I live in a small community in S.W. Minnesota and within our community we have a beautiful body of water called Okabena Lake. I’m a student of history and enjoy keenly the journals of historic explorers that traversed this region in the early days of expansion.

The name Okabena is purported to be a Siouian word meaning “The Gathering place of Herons.” The attribution comes from Joesph Nicollet an early cartographer and ethnologist from 1830’s. The journals “On the Plains and Prairies” , by Nicollet is a fascinating book about Nicollet finding two native guides in St. Peter that professed to know the location of the Pipestone quarries. The book is his notes of a thirty day journey across South Western Minnesota in search of these quarries. I’ve used his journals as an historic atlas and road map to view the landscape from his point of view. I’ve traversed and retraced much of his journey. With book in hand I’ve triangulated many of his observations to understand that I have stood nearly in the precise spot in which he made the original observations. His field notes were translated from French to English in 1976 by Edmund and Martha Bray.

I am an avid birder and I’ve paid attention to birds of South Western Minnesota for fifty years. I can tell you of the advance of blue grosbeaks into Minnesota in the 1960’s, I can tell you the first sighting & return of the turkey vultures into this south west region. I can approximate years, dates and numbers as I am an amateur birder.

Over the years I’ve pondered the word Okabena and this curious translation, “Gathering place of Herons”. I know the birding habitats in my region and this notion of “Gathering place of Herons” has always seemed a bit overblown. We have herons, Great Blue, Green and Night Herons, nesting in such proliferation to create a namesake? I’ve never found that plausible. Farming practices have erased some habitat but not to the degree that it would wipe out any noticeable rookeries of herons. Great Blue Herons often times nest in Cottonwood trees (Populus Deltoides) the tree is a limited to the shorelines and river bottoms.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider this word “Okabena”. As the fog rises this morning I am looking out my front window watching a spectacular sight. A sight that seasonally is etched in my mind. It is a raft of Pelicans hunting the waters of Okabena Lake. As they lift off the water they glide with a ease of no other bird. When they appear, they are singularly they most profound and diagnostic bird on this lake. As I watch them catch an updraft they all reel and glide in perfect unison. Their flight movement is precise and in perfect measure. One hundred yards above me the markings on their wings all appear at the exact time, as precise as an Elgin movement. It leaves an indelible image in my mind.

Photos by John Kelsey (Minnesota Birding Photography)

Two miles south of my home is an historic gathering spot of sub-adult (non breeding) Pelicans, they remain all summer and their number range perhaps 100 to 200. They have occupied this spot on Lake Ocheda for as long as anyone can remember. They have been a fixture as long as parents, grand parents and great grandparents can remember.

It is time to dial 1-800 ask an Archeologist. My Uncle Mike is just that person and he is also an avid birder. When I posed my question about casting doubt of the validity of the name Okabena, he laughed hardily….”If you want to understand Souxian languages you must understand that there were numerous languages being spoken in the area.” The French arrived around 1680’s and trying to understand the various languages was nearly total chaos. Language barriers were daunting which is why sign language became so important. This archeologist is a person of unbound resource and wisdom, he would consult in Siouxian dictionary and get back to me. The following week he got back to me and reported that the word “Okabena” is not to be found in the native dictionary. Numerous Dakota languages spoken but not Lakota, that was farther to the west. He did research on the syllabic breakdown of the word because that might contribute some insight. “Oka” “Bena” may have a relationship to our avian friends in the context of “egg” & “ gathering”. This is a curious turn of events that was not what I wanted to hear, but yet it is avian in it’s relationship. It establishes the fact that there were marshes and lakes that harbored a food source…….”a place to gather duck eggs?”

Now it’s time to dial 800- ask an ornithologist and get the earliest known records of pelicans in this county & lake region. Alas, I’ve fallen a bit short on this research and have a deadline to meet!

There is no bird that resides on his small lake that is more visible on its arrival, both in the air and on the water. There is no bird that looks more regal, there is no bird that would leave a greater impression in the mind of the those that reside in this region. If I met someone that did not speak my language and wanted to know a defining characteristic about this lake, I might hold out my arms and imitate the flapping and soaring of a pelican. The person inquiring might take my gestures as that of a Great Blue Heron.

Perhaps history should be re-written, OKABENA-“A Place where PELICANS reside” could this be a plausible contention?

Bill Keitel


  1. Read the civil was book by Bassett. In addition to the war diary there are many pages about early pioneer life. Bassett explores redwood falls and nobles county searching for a place to start farming. Pages about working as a surveyor west of Duluth.

  2. Here are a few tidbits to flavor Bill’s history comments. East of Worthington is Heron Lake; don’t know to origin of that name but there could have been herons nesting there. On the western shore of the lake is the small town of Okabena. Don’t know the origin of that place name either.

  3. A short history I read about Heron Lake did indeed mention that it was a nesting place for colonies of herons.; hence the name. Okabena Creek rises in the northwest edge of Worthington and drains eastward into Heron Lake and passes through Okabena . I’ve found no hint as to how the town of Okabena got it’s name. The question is which was named first? The town, the creek or the lake?

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