Driftless Minnesota — Winona County
Place names are signs and signifiers. Names to navigate and remember. Names to obscure and erase.
It is intuitive to point and name. Toddlers do it. Older people, too. Pointing and naming situates locations and contexts of direction. At the watershed scale, biotic life exists within watershed systems and geological structures. These are always changing, however slowly. Place names help us understand relationships as both being as they are and becoming what they will be. Between fields and forests, winds and waters, physical and metaphysical forces… lifeways and worldviews are given boundary markers. To point and name is to identify human-scale, geological, and celestial landmarks across cycles of seasonal change.
I was born and raised in the Driftless Area of southeastern Minnesota. After many years away, I recently re-located to the valley of Rollingstone Creek, in Winona County. It is a place with pragmatic and mystical histories; a beautiful and enchanting locale.
Miles of bluff promontories along the Mississippi’s western shore reach heights of nearly 600 feet above the river. Escarpments of dolostone (mixed dolomite and limestone) provide a window into deep time more-so than other parts of the Upper Midwest. People have been naming and renaming places here for at least 12,000 years.
Warren Upham’s 1920 geographic encyclopedia Minnesota Place Names includes about 15,000 names. A 1969 revision added about 1,400 names while a third edition in 2001 now describes more than 20,000 names. Two hundred years of material, cultural, and genetic exchange during the fur trade influenced many Upper Mississippi place names but nearly all of Upham’s entries were first applied in the 1850s and 60s during the fevered rush to stamp colonialism on the Middle West and dispossess Native nations of land and cultures. Generals, judges, land barons, and early claim-stakers are among the many Dead White Men memorialized as purveyors of Progress and Manifest Destiny.
Older names draw from deeper time. These are more interesting to me. As Dakota scholar Gwen Westerman has said, the Dakota language is descriptive and nuanced; it is capable of expressing complex relationships of ecology, geography, seasonal change, and astronomy.
Anglicized Indigenous place names of the Driftless Region’s Upper Mississippi Valley are based on Dakota (i.e. Sioux) and Ho-Chunk (i.e. Winnebago) words and phrases. Other influential groups moving through the Driftless in recent centuries include Sauk & Meskwaki (Sac & Fox), Ioway, and Kickapoo. Oneota and Mississippian mound-builder cultures in the Driftless Area predate all of the above. Ultimately, the western shores of the Big River are traditional ancestral lands and waters of the eastern Dakota whose human kin today include members of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community near Prior Lake and the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing. Distinct traditions of languages and lifeways extend through all Indigenous groups and should be considered complex and varied living traditions rather than simply historical entities.
So, Rollingstone... Not the magazine; not the band; just the town. Well, the town, the creek, and the township.
The Rollingstone township and town itself were named for the creek. In Winona’s first settler historian Lafayette Bunnell’s 1883 History of Winona County, he uses the Rolling Stone creek Dakota name: Eyan-omen-man-met-pah. The literal translation, he writes, is “the stream where the stone rolls.” French fur traders, likely translating the Dakota name, also called the area Roche que le Boule, according to Bunnell. “The Tumbling Rock” was also a name given in the journals of Maj. Thomas Forsyth who in 1819, with Col. Henry Leavenworth and troops, passed by Wapasha’s Prairie (Keoxa or Kiyuksa, at present-day Winona) en route to the central Bdote of Dakota life, at Mendota, situated below “the fort that in 1825 was named Fort Snelling.”
Bunnell and his brother Willard (and Willard’s wife Matilda) learned to speak both Dakota and Ho-Chunk through their years as traders near present-day Trempealeau, Wisconsin. On the Minnesota side, after permission from Wapasha III, the Bunnells built a house in 1858 and Willard platted the town of Homer near Minneowah bluff, just below Keoxa.
Matilda Bunnell, it should be noted, spoke French, English, Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, and Dakota. “She could shoot, paddle a canoe, and was respected by the Indians,” all while maintaining the girdled expectations of 19th century settler womanhood.
In 1897, Lafayette Bunnell wrote that the Dakota called Rolling Stone creek E-yan-o-min-man Watpah, meaning the “creek of the rollingstone, a dark trap-boulder, which was said to have furnished the altar-stone of sacrifice for the Wah-pa-sha band.” Bunnell’s informant, Thos . La Blanc, describes a “reverence for that particular stone, which, from its weight and color, [the Dakota] thought was Wah-kon, or sacred.”
Spellings of Dakota words can vary and many words are compound descriptive phrases. I welcome any Dakota speakers to correct this very basic analysis, but in picking apart the two different Bunnell spellings — Eyan-omen-man-met-pah and E-yan-o-min-man Watpah — I turned to the Dakota-English reference materials of the late 19th and early 20th century for translations.
