Two hundred years ago, somebody befouled a Minnesota lake with John C. Calhoun’s name.
Now a state appellate court says we’re stuck with it until the Legislature takes action.
Which means we’re stuck with it.
It doesn’t matter that Minneapolis spent years trying get Calhoun’s name out of our lake.
It doesn’t matter that Calhoun loved slavery a lot more than he loved America.
It doesn’t matter the lake had a name — Bde Maka Ska — hundreds of years before Calhoun came along.
What matters, according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, is this state’s firm no-takebacks law of lake names. Once a lake has a name for 40 years, the judges ruled, only the Minnesota Legislature has the power to change it.
This follows a meeting at the University of Minnesota last Friday, where the regents voted not to rename a few buildings: The Coffman student union, named after the guy who barred black students from the dorms. A dorm, Middlebrook Hall, named after the administrator who helped Coffman segregate the dorms. Coffey Hall, named for yet another segregationist. Nicholson Hall, named for a dean of students who thought Jewish students were Communists.
Since their names were already stuck up there on the buildings, the regents voted 10-1 to keep them there.
Minnesota abides by a “you-are-racist/I-am-glue” rule for naming things. Bluntly put, Calhoun, Coffman and the others were racists and now their names are stuck to us like glue, tarnishing buildings and cherished natural amenities.
If the job of renaming things now falls to the Legislature, that’s bad news for the Legislature.
Minnesota has 11,842 lakes. The Legislature’s only in session a few months a year. And our politicians are notoriously bad at naming things. They’ve been trying to name a state mammal for four decades.
Lawmakers did step up in the 1990s to strip every Squaw Lake off the map in Minnesota. But helping people find better names for lakes fell to a different corner of government — the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“The DNR doesn’t care what a lake’s name is,” said former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
His department was just there to review name change requests and pass them along. The lake renaming system has been in place for years, operating without much controversy, pushed along by community requests.
“It was always intended that there could be a lake name change, and it was almost always presumed to start with local decisionmakers,” Landwehr said.
If the appeals court ruling is upheld by the state Supreme Court, it’s unclear what it would mean for all the Mud Lakes we’ve already renamed.
Mud Lake is the most common lake name in Minnesota — there are at least 200 of them and local communities have only gotten around to renaming about five.
The people who live by Mud Lake(s) or Lake Calhoun are the ones who get sick of that name defining their community. They’re the ones who circulate petitions and go to the meetings and wade through years of state, local and federal paperwork to change the name to something better.
That’s the thing about naming and renaming lakes. It’s personal, not political.