Lake Calhoun is back on the map.
The state Court of Appeals ruled Monday that former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr lacked authority last year to change the name of the lake to Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake), so the lake’s name legally remains Calhoun.
Erick Kaardal, a lawyer representing “Save Lake Calhoun,” a group that opposed renaming the lake, called the decision “a win for holding the system accountable.” He added: “We don’t have to pronounce Bde Maka Ska.”
But then again, maybe we will. Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Brad Bourn said in a statement Monday that the lake was called Bde Maka Ska for generations before white settlers, he said, “stole it” from the Dakota.
Minneapolis Park Board members said they have no intention of honoring the decision, and some legislators are already pushing for a vote to allow the Dakota name to stay. That vote could come in the House as early as Tuesday.
The court’s ruling is pinned on a 1925 law which it said “unambiguously, denies authority for the DNR to change the name of a lake which has existed for 40 years.”
Lake Calhoun was referred to as such in writings dating to the early 1820s. The court ruled that only the Legislature can change the name after four decades.
Gov. Tim Walz deferred comment on the ruling to the DNR, which issued a statement saying it has 30 days to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the decision. In the meantime, it said, the lake’s name in federal documents remains Bde Maka Ska, pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah.
The DNR’s statement expressed concern that the ruling eliminates any mechanism for changing the names of bodies of water after 40 years. The agency has renamed lakes with names that included racial epithets or other derogatory terms.
Court of Appeals Judge Randall Slieter wrote the 22-page decision for a panel that included Judge Heidi Schellhas and retired Judge Larry Stauber. Without addressing the merits of the name change, the court found that the legal challenge was valid and that Landwehr had lacked authority to make the change.
“I know that we’re standing on the right side of history and that its arc bends toward justice,” Bourn said, adding that he won’t spend public money to honor what he called the “blood-soaked legacy” of lake namesake John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery who served as vice president and as a U.S. senator from South Carolina in the 1800s.
‘People have adapted’
When the Minneapolis Park Board began discussing the name change in 2015, attorney Brian Rice warned against the move and cited the 40-year rule. He suggested asking the Legislature to make the change.
But the Park Board instead took the matter to the Hennepin County Board, which approved the change. Landwehr then signed off on it.
By any name, the lake is one of Minneapolis’ sparkling gems, known for its open shores between Lake Harriet and the many bays of Lake of the Isles. A 3.2-mile pedestrian trail encircling Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska is well-known to walkers and runners, who at sunrise and sunset get the bonus of sunlight reflecting off downtown’s glassy skyscrapers.
State Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, represents a district that hugs the lake’s eastern shore and is working on a bill to keep the name Bde Maka Ska.
“This is a settled issue in my district. We had a long discussion about it, with broad popular support for changing the name,” he said. “We’ve had local businesses change their name as a result of the lake changing its name. And I think people have adapted.”
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, also supports legislative action to restore the change. Kunesh-Podein, who is American Indian, said it was important “to acknowledge and remember that this was indigenous land and it still is indigenous land and that by renaming this lake to Bde Maka Ska we are acknowledging the existence and the value of our indigenous communities.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he agreed with the court’s decision. Last week, the Senate passed a measure to cut the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget for adding the Dakota name “Bdote” to a sign at Fort Snelling.
“Whether they’re going to replace one name with another, or whether they’re going to have two names side by side or not change them at all, I really believe that should have been a legislative decision from the very beginning,” Gazelka said.
Also, he said, he likes the name Calhoun. “I’m certainly willing to respect a conversation in the legislative bodies about whether it needs to be two names or not,” he said.
Around the lake
Several people asked their opinions while out at the lake Monday gave a variety of views.
Luke Breen, owner of Perennial Cycle, said that he changed his business name three years ago from Calhoun Cycle.
“We were doing it very much to dissociate ourselves from John C. Calhoun, and we will continue to dissociate,” Breen said. “It makes absolutely zero difference to me if the lake’s name changed.”
The Minneapolis Sailing Center changed its name from Lake Calhoun Sailing School in March 2018. “We will definitely stick with our new name,” executive director Ted Salzman said. “We had no real issue changing our name. We wanted to be at the forefront of inclusivity.”
Walking around the lake, Adele Suomi of Minneapolis said that it seemed wasteful and costly to change the signs again. “If you’re going to make a point of changing the name, why backtrack?” she said. “Do we support the slave owning now?”
For Minneapolis resident Michael Francis, the lake will always be Calhoun. “We should be focusing on the social issues of today and not something that happened hundreds of years ago,” he said. Besides, he added, his family was still wondering how to pronounce the Dakota name.
Britnee Posey of Minneapolis said now that she knows who Calhoun was, she supports the change. “The natives deserve it more than anyone,” she said.
Star Tribune staff writer Shannon Prather and University of Minnesota student Isabella Murray contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org Torey.VanOot@startribune.com