Native News

Grand Portage Band and MnDOT to unveil Ojibwe-English road signs

A sign marking a treaty boundary
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is installing 12 signs to mark the boundaries of a treaty signed in 1854 by three tribal nations and the U.S. government. One of the signs was installed on Nov. 1, 2021, near Grand Portage.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are unveiling six dual-language English-Ojibwe signs along Highway 61 later this week in far northeastern Minnesota, to mark river crossings and the reservation boundary.

Three of the river signs are outside the Grand Portage reservation, between the tribal community and the city of Grand Marais. It’s the first time MnDOT will post signs in an indigenous language outside reservation boundaries.

“It’s definitely a positive first step in recognizing the connection that we have not just to reservation lands but throughout ceded territory,” said Erik Redix, Ojibwe language coordinator for the Grand Portage Band. “And that recognition really benefits not just Indian people, but it benefits everybody.”

A ceremony is planned for Thursday at 11 a.m. for the unveiling of the first sign, at Manidoo-bimaadagaakowinii-ziibi, the Ojibwe name for the Devil Track River, just east of reference post 113.

Redix said the original indigenous language names often have a lot more meaning than the English versions. Take the Devil Track River. It’s Ojibwe name translates to “spirits going along on the ice.”

Redix is unsure how the English name for the river became Devil Track. But he said there was a frequent tendency of U.S. government officials and missionaries to equate Native spirituality with Devil worship.

“And that’s reflected in a lot of different places where the Indigenous language name would say something about a spirit, and it would get directly translated to devil.”

A sign reading Devil Track River
An image of the new dual-language Ojibwe-English sign that MnDOT is posting on Thursday at the Devil Track River crossing along Highway 61 in far northeast Minnesota. Manidoo-bimaadagaakowinii translates to “Spirits going along on the ice.”
Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

The Pigeon River, which marks the border between Minnesota and Canada, is also getting a new sign with the Ojibwe name Omiimii. Redix said that’s an accurate translation. He said Grand Portage elders recall huge numbers of passenger pigeons over the river.

“So much that they would blacken out the sky. And so they’d take them and smoke them. So it was a food source at that particular place,” Redix said.

With other names there’s uncertainty around where the Ojibwe name came from and how the English name was derived.

The name for the Flute Reed River in Ojibwe is Gaa-bibigwewanashkokaag, which translated means an elderberry shrub.

There are a couple different ways the name Flute Reed could have come from that. The first part of the Ojibwe word for elderberry, Redix said, is a verb which means “he or she plays the flute.”

But Redix said the wood of an elderberry can also be easily hollowed out. Historically, Ojibwe people in Grand Portage used them to make maple taps. But he said he doesn’t know if the wood was used to make flutes, or if it was simply a kind of wood that could be hollowed out like a flute.

“And we don’t quite know unfortunately, we don’t have the oral tradition or the archival documents to figure out exactly, like in the case of Flute Reed, where that kind of English name came from.”

Other rivers where dual-language signs will be posted include the Reservation River, whose Ojibwe name is Mashkiigwagamaa, which translated means cranberry marsh lake. Wiisaakode, the Ojibwe name for the Brule River, means burnt wood.

About a decade ago MnDOT developed a Dakota and Ojibwe language signage program to develop dual-language signs on highways that traverse tribal lands, to help tribal communities in their efforts to revitalize Native languages and to inform travelers of original geographic place names.

A map
A map of the rivers in the traditional territory of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The Band hopes to eventually post dual-language signs at all these river crossings.
Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

Three years ago the agency posted 12 highway signs in northeastern Minnesota to mark the boundaries of the 1854 treaty, signed by the Grand Portage, Bois Forte and Fond du Lac Bands and the U.S. government. The bands retain rights to hunt, fish and gather within that ceded territory.

Most of the tribal communities in the state, including Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Lower Sioux, Mille Lacs, Red Lake and White Earth now have dual-language signs posted at their borders. Many also have signs at rivers within their reservation boundaries.

Some counties, including St. Louis and Cook, have also developed programs to place dual-language signs on county roads.

The Grand Portage Band hopes to eventually install signs along all rivers in the Band’s traditional territory, which extends down the North Shore of Lake Superior to near Two Harbors. Redix said it’s part of a broader effort to restore indigenous place names.

“That connection to older Indigenous knowledge that had been honed over decades and centuries and passed through families, and if we can bring a little bit of that back, I think that’s an effort worth doing.”