Last week, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
The irony of this statement has since been discussed in homes, office break rooms, classrooms and the media. For the indigenous people of this land, this statement only reiterates the same old message that has been forced upon us, repeatedly, for generations — that there is little room for our own beautiful historic and cultural contributions in public spaces.
Monuments honor the stories and people of a place, as names do. The fear that telling the stories of people left out of the history books could “change history” is not unique to Trump or to white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. We see it right here in Minneapolis.
Take, for example, the effort to restore the name Bde Maka Ska to the lake (still) legally known as Lake Calhoun. Though there is now dual signage up at the site, the Calhoun name remains prominent, despite much public dissent. As descendants of the Dakota peoples who historically resided at this body of water, our family has been deeply invested in this process for years, and many in our community have worked hard to carry the name restoration issue forward to where it stands today.
This effort has gained great momentum in the past year and a half, due in large part to a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) recommendation to the Park Board to support the name restoration, and the growing support of those who have become more aware of the history of this space. We were honored to be a part of the racial equity subcommittee that came up with the recommendation following months of community engagement and discourse.
After unanimously supporting the CAC’s recommendation, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board drafted a petition officially requesting that the Hennepin County Board support the formal restoration of the Dakota name. The county will set a hearing in the near future to vote on advancing the petition to the Department of Natural Resources, which has been named the ultimate deciding entity.
One of the main counterarguments we hear is: “How dare you try to erase history by removing the name Calhoun?” Never mind the undisputed fact that John C. Calhoun was a racist who promoted slavery and drafted the Indian Removal Act. Or that Bde Maka Ska is the name most widely associated with the lake by the indigenous people of the area, the Dakota people, who have survived the forced removal from our homeland and have a rich historic connection to this place.
Removing the name Calhoun from the lake and restoring its Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, is one way to begin telling this part of our whole history. This name reclamation acknowledges and pays respect to many of the people who continue to live here today. We have seen firsthand how this name has united our communities and helped people from all backgrounds feel more welcome and connected to this place. This restoration does not erase anything, but instead begins the process of unveiling generations of stories and perspectives waiting to be heard. We need to hear those stories. Especially now.
Another recent example of the power of recognizing, rather than changing, history through naming is the effort at Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis. Formerly known as Ramsey Middle School, its students stood up against the name Ramsey after learning that Alexander Ramsey called for the extermination of the Dakota people in 1863. This followed the Dakota-U. S. War, a period that led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota men were unjustly hanged in Mankato.
These middle school students cultivated a new chapter at their school and in our communities by revealing the truth about Ramsey. They also lifted up a real hero, Justice Alan Page, the first African-American Minnesota Supreme Court justice and an education advocate. The students wanted their school name to honor someone they could be inspired by; they are excited to contribute to the legacy of a person they admire.
Unlike Alexander Ramsey or John C. Calhoun, Justice Page represents a hope for a better, more inclusive future for our community. These young people were not trying to erase history or “rip it apart.” Instead they were making history.
In some ways we are, in fact, trying to rip apart history as it has been told through the dominant narrative. But that is because it’s time to deconstruct these outdated teachings that some have been so comfortably passing on, unaware that there is more to the story. We must look at these issues critically and acknowledge the discomfort that these honorings create for some of us.
It’s time to have truthful conversations around who these men really were, and to question why we have been taught to memorialize them in public spaces, whether through statues, plaques or naming. If we do this work together, we can provide space for the stories of people who have been silenced. Let’s listen to one another, create more dialogue, and heal. This could be our legacy. We will all be better for it.
Carly Bad Heart Bull and Kate Beane are Minneapolis residents and members of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. (For more information: https://www.facebook.com/Bde-Maka-Ska-Name-Reclamation-976582865759475/)