Imniza Ska (“White Cliffs” of Saint Paul)

Imniza Ska, White Bluffs of Saint Paul - Photo by Peter Ladd

Imniza Ska, White Bluffs of Saint Paul – Photo by Peter Ladd

One day in June 2011, my wife, Mary Beth Faimon, and I took a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi River from Harriet Island in Saint Paul. On the cruise, I saw, for the first time, Imniza Ska, the white cliffs that line the Mississippi River. Imniza Ska is the name given by the Dakota people, referring to the white sandstone in the bluffs, for the area in which the present-day city of Saint Paul is located. Today, however, we just say that Imniza Ska is Saint Paul.

I think that the city of Saint Paul ought to acknowledge in some way the ancient Dakota name Imniza Ska. This place name ought to be taught in the public schools of Saint Paul as well as in its colleges and universities. People who think that Norwegians were the first people in Minnesota would learn that the Dakota People were the first Minnesotans.

Also, the Dakota name of Mini Sota Makoce, “Land Where the Waters Reflect the Skies, or Heavens” (Mato Nunpa’s translation), is the term from which the name “Minnesota” is derived. Dr. Charles Eastman, a fellow Wahpetunwan (“Dwellers in the Leaves”) Dakota, translates Mini Sota Makoce as “Land of Sky-Blue Waters,” a beautiful translation. Both translations refer to the thousands of lakes that are found in the north-central region of the United States, and in parts of southern Canada. A native Saint Paulite, Theodore Hamm, used Dr. Eastman’s translation in a slogan for Hamm’s beer: “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.”

Imniza Ska and Mini Sota Makoce are just two of the many place names that either are Dakota words or are derived from the Dakota language. The year 2012 is the 150th anniversary (or sesquicentennial) of the Dakota–U.S. War of 1862 and it is an important time to honor and highlight the rich history of Dakota place names. It would be good if these dozens of Dakota place names would be taught in the schools and colleges and, eventually, be included in the textbooks about Minnesota history.

Saint Paul is located within the 155,000-plus acres of land ceded in the Treaty of 1805, the first treaty between the Dakota Oyate (“People” or “Nation”) and the United States. In general, the story of this treaty “negotiation,” greased by sixty gallons of whiskey, is a dishonorable story, so typical of the American government in its dealings with Dakota people and other indigenous peoples of the United
States. This land, upon which Saint Paul is located, is land for which payment has not been made. This Dakota writer is hoping that the nation (that is, the United States) and state (that is, Minnesota), both of which consider themselves moral and ethical, will consider paying for the land and making back-rent payments.

One more point: the area where the Minnesota River meets the Mississippi River is the birthplace of the Dakota people, according to the Bdewakantunwan Dakota. Bdewakantunwan is translated “Dwellers by Mystic Lake.” This area is considered “wakan,” or “sacred.” This is the Dakota “Garden of Eden.”

This junction of the two rivers is Bdo’–te, which means “where the rivers meet.” Bdo’–te can refer to any confluence of streams: a creek joining a river, a lake draining into a river, and so on. For whatever reason, someone, probably a missionary, used the letter “M” to represent the “B” sound; hence, we have “Mendota” instead of “Bdo’– te.” This area was considered maka cokaya kin, “Center of the Earth.” Joseph Nicollet translated the phrase as “center of the universe.” Nicollet does not mention the Dakota person/source from which he got the translation.

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