The 1902 English-Dakota Dictionary by John P. Williamson describes In’yan as meaning a round stone. Likewise, o’mni as an adverb signifies “round and round” while as a noun denotes “an eddy” — the swirling currents of a river. These latter definitions come from the 1890 Dakota-English Dictionary by Stephen R. Riggs. Watpah means creek or river. It’s unclear if Bunnell’s met-pah is a misspelling of watpah, or if these are two different word-phrases emerging from two different contexts of use. Again, I welcome clarification on these interpretations.
Place name historian Paul Durand, in his Atlas of the Eastern Sioux, wrote that Iŋ’-yaŋ indicates stone or stones and hmi-hma’ means round, like a wheel. Thus, Iŋ’-yaŋ hmi-hma’ designated “a dark trap boulder which served as an altar stone for the Wapasha band. Sweetgrass and tobacco were presented as offerings. The adjacent creek took the same name.”
Drawing on Bunnell’s histories and many other sources, Myron A. Nilles composed and published A History of Wapasha’s Prairie 1660–1853 (First Called Keoxa, Later Winona, Minnesota) in 1978. A second edition was revised and reprinted in 2005. Here, we find other details about The Rolling Stone.
Nilles describes Rollingstone Creek by using Bunnell’s spelling, Eyanominman Watpah, to mean “creek of the dark boulder.” The Rolling Stone was at one time central to the large ceremonial grounds at Keoxa. These large ceremonial grounds were (are) west of where present-day Prairie Island Road intersects Riverview Drive in Winona.
At the center of the ceremonial ground, which was several hundred yards wide and long, was a smaller, 50-foot-diameter sacred arena with a tall pole standing at its center. On top of the twenty-foot pole was a small flag-like cloth made of fawn skin. The pole played an important part in several Dakota religious ceremonies, most notably the Bear Dance, a physical demanding ritual for young men intent on acquiring special status in the band. At the base of the tall pole stood a small, round stone about 15 inches in diameter called the Rolling Stone or the Great Spirit Shrine, a sacred, alter-like rock that was given such great religious significance by the Dakota that, even in ancient days before Wapasha’s Prairie had become an Indian camp, Indians travelled to the Rolling Stone shrine for worship and sacrifice.
It’s unclear whether the altar stone at the ceremonial grounds was literally the same Rolling Stone as the one at the creek for generations prior, or if it was a dark boulder of similar size, geomorphology, and sacred significance. Regardless, The Rolling Stone is not just a tumbling rock, but a small boulder of mystical significance — perhaps a glacial erratic transported from elsewhere because of its shrine-stone qualities.
No one seems to know where THE Rolling Stone is today. Perhaps it is was buried by the railroads or drowned by the Corps of Engineers in constructing a series of locks, dams, channels, and dikes on the Upper Mississippi in the 1930s. Or possibly it was spirited away to a cavern in the karst before Wapasha’s Prairie was cleared and platted for land-hungry Euro-Americans in 1851–53. I’d like to think that The Rolling Stone still rests in this valley and, as such, continues to enhance the deep enchantment that has drawn people here since time immemorial.
So, what’s in a name? Stories, explanations, warnings and invitations; connections to home and memories of intergenerational journey. Sometimes the best names are not new names per se, but the oldest names; original names from original peoples. At best, a critical curiosity around the pointing and naming of places past, present, and future is a healthy and productive investigation into evolving senses of self-in-place.
In 2015, Gwen Westerman addressed an audience at the Dakota-U.S War of 1862: A Symposium of Remembrance hosted by the Smithsonian. “A people’s connection to place,” she said, “is often an integral part of their identity.”
A rock may be more than a rock and a place has many names; names to remember and names to forget or erase. We can choose to identify and surround ourselves with named landmarks of conquest, practical navigation, or confluences of sacred power. We each can make those choices. A first step is to simply point, and speak their names.
A note on sources: The written and accessible history of The Rolling Stone has been documented by a limited number of people. Dakota and Ho-Chunk people have their own stories about topics relating to sacred shrines like that of The Rolling Stone. Those specific stories may or may not be stories for settlers to even know at all. Respectfully, I submit this admittedly imperfect story about a special place I am working to better understand. I start with a reflection on its name and welcome any and all corrections and feedback. Thank you for reading.
— Bunnell, L.H. (1883). History of Winona and Olmsted Counties, Minnesota. Chicago: H.H. Hill & Co.
— Bunnell, L.H. (1897). Winona and its Environs on the Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Days. Winona: Jones & Kroeger.
— Nilles, M.A. (2005/1978). A History of Wapasha’s Prairie — 1660–1853 (First called Keoxa, later Winona, Minnesota). Winona County Historical Society. Second edition.
— Upham, W. (2001/1920). Minnesota Place Names: A geographical encyclopedia. Minnesota Historical Society Press. Third edition.
— Riggs, S.R. (1890). A Dakota-English Dictionary. Washington: Government Printing Office.
— Williamson, J.P. (1902). An English-Dakota Dictionary. Wasicun ka Dakota Ieska Wowapi. New York: American Tract Society.