The Hennepin County Board on Nov. 28 advanced a proposal to change the name of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska.
The board voted 4–3 to recommend that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources take the necessary steps to change the lake’s name. Bde Maka Ska means “White Earth Lake” in the Dakota language.
The vote was the latest in a multi-step, years-long effort to rename the lake. Supporters of a change have long noted that the lake’s namesake, South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, was a supporter of slavery and the Indian Removal Act. They say the change would be welcoming and inclusive and honor the area’s Native American history.
“It’s not going to change the world, but I think it will be a positive contribution to our county and to the whole state of Minnesota to recognize the history of the Dakota people here in Hennepin County,” Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said before the vote.
Opponents argued there were ways to honor that history other than changing a name that’s become iconic in Minneapolis. Other early American politicians held similar views to Calhoun, some noted, which could prompt even more name changes.
“You can rename the lake, but the name Calhoun is not going to be eradicated,” Minneapolis resident Arlene Fried said at a public hearing in October.
The latest push to change the name came through the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which recommended a name change as part of its 25-year master plan for Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. In its petition, the Park Board said many people have requested that the name Bde Maka Ska be restored, noting that it disappeared in 1820 when surveyors named the water body after Calhoun.
“Restoring the name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun … sends a powerful message to disenfranchised communities among our citizenry that this lake and public parkland are not for just a select group, but for all people,” the petition said.
The County Board received three petitions to rename the lake, including the one to rename it Bde Maka Ska. Another asked for a change to Lake Maka Ska, and a third asked for a change to Lake Wellstone.
Most speakers at the public hearing in October supported changing the lake’s name. They said a change would be an appropriate way to honor the untaught Dakota history of the area and could inspire people to learn more.
Several county commissioners echoed those points at a board committee meeting on Nov. 21. Commissioner Linda Higgins added that people would learn how to pronounce the name over time as they have other Native American place names in Minnesota, such as Wayzata.
Commissioner Jan Callison said many of those Native American names have been Anglicized so as not to be confuse English speakers. She said her fear is that people would use the nickname “Lake Bde” for the lake because they wouldn’t be comfortable pronouncing Bde Maka Ska.
Callison proposed an amendment that both Bde Maka Ska and Lake Calhoun be used, in an attempt to respond to arguments on both sides of the issue.
Commissioner Mike Opat voiced support for Callison’s amendment, calling it a “more reasonable outcome that advances all agendas.” He said he’s never received more email or phone traffic on an issue, adding that comments had been decidedly against a change. Commissioner Marion Greene said she appreciated the idea of finding middle ground but that one name would come in second in such an arrangement. McLaughlin agreed.
Callison’s amendment failed on a 4–3 vote, with Greene, McLaughlin, Higgins and Commissioner Debbie Goettel voting against it.
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who supported the amendment, said he wouldn’t support the change because he doesn’t believe the “national frenzy” to rename buildings accomplishes anything other than to widen divisions.
He said changing the name wouldn’t change history, adding that many other early American figures, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, held views found repugnant today.
“Once we start this, it will not end, and I’m absolutely convinced of that,” he said.
Greene said it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that Calhoun was an advocate for slavery and white supremacy. But she said it’s important to face that truth and learn something from it.
She noted the extensive process the Park Board went through in recommending a name change, adding that many people at a forum she hosted on Nov. 20 supported the change.
The motion to recommend a name change passed on Nov. 21, with Greene, McLaughlin, Higgins and Goettel in support. The same four commissioners voted to recommend the change a week later.
At the Nov. 21 meeting, Assistant State Climatologist Peter Boulay said the state DNR commissioner would decide whether or not to accept the name and send it back to the county to be recorded. The name would officially be the name in Minnesota once it’s recorded.
From there, it would be forwarded to the U.S. Geographic Board on Names for consideration.