American History X

What’s in a name? Sticks and stones will break my bones but your words will never hurt me. 

This may be true for some, but over the course of the history of the United States we as a nation have managed to celebrate some notoriously bad people by naming our towns, monuments, lakes and other public places after them. Some might argue whether or not politically incorrect nomenclature actually hurts people, but it is difficult to deny that the practice perpetuates a dark side of our culture that does not represent the world that we all want to live in.

There has been a lot of support for changing the name of Lake Calhoun, including a petition with over 4,400 signatures, but sadly there has been some opposition as well.  John C. Calhoun was a strong advocate of slavery, and as a lawmaker he developed policies to help states bypass federal legislation banning it. He wasn’t from Minnesota, and didn’t live in the state, but he was partly responsible for the construction of Fort Snelling, which was one of the first examples of colonization of Dakota land here. But that’s another story. So why would we honor a racist slave driver with uninspiring ties to Minneapolis?

Unfortunately in the United States and abroad regrettably named places are more common than you’d think. Our neighbors to the west in South Dakota have a dam called Squaw Humper, which has faced similar scrutiny to Calhoun. The people of Oglala Lakota County have made progress in changing the name back to its Sioux origin of Tahc’a Okute Mni Onaktake.

One of the more aesthetically disappointing examples is Whitesboro, which is a small village inside of Whitestown, New York. If the name isn’t pro segregation enough the flag on the town’s police cars and municipal buildings depict a light skinned man wrestling a red skinned man who appears to be getting strangled by the aforementioned Caucasian. 

As unconscionably racist as these examples are Europe has us beat with Castrillo de Matajudios in Northern Spain. Although the town just voted to change the name, for hundreds of years they resided in a place that translates to “Fort Kill the Jews.” 

Despite hearing these horrible examples some may still question the purpose of changing names such as these. The Albert Lea fireman who hung a confederate flag from his truck during the towns Fourth of July parade justified the decision because, “It’s part of history. It truly is.” In 1858 Minnesota became part of the Union and slavery never existed here. 

Incidents like the one in Albert Lea and the opposition to changing racist names like Lake Calhoun make profound statements about our current state of consciousness regarding race. Many people can simply ignore the historical trauma that is imbedded in our culture and racism that people of color experience every day. This speaks loudly to the fact that we as a city, a state, and a nation are far from not only understanding the injustice communities of color currently face, but that we are nowhere near acknowledging white privilege. 

If we truly recognized white privilege then white community members would become allies and support the Black Lives Matter movement. If we used white privilege to break down the injustice of white supremacy then people would stop saying they are sick of talking about race and realize that racism is not something that people of color can just turn off when they feel uncomfortable.    

If we acknowledged white privilege and used it as a tool to move us forward in unifying our communities through love instead of hate, then we would validate the feelings against the name Calhoun and universally support its reform to, Bde Maka Ska, its original Dakota name.

Ashley Fairbanks is a community organizer with the Native American Community Development Institute and supports changing the name to its Dakota name. “I think Dakota place names are important because it is an everyday acknowledgement that we are settlers on Dakota Makoce. The transactions that robbed the Dakota of their land were unjust, and men like Calhoun advocated for Indian Removal. Changing the name is about decentering whiteness in the American narrative. For long, only one view of history has been told. It’s time for that to change,” Fairbanks added.

Changing narratives is a first step towards reforming culture and creating a society that embraces diversity, equity and justice. Recently Montana passed a constitutional amendment that requires curriculum about Native American culture and history in all courses. The state began the process all the way back in 1972 to use schools as a tool to maintain true Native American history and culture. 

The history taught in most schools is an inaccurate depiction of manifest destiny, failing to share the dark truth of genocide that was inflicted on indigenous people on these lands. 

Changing names, sharing the real stories of this nation, and raising cultural awareness for everyone will create progressive communities that face difficult times together instead of hiding behind a false narrative that continues to divide us.

“For me, it’s about imagining the world that I grew up in versus the city I want children today to grow up in. I don’t want kids to glorify or value the name of a man that advocated for slavery and genocide. When we changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, it represented a shift, the idea that now people would know that they were valued, that their story is valued, and that Columbus isn’t lifted up as a national hero because people know the truth,” said Ashley in sharing the importance of changing historical narratives to reflect the world we live in today.

There is a large protest being planned at Lake Calhoun on Labor Day.  The day of action will highlight the intersection of racial justice with worker’s rights, raising awareness of the exploitation of labor through slavery and the violence that occurred against indigenous communities through colonization. For those who continue to question the purpose of changing a name, consider the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

There is a long road ahead of us to get to where we all want and need to be, and we are just getting started.

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.