Now that Minneapolis park officials are planning to add a Dakota name to signs at Lake Calhoun and may be pressed to do more, the naming issue raises a new question: Which Dakota name?
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board directed this month that the Dakota name of Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake) be added to major signs at Calhoun. That adopts a name championed by a family descended from Cloud Man, the leader of a short-lived village at the lake.
But others argue that the proper Dakota name for the lake is Mde Med’oza (Lake of the Loons), which the Park Board considered in the 19th century but never adopted.
The conundrum illustrates the difficulty of interpreting history through a 21st-century lens. It also comes as President Obama renamed Alaska’s Mount McKinley by its traditional name, Denali, and a South Dakota board prompted statewide debate with a proposal to rename its tallest peak, which honors a general accused of massacring Indian women and children, with a native name. It failed.
The growing debate surrounding the lake’s name has intensely divided Minneapolis residents. Some want to find a replacement for namesake John C. Calhoun, a passionate defender of slavery. The issue has consumed hours of public debate, even though it is not certain that any official with the power to initiate a name change will do so. Peter Bell, chairman of a committee looking at making park and trail improvements to lakes Calhoun and Harriet, resigned his leadership post, saying the panel — which has only an advisory role in the naming debate — has spent far too much time wrestling with the issue.
Underneath the larger debate is the unresolved question about which name is most historically accurate, or at least appropriate.
The U.S. Geographic Board lists Mde Maka Ska as a variant name for Calhoun, favoring a spelling used by early lexicographers of Dakota languages. But Warren Upham’s seminal “Minnesota Place Names,” published in 1920, favors Medoza, citing an 1881 publication, not citing a Dakota source. Medoza once appeared on at least one city map. More recently, the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District adopted the name of Medoza Ponds for stormwater settling ponds it built southwest of Calhoun in 1999.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the nearest federally recognized tribe, took a diplomatic approach when consulted by the Star Tribune. It said in a statement it is not aware of reliable evidence that ancestors had a specific Dakota name for the lake. It noted that missionary Samuel Pond’s 1893 book claimed that the Dakota called it “the inland lake,” but acknowledged some sources use the loon and white earth names.
The Calhoun name debate was joined initially by those who found Calhoun no longer worthy of commemoration. Aside from his connection to the slavery issue, the Dakota note that Calhoun devised the plan for the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of more than 50,000 Southeastern tribal members to Western territory. Those who want to keep the Calhoun name said it honors the man who, as secretary of war, authorized a chain of frontier forts, including Fort Snelling.
In Minneapolis, Dakota advocates such as historian Kate Beane portray Bde Maka Ska as a name restoration rather than a name change. But others question the right of the Dakota to do so. They call the Dakota interlopers in the Twin Cities who established residence here only after a series of battles before white settlement that displaced the Iowa tribe. They say that the Dakota were pushed into the area by Ojibway pressure from the North. The main reason the village at Calhoun was abandoned was fear of retaliation after what Pond described as a massacre by warriors of an Ojibway party, mostly women and children.
Beane, an Indian cultural liaison for the Minnesota Historical Society, is one of three Cloud Man descendants on the 26-member committee advising the Park Board on how to spend money to renovate parks at lakes Calhoun and Harriet, the same panel from which Bell resigned. Part of that group’s charge was to address historic and contemporary cultural concerns. The group’s straw poll last week found far more members favor a Dakota name than want to retain Calhoun. The panel could eventually recommend a name change to the Park Board, but it is something that would need to be done at the state level.
The naming debate has flared periodically since 1997 but erupted anew this summer in the wake of national debate over symbols of the Confederacy and a mass shooting at a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C.
Syd Beane, father of Kate, is one of those who have been involved in efforts to commemorate Dakota presence at the lake. He said the name Bde Maka Ska resonates with a collective of researchers that examined Dakota history in the area.
The Beane family returned to the area about a dozen years ago after exile from the state following the 1862 Dakota Conflict. Syd Beane grew up in South Dakota and describes his family as refugees returning to a homeland.
“These names and these places are critical to this process,” he said.