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Activists want a new name for Lake Calhoun

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Lake Calhoun
Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, c. 1905.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

Contending that Lake Calhoun's name symbolizes slavery and racism, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition asking the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to rename the popular lake.

Lake Calhoun was named after John Caldwell Calhoun, a South Carolina statesman, former vice president, senator, secretary of state and proponent of slavery. He is infamously known for preaching slavery as "a positive good" in the 1800s.

Mike Spangenberg, a Minneapolis blogger and activist, started the petition June 20 after an attack in a historic Charleston, S.C., church killed nine people. Prosecutors have charged Dylann Roof, 21, with nine counts of murder.

"While changing the name of a lake will not, in itself, bring an end to injustice," Spangenberg wrote on change.org, "it can and should be an important step in an ongoing effort to confront our nation's past and to end systemic racism and oppression today."

Lake Calhoun has had a few names over the years. Its original indigenous name was "Mde Maka Ska," which translates to White Earth. Settlers changed the name to Lake Calhoun in 1820 to honor Calhoun, who established Fort Snelling.

In 1890, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board renamed it with the Dakota name "Lake Medoza" (also spelled "Mendoza") or "Lake of the Loons."

Lake Mendoza aka Lake Calhoun
This photograph, c. 1908, shows the lake with the name Lake Mendoza.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Medoza name never stuck, however, and Minneapolis' largest lake has been known as Lake Calhoun for 125 years.

Park and Recreation Board Commissioner Brad Bourn said it's not the first time in recent history there has been an effort to rename the lake. In 2011, the board tried to give it a new identity but was told it didn't have legal authority to do so.

"The laws around how lakes are named are a little nuanced and they change over the years," Bourn said.

Renaming a Minnesota lake requires a petition to the county board, the signatures of at least 15 registered voters, a public hearing and county approval.

The resolution must then be signed by the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner and the U.S. Board of Geographic Names. The process, which is part of state law, has been in place since 1937 with few tweaks in its language.

State Climatologist Pete Boulay, who processes all name change requests, said it's unclear why the Medoza name is not in the books.

It's possible the 1890 request never made it to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, he said.

"Somebody could've brought a petition to the county board ... Did they deny it? I don't have that," he said. "I only really have records of things that went through the system."

Boulay said that he receives name change requests every couple of weeks or so, but that the name change process from start to finish usually takes around nine months to a year. This time frame spans the initial contact to federal board approval.

A name change for a lake doesn't necessarily spell corresponding changes for other things in the area — like streets or parkways. "Changing the name of a geographical feature doesn't automatically change the street names — that's up to another group to do it," Boulay said.

State law says the DNR commissioner can rename a lake unless the name has been in place for 40 years or more. It's unclear how that piece of the law will affect efforts to rename Lake Calhoun.

Bourn said he will continue to push for the name change at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board level and see where it goes.

"To a lot of people, having our No. 1 lake in the state named after John C. Calhoun is very similar to flying a Confederate flag in the heart of the city of Minneapolis," he said. "I think it's a good conversation to have and I'm glad folks are engaging in it."

MPR News' Kara Tabor contributed to this report.