The controversial renaming of Lake Calhoun is in the hands of the Hennepin County Board, which could vote on it as soon as October.
In May, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted unanimously to change Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the original Dakota name that means White Earth Lake (and is pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah). The board’s Oct. 17 hearing and subsequent vote is the next step in the state-mandated process to change the name of a body of water.
The County Board has several options to consider: Ratify the Park Board’s decision, leave the name at Calhoun or follow the recommendation of another petition to make it Lake Maka Ska.
Its decision will be forwarded to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and then to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for final approval.
With two name change petitions in front of commissioners, Park Board Chairwoman Jan Callison expressed concern that another petition may be just around the corner. Only 15 people are needed to sign a petition, which triggers a public hearing.
“I can imagine choosing a name and people not liking it,” she said. “And then 15 people sign a petition and the process starts again. There needs to be closure at some point.”
The push for Bde Maka Ska comes after years of debate. The name, given to the lake by American Indians who lived there, was supplanted nearly 200 years ago when federal surveyors chose to name the lake after Secretary of War John Calhoun, who authorized the building of Fort Snelling.
Calhoun, a South Carolinian who later became vice president and a U.S. senator, was an ardent supporter of slavery. His background prompted the Park Board a few years ago to reconsider the lake’s name. Support for change has picked up steam since, part of a national trend to expunge place names that honor racist or other controversial figures.
Initially, Park Board Vice President John Erwin was against changing the name. But after several hearings and extensive public input, he was compelled to vote in favor of it.
“The biggest reason that changed my mind was looking into the history of the naming of the lake, and Calhoun himself,” said Erwin. “There are Civil War soldiers buried near the lake who fought against what Calhoun believed in at the time.”
Although the name change has several steps left, the Park Board put up lake signs listing both names for educational purposes. No matter what the lake is called, nearby streets named Calhoun likely won’t change, he said.
The DNR receives a handful of name change requests each year, most of which aren’t controversial. For instance, earlier this year the Washington County Board voted to change the name of a lake called Halfbreed on some maps to Lake Keewahtin. The county held three public hearings and a community meeting before approving the change.
Pete Boulay, who handles naming requests for the DNR, said his job is to tell county officials whether a lake name on a petition is acceptable to the state. “We don’t advocate one way or the other,” he said.
Boulay said he would suggest the Hennepin County Board put “Lake” with the name to identify it as a lake, even though Bde Maka Ska already contains the word. Mille Lacs means “thousand lakes,” for example, but it’s called Lake Mille Lacs, he said.
“Bottom line is that it’s good to have public hearings,” said Boulay. “It gets the word out, and people can make comments.”
Callison is already receiving e-mails and hearing from people about the name change. She reached out to Park Board President Anita Tabb to get an idea on what the County Board might expect at the hearing.
While Callison won’t say if she’s taken a position on the issue, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said he’s very committed to backing the name change. He cited an old Irish play about British colonizers of Ireland in the 19th century who came to the country and changed all the place names as an act of imperialism.
“It matters what places are named,” he said. “It’s important they are named in a way that reflects the values of the community.”
McLaughlin’s district, which runs from northeast and downtown Minneapolis to the airport, includes the largest number of Indians in Hennepin County. He’s heard from many people who have researched the history of Lake Calhoun.
“This won’t change the world,” he said. “There will be strong feelings about it in both directions. But this will reflect how we are changing to show a different version of history.”