The Minnesota Supreme Court ended the yearslong legal dispute over what to call the biggest lake in Minneapolis with these words: “Under Minnesota law, the body of water that was Lake Calhoun is now Bde Maka Ska.”
On Wednesday morning, the high court ruled the state Department of Natural Resources had the authority to rename the lake with its original Dakota name in 2018.
The 5-2 ruling ends a legal challenge brought by a group of homeowners surrounding Bde Maka Ska — pronounced b-day ma-KAH skah — who argued that former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr lacked the power to change the name.
“It’s sort of the end of the road,” said attorney Erick Kaardal, who represented the group. “There’s no fight left to this dog.”
The group, Save Lake Calhoun, had based its case on a 1925 law they said prohibited the DNR commissioner from renaming lakes and other bodies of water that had existed for more than 40 years. The Court of Appeals sided with the group last spring, and the state appealed the decision to the highest court.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came down to the statutory interpretation of that law. In the opinion, Justice David Lillehaug wrote the 40-year expiration only applied to county boards, not to the state. The power to change the names of geographic features was further clarified when the law was updated.
“The law since 1937 has been that the state board — now the Commissioner — has the power to name and rename lakes, streams, places, and geographic figures, regardless of the age of their names,” Lillehaug wrote.
A dissenting opinion written by Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea and supported by Justice G. Barry Anderson argued the ruling gave the DNR “unbounded power to change the name of every lake in Minnesota.”
“Changing the names of all of our 10,000-plus lakes every time the political winds blow a certain direction undermines stability that residents and communities need,” Gildea wrote.
In his opinion, Lillehaug said widespread renaming of lakes is unlikely, and that state lawmakers could decide the procedure for changing names through policy. “If the Legislature sees or foresees excessive name-changing, it can legislate to curb it,” he wrote.
Save Lake Calhoun spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the case, Kaardal said. He said the names of the lake and others across the state now rest with future DNR commissioners and governors.
Lake Calhoun was named after John C. Calhoun, a Southern politician who lived from 1782 to 1850 and was an ardent supporter of slavery and expulsion of American Indian people from their lands. References to the lake under his name date back as far as the early 1820s.
The official effort to rename the lake as Bde Maka Ska — meaning “White Earth Lake” — began with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 2015. After years of public debate, the Hennepin County Board then recommended that the DNR change the name.
Despite the earlier appeals court ruling, Minneapolis city and park officials continued to refer to the lake as Bde Maka Ska, and the Park Board updated the surrounding roadways with the name last summer. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names also identifies the lake as Bde Maka Ska.
In a statement Wednesday, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said the Calhoun name was removed “to alleviate the pain of that history and celebrate instead the dignity of those who originally named the lake.”
“I’m very pleased that the Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that we have a reliable mechanism for renaming places that evoke or celebrate racist parts of our past,” Ellison said. “We now have a sure way to reflect our values today and to pass along the state we want our children to inherit tomorrow.”
Carly Bad Heart Bull and her sister, descendants of a village leader on the lake, led the initial push before the Park Board to formalize the Dakota name. On Wednesday, she said it felt like a weight was lifted from her shoulders.
“These are such challenging times that we’re in right now, and so having news like this, it really gives me a lot of hope for our future,” she said.
While the ruling was a milestone, she said education should continue on the name and the Indigenous history of the lake.
“I’m just grateful that my sons, my nieces and nephews will grow up not knowing the lake by any other name,” she said, “Our kids should know the true history of this place, and now they will.”
To celebrate, she drove over to Bde Maka Ska and looked out at the water.