Minnesota Lake name in limbo

Published 6:43 am Saturday, May 4, 2019

By Elizabeth Shockman

MPR News/90.1 FM

What exactly should the official name be for Minnesota Public Water No. 27-31? It’s a question being hotly debated again by Minnesota residents and lawmakers this week, following a Minnesota appellate court ruling that a state agency’s decision to change the lake’s name from “Calhoun” to “Bde Maka Ska” was illegal.

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Whatever you call it, this lake on the highly visible chain within Minneapolis’ city limits has a long history of trading names.

It was known by its Dakota name, “Bde Maka Ska,” prior to the 1800s. Then it was renamed “Lake Calhoun” and recorded as such by white geologists and geographers. It was named after John C. Calhoun, a former vice president, a proponent of slavery and of Native American removal.

But last year, former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr ordered the name change and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved it.

However, a group called “Save Lake Calhoun” challenged that change and on Monday the Minnesota Appeals Court agreed that the DNR didn’t have authority to change a lake name that’s been in use for over 40 years.

Attorney Erick Kaardal, who represents the “Save Lake Calhoun” group, said his main objection to the name “Bde Maka Ska” is the way officials changed the name.

“The moral of the story is that, you know, public officials violating the law is not part of our Minnesota tradition” he said. “Don’t violate the law. That’s not how Minnesota works.”

So, after all this, what is the lake named? The answer is complicated.

If you ask the Minneapolis Parks Board, they say they’re not a part of the court case that was decided this week, and they will not change the lake’s signs from “Bde Maka Ska” to “Calhoun.”

“The name of the lake today and for hundreds of years in the past and for hundreds of years in the future is Bde Maka Ska,” said Park Board President Brad Bourne on Monday. “The Minneapolis Park Board has no plans today to pay for any signage that says anything other than ‘Bde Maka Ska.’”

The Minnesota DNR says that without an appeal to this week’s ruling, the name of the lake would revert back to Lake Calhoun. Agency officials haven’t decided whether to appeal.

And on the federal level, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has the legal authority to decide the official name of lakes on federal maps. That board has no plans to change the lake’s name back to Calhoun.

Minnesota lawmakers are also involved in this question. The Minnesota House on Tuesday adopted an amendment to write the name “Bde Maka Ska” into Minnesota law. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, included the directive in a broader House environment bill.

“Our history is what it is and it’s going to take a long time I think to recognize all the different ways that we can do a better job of recognizing the indigenous history that’s in the land and the waters in Minnesota,” she said.

Lawmakers in the Senate say they don’t think an amendment is the right way to address the lake’s name. Senate Majority leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, says he prefers the name “Lake Calhoun” or a compromise with both “Calhoun” and “Bde Maka Ska.”

“I’d much prefer to have people weigh in and have much more dialogue than just adding an amendment to a bill,” he said. “It’s not about replacing one with the other. I think the solution going forward is something about sharing some of the things in our culture.”

On Tuesday, a Senate committee defeated an amendment that would have allowed the DNR the to change the name of the lake.

The court’s revival of the debate is frustrating for historian and filmmaker Kate Beane, who was part of the group that worked to get the lake’s name restored to its Dakota name.

“A lot of people worked incredibly hard for this name restoration to take place. It was a long process,” she said. “And I think that there’s a lot of frustration right now from community members who feel like their voices aren’t being heard.”