Ask a 'sotan: How many lakes in Minnesota have their native language name?

Anglers on Lake Winnibigoshish returned to shore.
Anglers on Lake Winnibigoshish returned to shore after competing in a Minnesota Tournament Trail walleye fishing tournament Friday, August 14, 2015 near Deer River, Minn.
Derek Montgomery

Recently in The 'sotan weekend newsletter, we seek out an expert to tell us whether a number of lake names have a native language origin.

How many lakes in Minnesota have their original Indian name? Janice Tarnow, Rochester

Great question, and one that is not easy to answer. There are a couple of ways to look at the names of lakes. There are some very popular names that are not native in origin, but are "native inspired." This would include: Minnetonka: "Big Water" named by Governor Ramsey. He made up the name from two Dakota words "Minne" meaning water and "tonka" meaning big or great. The Dakota did not use this words to describe the lake.

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Then there are names that were inspired by Henry Longfellow's 1855 Poem The Song of Hiawatha: Some of those included in this would be Lake Hiawatha, Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Creek, These were not the names used for these lakes/stream by the Dakota.

There are bodies of water that had native names, but were then translated into French or English. In the northwest, for example, the Roseau River is an Ojibway translation of "Reed-Grass River."

There are names that are truly native in origin. They tend to be descriptive. One example is Lake Winnibigoshish, with a rough Ojibway translation of "filthy water."

But every single name would need to be investigated to find out.

A great source is Warren Upham's "Minnesota Geographic Names".

~Pete Boulay is a climatologist at the Minnesota DNR State Climatology Office. He's also the geographic names staff for the DNR, and oversees the process to change a geographic name in the state.

Have a question you want to ask about life in Minnesota? We'll find the expert with the answer.

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