The Minnesota Supreme Court will decide whether state officials have the authority to rename Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska, its original Dakota name.
The high court agreed Wednesday to hear an appeal by the Department of Natural Resources seeking to overturn a state Court of Appeals ruling that invalidated the agency’s move to change the name of Minneapolis’ largest lake.
The Appeals Court judges held in April that the DNR overstepped its authority when it changed the lake’s name, finding that only the Legislature can take such action involving lake names that have been in use for more than 40 years.
A decision overturning the Appeals Court ruling would hand a victory to Hennepin County officials and others who have long been pressing to honor the American Indian name of one of the city’s premier bodies of water. If the Supreme Court affirms the lower court ruling, the lake’s name would likely revert to Lake Calhoun — possibly sending the controversy back to the Legislature.
The legal challenge is the latest flash point in an ongoing national discussion over landmarks named for historical figures mired in controversy. The lake was named for U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a Southerner who backed slavery and promoted American Indian removal in the 1820s. The DNR renamed it Bde Maka Ska — pronounced b-day ma-KAH skah — at the request of city and county officials in January 2018. A group called Save Lake Calhoun then took to the courts to challenge the new name.
The DNR argues that the Appeals Court decision renders the state powerless to alter long-standing place names, consigning officials “to abide by offensive, misspelled, and redundant lake names forever.”
DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said earlier this year that the agency was “very concerned” with the implications of the Appeals Court decision “for our ability to work with county boards to reflect community standards in how the state’s waters are named.”
“We have long worked with counties in eliminating offensive or derogatory names,” she said in May.
Strommen has also said that the agency fears that the Appeals Court ruling “opens the door for people to challenge a range of final agency decisions well after established appeals periods.”
Erick Kaardal, an attorney for Save Lake Calhoun, described the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case as “a positive sign that claims against government officials violating the law are being taken seriously.”
“The plain reading of the statute authorizes the DNR commissioner to only change lake names used less than forty years,” Kaardal said. “So the DNR commissioner violated the law when renaming the lake. We will argue that the Minnesota Supreme Court agree with that plain reading.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and commissioners for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board have continued to recognize the lake as Bde Maka Ska — which means “White Earth Lake.” So does the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The federal board has said that it will not reverse its decision in light of the Appeals Court ruling. The city of Minneapolis and its park board are not involved in the litigation, but the Minneapolis Park Board voted unanimously in May to support any legal or legislative efforts to restore the lake’s name to Bde Maka Ska.
The job of defending the name change on behalf of DNR falls on state lawyers. That work cost Minnesota close to $30,000 as of mid-June, according to data released by the department in response to a request filed by the Star Tribune.
House DFL lawmakers attempted to render the court challenge moot last session through a proposal to officially recognize the lake as Bde Maka Ska. The effort was scrapped amid a late scramble to finalize the state’s budget.
The Democrats’ move was sharply opposed by the Republican-led Senate.
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.