Unfolding the Map
Thief River Falls sounds like an ominous place, but actually appears to look quite nice. It also has an interesting history about its unique name. I'll examine the allure of secret places in this post. To locate this once hidden and secret location, steal on over to the map.
"Thief River Falls, another town of Nordic cleanliness, reportedly got its name through an odd mingling of history and language. A group of Dakota Sioux lived on the rich hunting grounds here for some years. Although the bellicose Chippewa controlled the wooded territory, the Dakotas managed to conceal a remote settlement by building an earthen wall around it and disappearing inside whenever the enemy came near. They even hunted with bows and arrows rather than risk the noise of guns. But the Chippewa finally found them out and annihilated them. Because the mounds hid a portion of the river, the Chippewa referred to it as 'Secret Earth River.' Through some error, early white traders called it 'Stealing Earth River'; through additional misunderstanding, it came to be 'Thief River.'"
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10
Thief River Falls, Minnesota
I remember the first "big" book that I ever got. I can't remember the exact date but I must have been about 10 or 11. It was a thick paperback book, and it had more pages than I'd ever seen in my life. I was a good reader, but I felt a little daunted by this book and masked it with indifference. I couldn't see why I should read it, after all, I was doing just fine. I was a good reader, and had impressed my third grade teachers by reading at an eighth grade level. But as I looked at this heavy book, it made me nervous.
I eventually read it, and I was glad I did. It was the perfect book for young kid who thought that going outside and playing army men and riding his bike was the epitomy of a perfect day. I couldn't put the book down, and when I finished, I was sorry that the book had to end. It also cemented my love of fiction, works that (prior to my knowing about Homer) had an Odyssey like quality to them (predating my love of travel books) and also sent me down the fantasy road that introduced me to works like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Silverlock. What, you haven't read Silverlock? Well, go get yourself a copy and read it as soon as you can!
The book was Watership Down, and I'm associating it with this post because of the quote above. In Watership Down, a group of rabbits is driven by a tragedy at their original home to travail cross-country to find a new home. They encounter and surmount dangers, and find a new home in an abandoned rabbit warren under a copse of trees on a small hill. The hidden and isolated nature of their new home protects them from predators and from being discovered by other rabbit warrens. Eventually, their need for females to help populate the new warren brings them into contact with an authoritarian and fascist warren and they eventually are discovered. Unlike the Dakota Sioux in LHM's quote, however, they survive being discovered after winning a decisive battle.
There are lots of references to groups of people who have used the hidden nature of their surroundings to thrive and survive. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings, writes in The Silmarillion about the hidden and mighty city of Gondolin in the age before the events of the Lord of the Rings. Those who entered the city were never permitted to leave. It was only when Gondolin was betrayed that it was destroyed by the forces of evil.
In Turkey, in the Cappadocia region, there are as many as a hundred hidden underground cities near established towns and villages. They were used by villagers to escape wild animals and people that meant them harm. Carved in the tufa, or ancient volcanic rock, they could use up to 5000 people on multiple levels. They were utilized by early Christians to escape persecution, and some fine Byzantine-era churches complete with fantastic frescoes can be found carved in the rock there.
Of course, there have often been cities and cultures hiding in plain sight among us. National Geographic recently had a feature on the catacombs underneath Paris that draws a whole host of "cataphiles," even though it is illegal to go there. I've read about underground scenes in other cities as well. I took a tour of the Seattle underground, and New York has a whole set of abandoned subway stations. So does Berlin - phantom stations that were closed off after the Berlin Wall was built.
I wonder how the Dakota Sioux were able to get away with such a ruse in what would become Thief River Falls, Minnesota? Did the Chippewa just not traverse the area very much to see the earthen wall? Did the Dakota do such a good job of building the wall that it appeared a natural feature of the riverbank? Was there some superstitions at work that are an untold part of the story? Was the place sacred to the Chippewa and therefore they overlooked a people living right under their noses until one day they discovered the affront to their religious sensibilities?
In my experience, we tend to see things that we want to see and miss things that we don't. In my personal life, I'm often amazed how I can be frantically looking all over the place for something, like car keys, that are hanging on a hook that my eye gazes at over and over. Why don't I see the keys? Or, I might be looking for something in the refrigerator that is front and center and I just don't register it. Perhaps the Dakota had the right idea - if you don't want to be seen, hide in plain sight. Our paper just had a story about a man who was indicted for murder and who was just caught after 25 years on the run. He had been a street musician in San Francisco, seen by a lot of people every day.
I recently read a book called The Secret Garden, which was not only a coming of age book about children but also a study in selective perception. The father in the story, a hunchback, lost his beautiful wife at a young age and as a result lost his ability to enjoy life. He began to selectively ignore and avoid anything that reminded him of his wife, particularly the beautiful garden they built together and the young son they made. The garden, the son, and the girl who befriends him were all metaphors for beauty ignored and left to develop on its own. It becomes flawed, but will spring back if given the right attention, love and care. Finally, the father is able to see his son after he and the garden have been tended and become strong and beautiful again.
We daily use such selective perception, which can serve us well or ill. It would not be a stretch to think that hidden places that elude our awareness exist right in front of us, and will be revealed, if ever, in their due time and when we are ready.
If you want to know more about Thief River Falls
Next up: Bagley, Minnesota