Hennepin County commissioners vote narrowly to change Lake Calhoun's name to Bde Maka Ska

Even with overwhelming public support, we're only now halfway through the process of changing Lake Calhoun to Lake Bde Maka Ska.

Even with overwhelming public support, we're only now halfway through the process of changing Lake Calhoun to Lake Bde Maka Ska. Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune

People have talked about ditching the name Lake Calhoun for the better part of this decade.

The 19th century U.S. Secretary of War for whom the lake is named, John C. Calhoun, was a strong supporter of slavery who may never even have set foot in Minnesota. What he did accomplish was to authorize the construction of Fort Snelling, which was used as a concentration camp during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1892.

Contemporary Minneapolitans reluctant to keep dipping their toes in that legacy prefer Bde Maka Ska (Beh-DAY Ma-KAH-ska), meaning "White Earth Lake"—the oldest name the lake has ever had.

Two years ago the Minneapolis Park Board added Bde Maka Ska to signs for Lake Calhoun, and later voted unanimously to restore it officially.

Still, the lake technically remains Lake Calhoun and the name change remains controversial. Opponents have annointed themselves the "silent majority," even though they've been consistently outnumbered at the many public forums on this issue, including a panel discussion with Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene on Monday night.

Their concerns have ranged from the knuckle-dragging ("What exactly have the Dakota Indians done?") to the more nuanced question of whether striking Calhoun's name entirely would take away the opportunity to teach about an ugly piece of Minnesota's past. (For that, the Park Board has planned a public art project to educate visitors about the history of the Indigenous people who lived near the lake prior to the arrival of European settlers.)

On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Administration Committee, comprised of all seven commissioners, voted 4-3 in favor of the name change as well. The nay votes came from Commissioners Jan Callison, Mike Opat, and Jeff Johnson.

Callison proposed an amendment to use both names as a compromise.

"I heard people say ... 'When they took away the name, they took away our history, and that wasn't right.' And what we are proposing to do today is taking away somebody else's name, and taking away that history," she said. "That's not right either."

Opat agreed with her, saying the deluge of emails and phone calls he received on the topic has been overwhelmingly one-sided against replacing Lake Calhoun. 

Greene fought back, challenging the grassroots integrity of many of the angry phone calls and emails she's gotten from those same people, and questioning whether they were even residents of Hennepin County. She argued that in cases where an English name and an American Indian name shared a plaque, people tended to disregard the latter.

That amendment failed.

Johnson alone opposed changing the name of Lake Calhoun on principle, calling it part of the "national frenzy to rename buildings and streets and structures and take down plaques and take down monuments [that] accomplishes nothing other than actually divide us more than we're already divided in this country."

He worried that changing Lake Calhoun would lead down a slippery slope of censuring the legacies of all of the nation's founders. 

In the end Commissioners Greene, Peter McLaughlin, Linda Higgins, and Debbie Goettel prevailed after speaking on the many American Indian names that already populate the cities and streets of Minnesota, and insisting on restoring Bde Maka Ska as a gesture of reconciliation with Minneapolis' American Indian community. 

"It's inconvenient to acknowledge that John C. Calhoun was an advocate for slavery and white supremacy, and we are elevating him by keeping the current lake name," Greene said. "But we have to face it, and hopefully in facing it we learn something about our collective history and alter our future that reflect a new understanding."

A final board vote will take place next week.

After that, the Hennepin County Board would give its recommendation to the state Department of Natural Resources. If the DNR decides to restore Bde Maka Ska as well, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names would get to make the final call.