Bde Maka Ska is Lake Calhoun again, appeals court rules

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Bde Maka Ska is Lake Calhoun again, legally speaking.

The state Court of Appeals ruled April 29 that former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr did not have the authority to rename the Southwest Minneapolis lake because the name had been in place for more than 40 years.

Landwehr formally ordered the state revert to Lake Calhoun’s Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, often translated as “White Earth Lake” in January 2018 after the Hennepin County Board voted on a resolution asking the DNR to “take the steps necessary to change the name.”

But a three-judge panel ruled he lacked the authority to issue that order, finding that only the Legislature can change the name of lakes that have been in state records for more than 40 years.

The DNR had argued it could change the name with a cooperating county board. The agency also contended the state debate over the name is moot because the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has officially changed the name of the lake to Bde Maka Ska in the Geographic Names Information System.

Assistant DNR Commissioner Jess Richards acknowledged in a statement the decision means at the state level the name will legally change to Lake Calhoun absent an appeal, but pointed out the Dakota name remains at the federal level.

“Absent a change by the Board of Geographic Names, the federal name for the lake will continue to be Bde Maka Ska.”

The DNR is reviewing the Court of Appeals ruling and is considering asking for a state Supreme Court to review the case, Richards said. The state has 30 days to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to to review the appeals court ruling, which the high court can chose to accept or decline.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board began the process of changing the name in 2015 as places around the United States reconsidered names and monuments honoring those who supported slavery, like former Secretary of War, Vice President and South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, the lake’s namesake. Calhoun was an outspoken slavery proponent who also helped implement the Indian Removal Act, which forced eastern American Indian tribes to move west through brutal resettlements such as the Trail of Tears.

The judges ruled in favor of “Save Lake Calhoun,” a group that formed to resist the name change.

“We think this is a really important decision,” said Erick Kaardal, an attorney representing Save Lake Calhoun.

Kaardal said the case is significant because it clarifies that elected officials cannot violate the law and change names without following proper procedure. He said most people in the Save Lake Calhoun group he is representing live near the lake.

The DNR is concerned the Court of Appeals ruling shows an interpretation of state statute that eliminates local and state government ability to rename any waterbody that has had its name for 40 years old, Richards said in her statement. The DNR said it has previously renamed lakes due to names that included derogatory terms. In 2017, former Commissioner Landwehr approved a waterbody name change in Washington County that renamed Halfbreed Lake to Keewahtin Lake.

The MPRB said in a statement Monday that it was disappointed by the decision. The Park Board is not a party to the lawsuit but is encouraging the DNR to petition the Supreme Court for a review.

“While it saddens me that 318 property ‘owners’ on stolen Dakota land around Bde Maka Ska calling themselves ‘Save Lake Calhoun’ have prevailed at this stage, I know that we’re standing on the right side of history and that its arc bends towards justice,” Park Board President Brad Bourn said in a statement.

He added he will not spend public resources to honor John C. Calhoun.

“The most beautiful lake in Minneapolis has been called Bde Maka Ska for generations before white settlers stole it from the Dakota. It will continue to be Bde Maka Ska for generations to come,” he said.

Some members of the group behind Save Lake Calhoun have argued the lake was named for a U.S. Army Lieutenant, not the former Vice President, though most historical accounts say the lake was named for John C. Calhoun.

Kaardal said he fully expects an appeal, but if the state doesn’t request a review the next step will to be to ask the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to reverse its action and rename the body Lake Calhoun.

A message requesting comment from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office was not immediately returned Monday.