The nearly two-year journey to adopt a new master plan for two of the lakes in the Chain of Lakes ends on April 19. That’s when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is scheduled to act on citizen-initiated recommendations for the lakes and surrounding parkland.
The draft plan for lakes Harriet and Calhoun, the latter also known as Bde Maka Ska, contains many ideas. Some are grandiose and unlikely to happen for decades, if ever, given the tens of millions of dollars of other park work backed up awaiting a place in future state bonding bills. You can put the land bridge over Lake Street in that basket.
Others fall into the category of making sure that the lakeshores around the two lakes remain safe for public use. Renewing degraded sections of pathway paving will gobble much of the roughly $3 million in Metropolitan Council funding currently available; accessibility improvements will consume much of the rest.
But one recommendation by the Citizen Advisory Committee costs little financial capital even as it packs a symbolic wallop in terms of human capital.
That’s that the Park Board finally getting behind the push to rename Calhoun.
Here’s what the committee recommended: “The Park Board will support the official and legal restoration of the name ‘Bde Maka Ska’ to Lake Calhoun and advocate for such restoration in all appropriate fora, including the Hennepin County Board, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Minnesota Legislature. To the extent that the Park Board determines that such restoration requires legislative action, the CAC recommends that the Park Board include such action in its legislative agenda.”
It’s an issue the board has long dodged. First it maintained on the advice of its attorney that it had no role in renaming lakes, and that such a push wasn’t likely to meet state criteria for doing so. Then it said it directed the lakes advisory committee to weigh in. Then, without waiting for the panel’s deliberations, it tried a Solomonic ploy to placate those arguing for renaming Calhoun by directing that a Dakota name be added to signs around the lake.
Although state, Hennepin County and DNR legal opinions differ, it seems clear that the path toward addressing the festering issue of renaming begins with a petition from 15 voters to the Hennepin County Board. The board would hold a hearing and could make a proposal to the DNR, which has ultimate authority at the state level, subject to concurrence by an obscure federal board on geographic names.
The Park Board’s opinion would matter in this process. Some on the board may want to duck the issue until after this spring’s DFL endorsing convention or the next fall’s elections. But the possibility of a majority of board seats changing hands in the election may make delay moot.
Yet the case for changing Calhoun’s name has only gained steam. It once was argued primarily by those who found distasteful John C. Calhoun’s status as a foremost advocate for slavery. Now it has been joined by those who argue for restoration of the Dakota name and note Calhoun’s role as an architect of the forced relocation of some 50,000 tribal members from their southeastern homeland to unfamiliar lands farther west.
Commissioner Anita Tabb has argued that removing the names of slaveholders in light of presentist attitudes is a slippery slope. What about Jefferson? But to pick one example, the school in the lakes area named after him has no prior name to restore. Commissioner John Erwin has argued that the Park Board’s own advisory group’s recommendation shouldn’t be determinative and that other racial and ethnic groups need to be consulted. But none of those groups can lay claim to a previous name for the lake that was stripped by misguided Manifest Destiny.
Some in the small and sometimes fractious community of professional and amateur scholars of early contact between natives and the whites who displaced them debate whether Bde Maka Ska is the right indigenous name for the lake and even dispute the proper spelling.
But despite his other copious accomplishments as a 19th century statesman, retaining Calhoun’s name on a Minneapolis lake is as provocative to some as flying a confederate flag over a southern monument. It’s time for Minneapolis to get on the right side of history, just as the Park Board did in renaming Nicollet Field after Martin Luther King. Yale University this month resolved to rename its Calhoun College.
Some may say that the name Bde Maka Ska is too hard to pronounce. Be-DAY Mah-KAH Ska doesn’t trip off the tongue now but the next generation of Minneapolitans will say it as easily as we now say Shakopee, Chanhassen and Wayzata. After all, how many generations of Minnesotans have learned to shout “Ski U Mah”?