Recent events, namely the South Carolina Confederate flag issue, have initiated a debate concerning the namesake for Minneapolis’ beloved Lake Calhoun. We would like to offer a line of reasoning that argues for a return to the original Dakota name: Mde Maka Ska. Our vantage point is informed by our work in history, biology and limnogeology.
Many perspectives concerning the lake are decidedly shortsighted, only taking a small portion of the lake’s history into account. Last summer, we collected a core sample of lake sediment and studied its pollen content — focusing, in particular, on the ecological record of an early-19th-century Dakota agricultural village on the shore of the lake. The village, the result of a surprisingly successful partnership between Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro of Fort Snelling and Cloudman, an English-speaking Dakota man, was called “Kay-h yah-ta Otanwa” by the Dakota and “Eatonville” by the U.S. government. It is known today colloquially as “Cloudman’s Village.” Over the course of a decade, from 1828 to 1839, it grew from just a few families to a thriving hub of around 300 Dakota inhabitants. Ample agricultural tools and resources coupled with excellent leadership resulted in a non-coerced Dakota agricultural settlement. It was nothing short of a historical anomaly.
Examining a core sample is tantamount to looking into a crystal ball in reverse; it’s almost like staring history directly in the face. That’s why, as our study progressed, it became difficult at times to focus solely on a single decade, or even a single century. The laminations in the sediment show a long, deep and meaningful history of Native stewardship that extends centuries upon centuries before the arrival of John C. Calhoun’s surveyors. We find it troubling that some simply can’t bring themselves to honor the original stewards of the lake.
Opposition to the proposed name change has been focused on creating smoke screens, claiming that no one will be able to pronounce or recall the original Dakota name, and that local businesses and locations will still bear the “Calhoun” moniker. To the first point we simply say: “Wanamingo, Kiester, Embarrass, Zerkel and Clontarf.” To the second point, we note that names change all the time: There have been more than 30 name changes to nations of the world since 1970.
The opposition also invokes the old slippery-slope argument, claiming that one name change will inevitably lead to changing names everywhere. This is hyperbole and only serves to distract from the issue at hand.
Thus we urge you, the reader, to educate yourself on just who John C. Calhoun really was. His pro-slavery views have been expounded upon in a plethora of articles and — despite the complexities and nuances that exist in any one human — we believe that the overwhelming and enduring legacy he leaves unduly muddies the waters of this fair lake. We hope you will consider taking the time, as we have, to gaze deeper into the cultural and natural history of Minneapolis’ largest lake, Mde Maka Ska.
Grant Two Bulls graduated from Breck School and will attend Dartmouth College this fall. Matthew Beckman is an assistant professor in the Biology Department and Environment Studies Program at Augsburg College. Amy Myrbo is a research associate and director of outreach, diversity and education in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Minnesota.