Our origin stories, histories, languages, and cultures are tied to our homelands

By Katrina Phillips

The origin story of the Ojibwe is steeped in our ancestors’ westward migration. We used to live way on the eastern part of Turtle Island, but a prophecy told us that another people—a light-skinned people—would come to our shore and bring violence and destruction to our people. After a great council was held, we started traveling westward. The first of seven prophecies told us to look for an island that looked like a turtle, and we found it in what’s now the Ottawa River near what’s now known as Montreal in Canada.

The second stopping point was Gichi-gakaabikaang, the place of thunder water – Niagara Falls. The vision next took us to Wawiiantanong, or what’s now the Detroit River. The next vision told us to look for a place where we could “step” across the great waters. The largest of these stepping stones, or islands, was Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. The fifth stop was Baawitagong, or Sault Sainte Marie. Here, the people split. Some went north around Gichi-Gami, or Lake Superior, and others went south around the great lake. The southern group made their way all the way around Lake Superior and stopped near what’s now called Duluth, named for the French explorer Daniel Greysolon, the Sieur du Lhut. This place was called Wiikwedong, and it was the first place we found the food that grows on water—wild rice. The seventh and final stop was what people now call Madeline Island, part of the Apostle Islands in what’s now the northernmost part of Wisconsin.

Indigeneity is embedded in the land. Our origin stories, our histories, our languages, and our cultures are tied to where we come from, where our families and our ancestors trace their footsteps or their travels. “The very thing that distinguishes Indigenous peoples from settler societies,” Dina Gilio-Whitaker contends, “is their unbroken connection to ancestral lands.” For Dakota people, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers is Bdote, “where two waters come together.” It is a sacred site, the site of their creation as Wicahpi Oyate—the Star Nation, the people who were “originated in the sky and came into being on this land.”

The idea of place—what it means, what it’s called, and by whom—is integral to how we position ourselves, literally and figuratively, in a particular space. It’s how we define our relationship to a place, how we claim ownership or knowledge. To be from somewhere is to claim and be claimed. Names of cities, towns, lakes, rivers, and mountains hold stories and histories of people, of journeys, of violence—from the Minnesota cities like Minnetonka, Mankato, and Winona, whose names come from Native words and Native people, to the road names on Wisconsin reservations. The acts of naming, of renaming, of reclaiming, underscore these contested complexities.

I write this essay as a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Red Cliff, or what we call Miskwaabekong, is where I am from, but it’s a place where I have never lived. The reservation was created through a treaty signed in 1854 that moved our ancestors from Madeline Island to the mainland, close to their ancestors’ traditional fishing grounds. It’s land that our leaders fought to protect, as Chief Buffalo did in the 1850s when he traveled from Madeline Island by canoe, by steamship, and by rail to Washington, D.C., to protest federal attempts to illegally remove the Ojibwe from their homelands. It’s land that Wisconsin conservation officers continually prowled throughout the twentieth century, arresting Ojibwe citizens for exercising their treaty-guaranteed rights to hunt, fish, and gather on treaty-ceded territory. It’s land that Red Cliff has long worked to reclaim, from the restoration of former reservation lands to the 2012 creation of Frog Bay Tribal National Park.

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I write this essay from my home in a western suburb of Minneapolis, a house that sits on Dakota homelands. It’s a little bit of a drive, but we’re not too far from Minnehaha Falls or Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha, landmarks that were renamed to capitalize on the popularity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” Longfellow’s amalgamation of Native oral traditions and the work of geographer, geologist, and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft—including Longfellow’s incorrect belief that Hiawatha was another name for the Ojibwe cultural hero Nanabozho—painted idealized and romanticized versions of Native names across the city and across the country. Longfellow’s dramatized invocation of Native history turned oral histories and traditions into commercialized fodder for the city of Minneapolis.

This tradition of settlers naming spaces after Indigenous nations continues beyond the regions where they originate. Natchee Blu Barnd found a road named Manitou Way while driving in California. This discovery of an Ojibwe word on what Barnd calls an “admittedly banal sign” pulled Barnd off an errand-running task and onto Bannock Avenue, Samoset Avenue, Tecumseh Way, Saginaw Avenue, and Miami Court. This geographic and national dissonance, though, is not confined to this California cluster. There are cities named Tecumseh in Nebraska and Michigan. Tecumseh, Kansas sits in Shawnee County, while Tecumseh, Oklahoma is in Pottawatomie County. Tecumseh Furnace, Alabama, is part of Cherokee County, not too far from The Indian Mountain Tract. There’s a town in Wisconsin called Cherokee, and there’s another town called Cherokee in Iowa. There are towns called Pontiac in South Carolina and Rhode Island. In a southwest suburb of Minneapolis, Great Plains Boulevard intersects with Pioneer Trail. In a small town northwest of the Twin Cities, Chippewa Road crosses Mohawk Drive less than five miles west of Sioux Drive and not too far from where Tomahawk Trail meets another Pioneer Trail.

