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Minneapolis Park Board votes to change Lake Calhoun name to Bde Maka Ska

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The new signs include the lake's Dakota name
Park workers added Bde Maka Ska to signs back in 2015.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015

The long-running effort to rename Lake Calhoun has cleared its first hurdle. The Minneapolis Park Board voted Wednesday to recommend restoring the lake's traditional Dakota name Bde Maka Ska.

Supporters of the change say it's offensive to name anything after John C. Calhoun. Not only was the U.S. vice president an ardent supporter of slavery, he was also an architect of the Indian Removal Act, which President Andrew Jackson signed in 1830. 

University of Minnesota Dakota language teacher Joe Bendickson is among those pushing to rename the lake.

"The name needs to go in my opinion because we already have a name for the lake. It's Bde Maka Ska," he said. 

That translates to "white banks lake" — a nod to the light colored sand of its beaches. 

Bendickson says the name shows respect for the first people who lived in the area. And he points out that Dakota names are already common across the region.

"There are all kinds of names throughout Minnesota that have Dakota words. In fact the name of the state is a Dakota word, so it's not unheard of to have Dakota place names throughout this entire state,"  Bendickson said.

Park workers added Bde Maka Ska to signs back in 2015, though the words "Lake Calhoun" remain. The renaming effort picked up steam earlier this year after Yale University dropped Calhoun's name from one of its residential colleges. 

While the change has many supporters, some Minneapolis residents have spoken out against it. 

Arlene Fried, a co-founder of the group Park Watch, said at a board meeting last month that the city's lakes are brands that have monetary value. She says that value could fall with any re-branding, and also says it's impractical to change all place names that honor unsavory characters. 

"There are many, many names for streets and other places that are named for people who maybe are not people we would name these places for in our more enlightened era," Fried said.

With three park board members absent, the remaining six unanimously approved the switch along with a new master plan for the lake. Commissioner Brad Bourn said it's one of the most important votes they've ever taken.

"Shots of the Civil War are still being fired today. Shots of the Dakota War are still being fired today," Bourn said. "And this is one of the best things we can do to start healing some of those wounds that are more than 150 years old in our history."

Kate Beane, a Dakota historian, said making Bde Maka Ska the lake's official name is also an important recognition of the Dakota language. She says there are fewer than five fluent speakers left in Minnesota. 

"Reasserting our language into this space is acknowledging who we are, and it's acknowledging that we matter. It's remembering who the indigenous people of this space are," Beane said.

The name change proposal goes next to the Hennepin County Board. 

County Commissioner Marion Greene, who represents southwest Minneapolis, said she's not sure where her colleagues stand on changing the Minneapolis lake's name. But Greene supports the move. 

"I was thinking about how I would feel if my family's history were erased. And in particular, with the name of somebody like Calhoun, whose reputation is as we know it. On an emotional level, I think it's the right thing to do," Greene said.

Even if the Hennepin County Board signs off on calling the lake Bde Maka Ska, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also needs to approve the change. And after that, it would need a final OK from the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.

Correction (May 16, 2019): An earlier version of this story misspelled Arlene Fried.