It’s official, at least in Minnesota: Lake Calhoun, the biggest lake in Minneapolis, will now go by its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska.
Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, announced the DNR’s approval of the new name Thursday. Whether or not the U.S. Board of Geographic Names now chooses to keep Lake Calhoun on federal documents, he said, the state will recognize the Indian name for the lake.
The DNR’s decision follows resolutions approving Bde Maka Ska — pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah, meaning White Earth Lake — that were passed by the Hennepin County Board and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
The DNR is the state agency that decides on name changes for geographic features, once the respective county considers a proposed change, gathers public input and votes on it.
The decision will be officially recorded by Hennepin County and published in the State Register, which should happen in the next two weeks.
The lake has been called Calhoun for nearly 200 years, ever since federal surveyors for U.S. Secretary of War John Calhoun arrived in the 1820s to prepare for Fort Snelling’s construction at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
They named the lake for Calhoun, an outspoken supporter of slavery who went on to become vice president (under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson) and a U.S. senator from South Carolina.
Landwehr said Thursday that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which will review the name change, indicated that Bde Maka Ska complies with its protocols. He said the new name will serve the public interest, and couldn’t recall a time when a lake name in English had been changed to an American Indian name.
In a written statement, he said he was confident that the Hennepin County Board had taken community values and citizen perspectives into account before deciding to approve the new name. The DNR’s job, he said, is to make sure the county followed the right process and to ensure the new name doesn’t create confusion with similarly named features.
“We didn’t substitute our judgment for that of the County Board,” Landwehr said. “We are within our authority to change the name, so we did.”
He said the DNR didn’t have any enforcement authority over signs already posted at the lake by the Minneapolis park board that carry both the names Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska.
A historic change
Hennepin County commissioners voted 4-3 in late November to seek the name change. One of those who opposed the change, Board Chairwoman Jan Callison, said she was disappointed by the DNR’s decision and believed that the agency should have done an independent investigation of the name change. She added that she was surprised to learn that the federal board doesn’t have the final say on what name the state can use.
DFL state Rep. Jim Davnie, who represents part of south Minneapolis, called the name change historic.
“The Department of Natural Resources did the right thing, and they have helped us grow a deeper appreciation for the vibrant Native American Indian communities that still exist in Minneapolis and throughout the state,” he said, in a written statement. We can all be proud of this decision.”
Not everybody was happy about it. Erick Kaardal, attorney for a group called Save Lake Calhoun, said the group will petition the state Court of Appeals to reverse Landwehr’s decision.
“Save Lake Calhoun is gravely disappointed with the DNR commissioner’s violation of law,” said Kaardal. “The group feels the commissioner disrespected the limited mandate given to him.”
He cited a statute that says county boards don’t have the authority to recommend a change if the lake name in question had been used for more than 40 years. In his seven-page order, Landwehr refers to documents dating back to 1820 that use the Calhoun name.
Landwehr’s order addresses the statute referred to by Kaardal. In 1940, the attorney general said the state Geographical Board had the authority to rename lakes even after 40 years. That power was later transferred to the DNR.
People walking or running around the lake on Thursday had varying views on the change.
Said David Beno, who lives near the lake: “People’s voices were heard and that’s a good thing.”
But Michael Ruddy said people were too sensitive. John Calhoun might have stood for some bad things, he said, but he probably had done some good as well.
“It will always be Lake Calhoun to me,” he said.