Debate over whether to change the name of Minneapolis’ largest lake has raged for years, and it’s time to make a decision.
Our recommendation to the Hennepin County Board: Lake Calhoun should be renamed Lake Maka Ska (Ma KHA ska), restoring the name originally bestowed by the Dakota Indians. The Dakota called this body of water Bde Maka Ska, meaning White Earth Lake or, in some translations, White Bank Lake. As a matter of practicality, we prefer “Lake” to “Bde.” Geographic names should be functional, and the lake should remain easy to find.
Contrary to what some critics have argued, the name change would not rewrite history. Instead, it would be an acknowledgment that history did not start with the white settlers to this land. In the case of Lake Calhoun, the naming decision was fairly arbitrary. Land surveyors sent here by then-Secretary of War John C. Calhoun opted to honor their patron.
Calhoun was a man of substantial accomplishment, who over the course of his life served as vice president, secretary of state, and in the U.S. Senate and House. But the South Carolina native also ardently defended slavery — not just as a “necessary evil,” as some did at the time — but as a “positive good.” He is particularly reviled among indigenous Americans for his push to remove tribes from traditional homelands, leading to the infamous Indian Removal Act, which relocated tribes east of the Mississippi River to government-designated reservations in the West.
Calhoun’s legacy is sufficiently stained that his alma mater, Yale University, earlier this year stripped his name from one of their residential colleges, renaming it Grace Murray Hopper College, after a Yale alum and pioneer mathematician and computer scientist. Some have argued that such renamings are part of a slippery slope, in which most historical figures will be found wanting. This is the “Should we rename the Washington Monument?” type of nonsense that is best ignored.
Minneapolis has actually changed lake names before, to little ill effect. For nearly a century, Lake Nokomis was called Lake Amelia, after the daughter of a U.S. captain. Lake Hiawatha once bore the name Rice Lake, for the wild rice that grew there. City park commissioners, with apparently little fuss, changed both in the 1920s, choosing instead, names from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Song of Hiawatha,” about a fictional Ojibwe warrior.
Minnesota is richer for the Indian names that dot its landscape. Winona (firstborn daughter), Bemidji (lake with a river through it), Cokato (in the middle), Kanabec (snake), Isanti (knife), Wayzata (north shore) and many other Indian place names are daily, lyrical reminders of this state’s origins.
Lake Maka Ska should join those ranks.