Committee approves Lake Calhoun name change, final board vote to come

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

On a close vote, a Hennepin County Board committee has approved changing the name of Lake Calhoun, sending the measure to the full board for a vote as early as next week.

The lake is named for John Caldwell Calhoun — who was the nation's seventh vice president. A South Carolinian, Calhoun was well known for his full-throated defense of slavery. He was also an architect of the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced relocation of Native Americans.

For this reason, many Dakota people want the body of water to be called Bde Maka Ska, which means White Banks Lake. At a public hearing last month, Dakota historian Kate Beane said reclaiming the name would honor her ancestors, who lived in the area until they were exiled beginning in 1862.

"It's time that we be remembered. We've worked hard. We've returned. We've walked a long way to be here," Beane said.

Tuesday, a Hennepin County Board committee approved the name change on a 4-3 vote after rejecting a motion to put both names on the lake.

Commissioner Peter McLoughlin said use of the Dakota name reflects the region's aspirations, values and history.

"Place names can trigger discussions and thinking and understanding. And I think the renaming of this lake, what is now called Lake Calhoun, to a lake that reflects the historic name I think is a step in the right direction," McLoughlin said.

The Water Main
The Water Main

While only a few opponents of the change spoke out at hearings, commissioners say they received a deluge of phone calls and emails over the last week after a group that wants to keep Calhoun's name published a half-page ad in the Star Tribune. It accuses county leaders of caving to "extremist political activists."

Commissioner Jeff Johnson voted against the name change. He said John Calhoun's views on race and slavery were repugnant, but he'd never known of the connection between man and lake until the current debate arose.

"I just believe that this national frenzy to rename buildings and streets and structures and take down plaques and take down monuments accomplishes nothing, other than to divide us, more than we're already divided in this country," Johnson said.

In 2015 the Minneapolis Park Board added "Bde Maka Ska" to signs around the lake, underneath the words "Lake Calhoun."

The County Board is expected to take a final vote on renaming the lake next Tuesday. But they don't have the final word. The Department of Natural Resources must sign off, as does an obscure federal panel called the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.