The geographic conflation of Native nations and their homelands is also a historical process, one that elides, if not outright ignores, the histories of forced land cessions and forced removals. The act of naming—and the power inherent in that choice – forces us to reckon with what it means to name a place after a Native nation whose place-based history is hundreds or thousands of miles away. Places named after Native leaders who fought against the imposition of settler colonialism, like Tecumseh and Pontiac, are a triumph over Native resistance, a reminder of their supposed defeat.

Minnesota suburbs like Shakopee and Chaska take their names from Dakota men. Sakpe, also known as Little Six, participated in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Sakpe and another leader, Medicine Bottle, fled to Canada after the war, only to be drugged, captured, and brought back across the border in 1864 and hanged in 1865. Chaska was one of more than three hundred Dakota men condemned to death in the aftermath of the war before President Abraham Lincoln commuted all but thirty-eight of the sentences. Chaska’s sentence was commuted, but in what was either a deliberate move or a case of mistaken identity, he was among the thirty-eight Dakota men hanged in Mankato on the day after Christmas in 1862. This remains the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, an execution sanctioned by a president who would sign the Emancipation Proclamation within several weeks of the hangings.


In Minneapolis—the largest city in Minnesota—its Chain of Lakes became a battleground in the 2010s and early 2020s. The Dakota have always called the city’s largest lake Bde Maka Ska, or White Earth Lake. Surveyors sent by John C. Calhoun, an ardent supporter of slavery and Indian removal who served as secretary of war, renamed the lake as Lake Calhoun in the early nineteenth century. In the 2010s, Indigenous advocates urged local and state agencies to reclaim its Native name, while non-Native homeowners took out full-page ads in Minneapolis’s Star Tribune and started the “Save Lake Calhoun” website. The five-year fight ended in 2020 when the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the DNR Commissioner had the authority to change the lake’s official name.

The protracted and highly publicized push to reclaim the lake’s original Indigenous name highlights what Barnd calls “the embedded role of geography as a central defining factor of all colonial endeavors.” Minnesota is a state that tends to pride itself on what many consider to be its racial progressiveness, a place where folks often conveniently forget about redlining and racial covenants in its wealthy suburbs. There are those who quickly rise to the defense of their state, ignoring that military commanders and local leaders held enslaved people at Fort Snelling a few decades before the fort became a concentration camp, or who were aghast at the lived experiences that non-white Minnesotans publicly shared in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

On the Red Cliff reservation in northern Wisconsin, names of newer roads like New Housing Road and Tiny Tot Drive mirror tribal efforts to house and care for its citizens. These roads aren’t too far from Bineshii Road, which takes its name from the Ojibwe word for bird, or Pageant Road, a historical holdover from a 1920s tourism endeavor. Reservation Highway 1 is also known as Blueberry Road, a testament to the long history of berrying and its role in Ojibwe sustenance and subsistence-based labor. In the summer of 2021, Red Cliff’s Transportation Department announced a proposal to rename Bishop Lane Loop in order to avoid confusion with another road called Bishop Lane. Citing a tribal council resolution revitalizing Ojibwemowin as Red Cliff’s official language, the public announcement noted that any suggested road names were to be submitted in both English and Ojibwemowin. As more and more Native nations move toward the implementation of bilingual signage on their reservations, Red Cliff’s deliberate reclaiming of place names mirrors its ongoing land reclamation projects.

The act of place-naming is not as obvious, insidious, or explicitly violent as wars, genocide, or forced removal. But the erasure of Native peoples remains a deeply rooted element of this region’s history. They may seem innocuous, but the names of the places where we live and work, the places we travel to and through, are tied to the lingering legacies of Native and settler colonial interactions. Our deliberate removal from these places by agents of settler colonialism – the Indian agents, the land speculators, the missionaries, the militaries, the government officials, and the settlers who followed – was intended to erase us from the landscape.

For Native people, our geographies proclaim, as Barnd contends, “‘we are still here’ in a most grounded way.” Our geographies are tied to our memories, to the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and the stories we never got to hear. Our connections to place help us identify who we are and who our ancestors were. “So much of it,” Staci Lola Drouillard writes, “has to do with being from somewhere—of being able to trace the history and footsteps of those who came before us.” Settler colonialism removes our ability to trace our relationship and responsibility to our land, making it harder to know what it means to grow up learning how to gather and prepare wild rice or gather maple sap for syrup, to use the land the way our ancestors did.

But our places, and our names for these places, survive. They survive in the way that we as Native people are not only surviving but thriving. The reclamation of lands and place names are tied to the language and cultural revitalization, food sovereignty, and Indigenous environmentalism. The legacies of the land are part of who we are, just as we are part of the land. ■



This story is part of the Indigenous Rust Belt project, supported by Ohio Humanities.

Katrina Phillips is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She earned her BA and PhD from the University of Minnesota. She is currently an assistant professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she teaches courses on American Indian history and the history of the American West. Her first book, Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History, is scheduled to come out of the University of North Carolina Press in the spring of 2021. Her next book project will look at activism, environmentalism, and tourism on and around Red Cliff.

Cover image of Minneapolis, Minnesota by Joe Passe (creative commons).

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