Twin sisters Kate Beane and Carly Bad Heart Bull consider Minneapolis their land of origin, but they didn’t get to grow up here.
They can trace their ancestors to an early 19th-century Dakota settlement on Lake Calhoun called Heyata Otunwe. But then the War of 1862 saw the Dakota force-marched from Minnesota, their children sent to boarding schools, where they were slapped and spanked for speaking their native language. The sisters spent their formative years moving from place to place, feeling like foreigners in their own country.
Uninspired by school curricula that ignored their history, unwilling to hear the pleading of their father, Syd, both dropped out of high school. They struggled for years to make it in the world without an education, until the family agreed to relocate together to their ancestral Minnesota so the sisters could study the Dakota language.
It was the language that gave them the confidence to pursue higher education. Carly became a lawyer. Kate earned a Ph.D. in American studies, writing her dissertation on the Dakota people who lived in Minneapolis before the arrival of Europeans.
During a graduate course, a fellow student asked what all her research was for. Kate said someday she’d restore the name Bde Maka Ska (“be-DAY mah-KAH-skah”) to the lake named for the infamous secessionist John C. Calhoun. People laughed.
People kept laughing, from the Park Board to the Hennepin County Board to the newspaper ads, where the sisters were called radical activists with no respect for the well-to-do residents now residing around the lake. Detractors feared Bde Maka Ska wouldn’t roll off the tongue. Others thought the name change was political correctness run amok.
Still, the sisters showed up to countless public meetings, where they led emotional crowds through slow readings of those three words, exhibited their research, and told their infectious family saga. Knowledge replaced discomfort in the hearts of Minneapolitans who’d spent their lives swimming in Calhoun, and love for the lake itself warmed them to the truth that it had an older, more authentic name. The small but well-funded opposition never showed up to say their piece in person.
The sisters entered 2018 unsure if the lake would ever get its old name back, taking comfort in the fact that even if it all ended in failure, they’d restored a chapter of Minneapolis history to the public memory.
In the end, those who embraced Bde Maka Ska outnumbered those who didn’t. The county affirmed the park board’s resolution to retire Calhoun, and the DNR ratified the change in the state register soon after. The sisters, carrying children they’ve had along the long road to change, drilled in new signs at the shores of Bde Maka Ska on a January morning.
“It had begun to feel like we were holding our breath, always facing an uphill bureaucratic battle,” says Kate.
“We poured our hearts into seeing this through. I am proud that our children can witness this historic moment, and will grow up knowing their strong voices can make a difference.”