Where will we end up if we keep changing the names of buildings, lakes and mountains to suit our vision of the way the world ought to be?
Why surrender to evolving norms of a new era that aim to be inclusive and thereby allow the perspectives of so-called minorities to dominate the decisions?
That’s how it came to pass that the tallest mountain in Alaska reverted from its colonial name, Mount McKinley, to its traditional Athabaskan name, Denali (“The Tall One”). The justification cited by the Department of the Interior was that President William McKinley had nothing to do with the mountain and had never even been to Alaska.
Why then do we have a city in Minnesota named Alexandria, when it is practically certain that Alexander the Great never stopped by?
What’s good about the name Denali is that it rolls off the euro-centric tongue and is easy to remember, like a brand of frozen pizza. The same cannot be said for the restored name of the largest lake in Minneapolis, Bde Maka Ska (Dakota for “Lake White Earth”).
This name brings to mind the faux-Dakota victory chant of the University of Minnesota, “Ski U Mah,” whose spurious etymology goes back to the mispronunciation of a misunderstanding. They added the Mah to rhyme with Rah!
A competing name to replace Lake Calhoun that lost out was Lake Medoza, after the Dakota word for loon. It should have won because it is much more mnemonic. It rings of a Dakota word we grew up with — Mendota (“where the rivers meet”). Or was that a Twins infielder in the 60s?
Medoza is certainly a more authentic homage to the state bird than the retail showcase on Nicollet Mall that uses the Latin word for loon, Gaviidae Common. It does sound vaguely like a Scandinavian word.
An even more clever insult is the Latin word for the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca. It’s not an indigenous word, even though it sounds like it. Although he was fluent in Ojibwa, explorer Henry Schoolcraft snipped parts off the Latin phrase veritas caput (true head) to come up with the neologism, Itasca.
Perhaps the most embarrassing misnomer in our region was the terrible decision to name the state racetrack after an English city, as if we were still a British colony — Canterbury Downs (now Canterbury Park). Blimey! The obvious name was Shakopee. It’s Native and local and sounds cool — plus we already know it.
But at least Canterbury refers to something, unlike the routes on our light rail system that made the bland switch to colors. When it was the Hiawatha Line, it meant something. And it was pretty easy to remember because the Hiawatha Line paralleled Hiawatha Avenue. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. But now it’s the Blue Line, which is totally arbitrary. Or is it the Green Line? I forget.
Oh, and why did they switch from meaningful names to abstract colors? Because that’s the way they do it in Europe! Why not just let Parliament make all of our decisions?
It’s too late to debate the new name of Lake Calhoun, but it’s never too late to analyze it. Bde Maka Ska is a lot to ask — five syllables (or is it six?). Perhaps it is the least I can do, which is the average level of effort that most Americans can muster for such things.
The great benefit of this minimal burst of cultural altruism is that it helps to assuage white guilt for the broken treaties and the genocidal efforts of our forebears, without actually doing anything. After all, the name Bde Maka Ska brings us back to the early 19th century, when the Dakota people lived on the shores of the lake in great numbers. We can hark back to a time when the ills of civilization had not yet spoiled these lands west of the Mississippi. Such lofty nostalgia is intoxicating — and diverting.
For if we immerse ourselves in an idealized reverie, we can ignore the actual Native people now living in the Twin Cities and beyond. That’s a big relief, because who wants to think about the low graduation rates of Native children, the trafficking epidemic victimizing Native women and the encampment of homeless people along Franklin Avenue? Yes, it is a good trade to only have to remember a new name for a lake, and not to be bothered by someone else’s problems. And we get to keep the land, after all.
We get to shed additional white guilt by shunning the name of John C. Calhoun. Now, he actually was connected to the area — though he didn’t visit. As secretary of war, Calhoun authorized the purchase of land and the building of Fort Snelling, the first foray into the future Minnesota by the U.S. government. Nevertheless, we can no longer honor a Southern slaveholder in our Yankee state.
It is a point of pride and inner satisfaction to take a strong stance opposing slavery. It is a conviction I will take to the grave. A friend of a friend on Facebook recently wrote, “I’m not a racist — my great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War!”
Truth be told, being antislavery is not quite the same thing as being anti-racism, but it is a lot less work. To truly fight racism, we would have to figure out how to dismantle its institutional structures and enlighten the attitudes of the majority of white Minnesotans who have no black friends — or any friends of color. We would also have to address the disparities in housing, employment and education that make the Twin Cities the fourth-worst place in America for blacks to live, according to USA Today.
Sorry, but I’m just too busy to deal with it. I’m against slavery. Isn’t that enough?
Recently, the debate has moved into the 20th century with a proposal to change the names of some of the important buildings at the University of Minnesota: Coffman, Middlebrook and Nicholson. Historical retrospection has revealed that these namesake leaders all supported racial segregation in dorms, a policy we cannot condone.
As someone who has earned two degrees at the U, I am honored to stand with my alma mater to firmly oppose racial segregation in absolutely all of its dormitories. And that includes Jews.
There. I feel better getting that on the record. Most importantly, it is another opportunity to shed some white guilt, without having to actually look into the status of racism on campus, diversity among the faculty or anything of the sort.
It is with a warm heart and clear conscience that I endorse the name changes of these buildings. All I ask is that they pick new names that are easy to remember, because I don’t want to tax my brain.
Steve LeBeau, of St. Paul, is a writer, editor and producer and host of the WCCO Radio podcast “Synapse: Think Tank of the Air” (firstname.lastname@example.org).