The biggest lake in Minneapolis is experiencing an identity crisis.
More than a year after Minnesota recognized the original Dakota name of Lake Calhoun — Bde Maka Ska — a legal challenge has thrown its official name into question. With all eyes on the lake after a fire destroyed its historic pavilion in May, visitors and residents are left wondering: What do we call it?
The Court of Appeals says it’s Lake Calhoun. The federal government is sticking with Bde Maka Ska. So are Mayor Jacob Frey and commissioners for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, who have not minced words when it comes to their distaste for a city lake named after slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.
For Carly Bad Heart Bull, a descendant of a village leader on the lake and a leading advocate for the Dakota name, it will take time, but people will come to accept Bde Maka Ska — pronounced b-day ma-KAH skah.
“We’re not trying to take anything away from anybody,” she said of the name. “By spreading education about the history … we’re actually helping [build a] richer understanding and a richer connection to that place.”
Calhoun, who lived from 1782 to 1850, 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.
After years of conversations with the public, the state Department of Natural Resources formally replaced the Calhoun name with Bde Maka Ska, meaning “White Earth Lake,” in January 2018. A group called Save Lake Calhoun took the state to court.
In April, a Court of Appeals judge ruled that the former commissioner of the DNR lacked the authority to rename the lake, citing a law prohibiting the department from changing lake names after 40 years. DFL lawmakers tried to change the name this session, but the bill did not survive.
Last week, the DNR petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision.
“The Decision strips DNR of authority to alter lake names that are older than 40 years, leaving no entity with such authority and consigning the State to abide by offensive, misspelled, and redundant lake names forever,” the petition read.
Until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case, the lake remains Bde Maka Ska, said Brian Rice, legal counsel for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. If the Supreme Court does not take action, or reaffirms the previous ruling, the case goes back to district court and the name would likely revert to Lake Calhoun, lawyers involved in the case said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names changed Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska last year, and despite the Court of Appeals ruling, its members decided they would not change it back.
Local elected officials have vehemently opposed changing the name back to what it was.
“I will continue to call Bde Maka Ska by its rightful name,” Frey tweeted the day of the ruling. “That was the lake’s name before people who look like me renamed it to honor a slavery apologist and — as far as I’m concerned — that is still its name today.”
Park Board commissioners in May voted unanimously to support any legal or legislative efforts to restore the name to Bde Maka Ska. “The Minneapolis Park Board as of right now has no intent to spend any public resources to honor the blood-soaked legacy of John C. Calhoun,” Park Board President Brad Bourn said before the vote.
Since the ruling, the board has moved to rename parkways and parkland with the Calhoun name. Google Maps and other online maps identify the lake as Bde Maka Ska.
Erick Kaardal, attorney for Save Lake Calhoun, said the statements of Frey and Park Board commissioners are acts of “public official civil disobedience.” At this point, he said, the resistance by some to call it Bde Maka Ska has nothing to do with the name but with the improper method taken to adopt it.
“The problem with words is that they can be repurposed,” Kaardal said. “Now, Calhoun has become a rallying cry for people who don’t want public officials to violate the law.”
In its petition for review, the DNR argued that the Court of Appeals ruling left no way for the state to change other offensive lake names. There are several around the state, the petition stated, including Savage Lake in Little Canada and Redskin Lake in northern Minnesota. In the land of 10,000 lakes, the DNR argued, their names need to be inclusive to all.
Bad Heart Bull said it’s important for people to remember both the history of Calhoun and of the Dakota people.
“Once people hear those things, it gets a little more uncomfortable to sit in that space,” she said. “People need to be willing to move into these uncomfortable spaces and have uncomfortable conversations. That’s the only way that we move forward.”