the class of 1937. Despite the effects of the Great Depression, the class of 37 underwood a grand adventure for their senior skip day. Members of the class traveled 159 miles one way to Bismarck, the state capital. They rode the modern elevators to the top of the new State Capitol building. The news that the former capitol had burned to the ground was among the first stories that my father ever heard on the radio. The new capitol, a modern skyscraper 21 stories high was a marvel of engineering and construction. For my father, however, the high point of the day was the airplane ride that he got at the Bismarck airport, which in those days was little more than an open field. That ride started a lifelong passion for airplanes and aviation that saw him earning his pilots license and instructor’s certificates before enlisting in the Army Air Corps where he served as a multi-engine flight instructor and service pilot. After completing his army service he used GI funds to go to school to earn his airframe and power plant certificates and began his career in aviation, operating the airport in our town, running charter flights, flying fire patrol and game counts, crop dusting, operating an air ambulance and doing whatever else he could think of to be able to afford to fly airplanes.

He taught me to fly and was very proud that I earned my private pilot’s license the summer of my 17th birthday.

The years have passed. The airplanes have been sold. The company itself has passed to other owners. This year marks 40 years since my father died. But I still have that toy airplane. I’ll keep it for a while yet.

Minnewaukan isn’t one of the world’s largest towns, but it is one of the places in that general area which retains its original Dakota name. The same is not true of the lake that lies to the east of town or the region’s larger town. Minnewaukan is the Dakota word for spirit water or spirit lake. It might be translated “sacred water” as well. When European people came to the region they misunderstood the words and the concepts of the Dakota residents. Somehow sacred was translated into spirt as in spirt beings and the settlers misconstrued the name to mean “Bad Spirt,” and the name “Devil’s Lake” became the common way of naming the lake and the town on its eastern shore. The lake can change in size greatly depending on the amount of water in a huge, but nearly flat drainage system. Some of the creeks that feed the lake only drop a foot per mile. The lake has been a popular fishing and recreation site for a long time, but boat ramps and other access points have to be adjusted periodically to respond to the rise and fall of the lake. This dramatic change in the size of the lake may be part of the reason that it gained the name “Spirit Lake.”

The misnaming of places due to misunderstanding of the indigenous language and culture is common across the United States and Canada.

One of our favorite places to visit in British Columbia is Kelowna, a city in the southern part of the province known for its wineries, water sports and hiking. It is a stunningly beautiful place with the huge lake ringed by mountains - the extinct volcanoes of the Thompson Plateau. The pine trees grow right down to the shore of the lake and it is easy to feel the power of the beauty of the place. The spirit of that lake is n-ha-ha-it-koo according to the Okanagan/syilx people who originally inhabited the area. The spirit of the lake is said to watch over the lake and can be sensed in the ripples of the water. When settlers came to the region attracted by the natural beauty and comparatively mild weather, they misinterpreted the indigenous stories. They replaced those stories with stories of a serpent that lived in the depths of the lake. They called that serpent Ogopogo and it has become a feature of the region, with cartoonish drawings on local promotional materials and a great and white concrete sculpture near the waterfront that reminds me a bit of the dinosaurs atop the hill here in Rapid City. Back in the 1980’s the tourism association offered a $1 million reward for proof of the creature’s existence. The reward was never paid.

The little metal airplane with MHS painted on the wing is a reminder that my roots lie in land that was sacred long before my people arrived. The meaning of a place is deeper than the current generation or even the stories we can tell of previous generations. Long before any of our ancestors had come to this place there were people who recognized how sacred it is and who revered the land and told stories that had been handed down to them for generations.

At least I can remember the name Minnewaukan and its Dakota meaning: mni (water) and wak’an (sacred). And when I tell the story of the airplane to my grandchildren, I can remind them that there are even older stories of that place.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!