Lake Calhoun continued on its way Tuesday to getting a new name — or an old name, depending on how you look at it.
A Hennepin County Board committee voted to change the name of the lake to Bde Maka Ska (pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah), the lake’s original Dakota name. The change must still receive final approval from the board next week, and then it must be ratified by state and federal agencies before it becomes official.
Tuesday’s 4-3 committee vote was the latest step in a long campaign to change the name of Minneapolis’ largest lake.
American Indians who once lived along the lake named it Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake. Then, about 200 years ago, federal surveyors decided to name it after Secretary of War John Calhoun, who had sent them to the area to prepare for the construction of Fort Snelling.
Calhoun, who went on to become vice president and a U.S. senator from South Carolina, was an outspoken supporter of slavery. For that reason, a petition with hundreds of signatures prompted the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 2015 to explore changing the name of the lake.
The effort to remove the Calhoun name comes at a time when communities across the country are grappling with racist histories attached to long-standing landmarks.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who voted against the name change, said he’s concerned that renaming Lake Calhoun will trigger a domino effect of renaming other landmarks, streets and schools.
“Once we start this, it will not end,” he said. “And I’m absolutely convinced of that.”
Opponents of the name change have argued that the Calhoun name is valuable to the city despite the history behind it. More than 300 residents along the lake signed a petition in September saying they didn’t support the change.
Bryn Mawr neighborhood resident Arlene Fried said she didn’t think it made sense to rename the lake, when streets and buildings around it likely will continue to bear the Calhoun name. “I just think it’s very confusing to put a new name on a landmark,” she said.
But supporters of the name change say it’s the only way to reckon with the racism suggested by the Calhoun name.
Syd Beane, whose Indian ancestors were driven out of Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862, has spent years working with his two daughters to change the name of Lake Calhoun. He said the divided vote Tuesday concerned him.
“The only way democracy stands,” he said, “is if ... institutional symbols are reconciled with our values that we’re all created equal and we all have equal rights.”
The name change issue went to the County Board after the park board voted last year to rename the lake. If the board ratifies the change next week, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names will have to sign off before the name change is official.
Before the vote Tuesday, Board Chairwoman Jan Callison introduced a measure to give the lake dual names, Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska, and framed it as a chance to educate the public and preserve both parts of the lake’s history. The amendment failed.
Before voting for the name change, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said restoring the lake’s original Dakota name was an important step toward reinstating a piece of Indian culture.
“I think renaming this space is appropriate because it reflects our values, our history and our aspirations,” he said.