Minneapolis park commissioners Wednesday night authorized dual signs at Lake Calhoun that will honor the lake’s Dakota name alongside its long-standing name.
A half-dozen signs at Lake Calhoun got a temporary makeover with the Dakota name of Mde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake) in an unofficial overnight caper Tuesday night. Those same signs, removed Wednesday, now will get a second name.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board followed the dual-name solution proposed by Commissioner Annie Young, but with a minor change that uses the preferred modern spelling of Bde Maka Ska (Be-DAY Mah-Kah Ska).
Six commissioners voted for the change, President Liz Wielinski abstained and two commissioners were absent.
Commissioners were clear that listing both names at the lake was not a name change, something they lack the power to do under state law.
“Changing the signage is a good step. It’s not enough,” said Carly Bad Heart Bull, a descendant of Cloud Man, a Dakota leader of an agricultural settlement at the lake in the 1830s. She’s also a member of an advisory committee that will make recommendations to the board on physical renovations of Calhoun and Lake Harriet.
She said she’d still like to have the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decide the name, and would like Park Board support for restoring the Dakota name. But she said it was important to gather public input on the issue first.
Park workers removed the signs by midmorning Wednesday. Park spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said the board has a long-standing policy of removing signs posted in parks.
Commissioner Brad Bourn, the most vocal advocate for renaming, said the board should ask the state to rename the lake on the grounds that it has had both Dakota and white names. But board lawyer Brian Rice said the Dakota name “may have been associated with the lake, but it hasn’t been generally accepted.” Bourn’s motion to add a name change to the board’s legislative agenda died for lack of a second.
Some descendants of the Dakota community that once used the lake have argued for removing a name honoring former vice president, senator, secretary of war and slavery apologist John C. Calhoun. That name dates to at least 1823.
Dakota activists have argued that restoring the name to Bde Maka Ska returns to a historical term that was changed. They note that Calhoun also played a role in the removal of southeastern U.S. tribes known as the Trail of Tears.
Rice and the DNR differ on whether the DNR has the power to change a lake name that has been in use for more than 40 years, a statutory threshold. The Park Board still could ask the Legislature to reject Calhoun’s name, and devise a process of selecting a new name. The law also gives the DNR the power to choose a name when several competing names have been used. But the board seemed disinclined Wednesday to take those steps.
Those opposing a name change argue that it’s impractical to ask people to switch to a new name after almost two centuries, and that there’s a long list of features named after historical figures like Calhoun who advocated for or kept slaves, or have other blots on their records.
Scott Christianson of St. Paul was one of the first people to see the makeshift signs Wednesday after daybreak. “You do a double-take,” said Christianson, who said he supports changing the lake name.