Walk down an average street in downtown White Bear Lake, and try to count the number of white bear yard decorations, or breeze by the window of the Medicine Chest. White bears are a symbol that have become integral to the identity of this community, but the origin of the legend that inspired this trend is more mysterious in nature.
The area around White Bear Lake was the home of the Dakota people for hundreds of years before European settlement. Even then, it was a place people wanted to be.
“It was a lake that had a lot of resources that were important to them — a maple sugar grove on the island, wild rice in the marshes on the north side of the lake, and there were and still are some Indian mounds all around the lake, which is an indication of the importance of a place to the people who lived here,” said White Bear Lake historian Mary Jane LaVigne.
LaVigne has been researching the origin of the story that gave the lake its name since the '80s. In 2014, she had another opportunity to look more closely at this history when she and her husband, artist Allen Christian, created the pedal bear for the Art Shanty project on frozen White Bear Lake.
“White Bear Lake” is a translation of the Dakota name “Mahto Bde,” meaning “Bear Lake.” It also provided the basis of the name “Mahtomedi.”
LaVigne explained that the Dakota had three styles of naming.
“They never named places after people, because people are too transitory and their reputation changes,” she said. “So what they name things after are resources, geographic features, and also stories. Of all of those things, places that are named for stories are in some ways the most special, the most unusual. So what we do know is that there are Dakota stories that led to the naming of this lake.”
The challenge was in clarifying what those stories actually were. Many White Bear Lake residents are familiar with the legend of the Indian brave who rescued a maiden from a fierce white bear—after all, it's the legend printed on a historical marker in Matoska Park. But this version of the tale almost certainly took some liberties to romanticize the story. Somewhere beneath it, LaVigne was sure there was an older version of the tale waiting to be told.
One of the first Euro-American references to the lake's name was by French cartographer Joseph Nicollet. He was hired to create maps of the area in the 1830s, and the lake appeared as “Bear's Lake” in his drawing.
“He made it a point to give geographical features the names that the native people had for them,” LaVigne said. “He was very eloquent in talking about how important it was to retain the names. We know that that story of White Bear Lake as Bears Lake goes back at least to the early 1800s.”
The story as most people know it was popularized by Mark Twain's book “Life on the Mississippi.” Twain never visited White Bear Lake, but made it clear that his retelling of the story was quoted from another text.
LaVigne is certain that Twain's version came from one of the popular guidebooks of the mid-19th century. These books included maps and legends from the community, and many people used them for adventure travel in the frontier part of the country in the 1850s.
However, she has not been able to locate the specific book that contains the source material of the White Bear Lake legend. A similar version of the story told by Twain is also relayed in a letter written by a St. Paul Press man in 1854, now kept at the Minnesota Historical Society. The story also appears to be quoted from another source.
“He did not make up that story,” LaVigne said. “We just haven't found the smoking gun.”
Since then, several other versions of the legend have surfaced, clearly with quite a bit of artistic license. In her research, LaVigne said she has heard two stories that are plausible enough to be the original legend.
St. Paul historian Fletcher Williams, who was the director of the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1870s, had conducted many oral history interviews. One of his interviews revealed that the Dakota word “mahto” today translates as “white bear,” but in an older form of the language, it means “grizzly bear.” The journals of Lewis and Clark confirm that Dakota and Lakota people referred to grizzlies as “big white bears.”
“It's probable that this was Grizzly Bear Lake,” LaVigne said. “The story goes that a man was hunting a grizzly bear. Hunting down a bear took a certain kind of patience. If you were going to kill a grizzly bear, you needed a bunch of people to help you with it. This man provoked a grizzly alone to prove himself, and [both he and the bear] ended up dying, and they were buried on the shore of the lake, so that's why they called it White Bear Lake.”
Another plausible story is from a White Bear Press article from the 1930s, which details a legend that a spirit drew a line between the Dakota people and their foe, the Ojibwe people, which ran across the lake, and leapt across the St. Croix River.
“A bear was put on the island to guard the line between the Ojibwe and Dakota people,” LaVigne said. “This was a contested zone between the two groups.”
This story also might explain the name of Manitou Island. “Manitou” is the Ojibwe word for “spirit.”
“There's so many little pieces you can put together when you dig a little bit deeper into that story,” LaVigne said. “Our place is a storied place. I'm not a critic of any of the layers of story; it's just useful to see where they come from: the real solid ancientness of this as a Dakota place. That's a precious thing, and a valuable thing for us to know.”
The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture has an initiative titled Honor Native Land, which seeks to acknowledge the indigenous residents of an area through verbal recognition at the opening of ceremonies, meetings and events. This practice is commonplace in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and is gaining more attention in the United States.
LaVigne said she'd love it if residents of the White Bear Lake area were more aware of the lake's Dakota name: Mahto Bde. (pronounced “ma-TOE BEE-day”).
“The fact that they got these names right testifies to the continuing presence of Dakota people here even when they were not celebrated, or when they could not claim themselves to be Dakota because they might be disenfranchised,” LaVigne said. “It would be great if we could get the name out there.”
Jackie Bussjaeger is the editor of the Forest Lake and St. Croix Valley Lowdown, and can be reached at 651-407-1229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.