Lake Calhoun may be a name that disappears into history.
The Minneapolis Park Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to change the name of the city’s landmark lake to Bde Maka Ska, its original Dakota name, in a nod to American Indians who lived near the lake and a repudiation of lake namesake John C. Calhoun, a vice president who was an ardent supporter of slavery.
“I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the Minnesota veterans of the Civil War buried at Lakewood Cemetery, across from the lake, or the Dakota people who were exiled from their homes than to remove the name of the man who was the architect of so much violence against them from our most beloved lake,” said District Commissioner Brad Bourn.
The push for Bde Maka Ska (“White Earth Lake”) — which won’t be official until it wins approval at the county, state and federal level — is a switch for the Park Board and comes after years of debate. Advocates of the change had argued that the lake, once the site of an important Dakota village, should not be named after Calhoun, the country’s seventh vice president, who signed the Indian Removal Act.
The lake has been called Calhoun for at least 197 years.
The Park Board earlier settled on bestowing two names on the lake, changing signs to say both Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska, but reconsidered that decision after Yale University announced in February that it would remove Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges. The changes are part of a national trend away from place names that honor racist or otherwise fraught figures.
Park Board officials also got a 2015 nudge from an online petition that demanded the lake not bear the name of a slavery proponent.
“I feel overwhelmed,” said Syd Beane, a descendant of Cloud Man, a Dakota leader. Beane has been involved in efforts to honor Dakota presence at the lake. “John Calhoun overshadowed the legacy of our ancestors,” he said.
Not everyone on the board initially favored the change.
Park Board President Anita Tabb, whose district stretches from the riverfront to the city’s western border and Lake Calhoun, was not present at Wednesday’s meeting. She previously said the change “doesn’t really address problems of equity” and could be a start down a slippery slope.
Michael Wilson, who served on the Park Board’s advisory committee, said he voted against dropping Calhoun’s name from the lake.
“I object to stripping away that part of our shared history,” he said. “I strongly support also recognizing the history of the native people who love this beautiful place by using the dual name.”
At Lake Calhoun, many people expressed support for the change.
“We’re in a position socially and culturally where we can accept the past but move forward,” said Amanda Clark of Minneapolis. “I don’t think we need to have any loyalty to a name just because it’s established.”
But some weren’t convinced Bde Maka Ska would catch on.
“For quite a while it will be called Lake Calhoun, because everybody knows that,” said Steph Meyer of Mendota Heights, who supports the change.
Timmie Beverly of Minneapolis, said the name shouldn’t be changed because it sets a precedent.
“I understand why they are changing it, but what else are they going to change?” he said.
For the change to be final, the Park Board needs to send a request to the Hennepin County Board, which would have to hold a public hearing, vote to approve the change, then make a proposal to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR would have to appeal to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for final approval.
Pete Boulay, who handles naming requests for the DNR, said he sees four to five geographic name changes a year but, “they’re not all controversial like Calhoun.”
Even if the Park Board changes the name legally, he said, it’s up to locals to accept it. Boulay suggested the board shouldn’t rush to erase the Calhoun name before the new name passes all the required steps.
“They can change the signs when they want to,” he said. But, “I would wait for the state’s decision before replacing the signs.”
Arlene Fried, co-founder of the Minneapolis Park Watch, a watchdog group, is among those who aren’t ready to accept the change. “You can remove the name Lake Calhoun from the signage,” she said, “but it will stay with us forever.”
The board also approved the Calhoun-Harriet Master Plan for the two lakes. A new sailing school and the temporary north boat launch were among improvements the Park Board weighed in on. After pushback, the Park Board added back into the plan an at-grade trail and sidewalk crossing of W. Lake Street west of E. Calhoun Parkway.
Gabriel Sanchez, who contributed to this report, is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.