Months into a revived debate over the name of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, there’s been lots of heat but not much progress toward resolving whether to substitute a Dakota or other name.

Still, on Thanksgiving, which prompts many Americans to reflect on the history of white settlers and the native population they encountered, there’s been some clarification of how the issue may be resolved.

First, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has affirmed that it has the authority to change lake names — subject to federal approval — even if they’ve been in use more than 40 years. That legal advice contradicts earlier opinions provided to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Second, a key DNR official has advised Hennepin County to conduct a public hearing on any proposed name change, so there’s a record if the county forwards such a request. An open question is whether someone must petition the county before such a hearing is conducted, and even key DNR officials seem to disagree.

The law specifies that a hearing must be held if 15 voters living in the county sign a petition requesting a change of name and the reasons why. The law also specifies that they must post a bond to cover the county’s expenses associated with the hearing, chiefly the cost of publishing a notice of the hearing.

But no such petition has emerged, and one mystery is why a petition requiring so few signatures has not, given that an online petition posted in June for changing the name has drawn more than 4,500 signers. The online petition’s organizer, Mike Spangenberg, said he’s been deferring to Dakota activists with a longer involvement in the issue to take the lead on the County Board petition; those activists haven’t been willing to share their strategy.

National debate

The issue of renaming Calhoun resurfaced in June, a week after the mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina that killed nine people. That prompted a national debate over symbols associated with the Confederacy, which eventually led to the removal of a Confederate battle flag from that state’s capitol grounds. The debate spread to places named after Calhoun, a national political figure and apologist for slavery in the first half of the 19th century, including a residential college at Yale.

But in Minneapolis, the issue has taken on added dimensions as descendants of the area’s Dakota inhabitants argued for restoring one tribal name for the lake, Bde Maka Ska (White Earth lake).

Although the state DNR commissioner ultimately has power under state law to approve lake name changes, the parkland around Lake Calhoun is owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. Minneapolis Park Commissioner Brad Bourn and Spangenberg argue that the board’s opinion will be influential both if the county takes up any naming petition and with the DNR.

Some park commissioners earlier argued for waiting for the input of a board-appointed committee that’s advising the Park Board on a master plan for parkscape renovations at lakes Calhoun and Harriet. It’s supposed to weigh in on historic and current cultural concerns. A straw poll of that group found a decided preference for a return to the Dakota name. That’s likely to become a panel recommendation, along with guidance for where to add interpretive and ceremonial space that recognizes the historic Dakota presence.

But views on the Park Board vary widely: Bourn has passionately pursued a name change, while Commissioner Anita Tabb opposes it outright.

“I don’t know where you end,” she said about changing features named after figures who have fallen out of favor. “I don’t want to judge yesterday’s people by today’s standards.”

Commissioner John Erwin said he won’t find the advisory group’s naming recommendation persuasive by itself, arguing that all the city’s racial or ethnic groups should get a voice in the matter.

Bourn suffered another loss on the issue last week, when his proposal to ask the Legislature to enact a name change failed on a 2-2 committee vote.

“The Park Board as an institution is intentionally trying to kill the issue and avoid a difficult conversation,” he complained afterward. The Dakota name was added to signs at the lake at the board’s directive last month. “I think the majority saw it as a way to placate people,” Bourn said.

Under state law, the Legislature can’t rename the lake, but could strip it of the name Calhoun — as it did for multiple water bodies named Squaw Lake after that term was labeled derogatory. It could also pass a law directing a process to select a new name.

But one area legislator who personally supports stripping Calhoun’s name said there’s no community consensus yet. “I’m not going to be the guy ramming legislation through that has scant support from the communities affected,” said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.