Minnesota lake named for pro-slavery Calhoun gets new name

The new signs include the lake's Dakota name
Signs at Lake Calhoun were changed to include the lake's Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska in 2015.
Peter Cox | MPR News 2015

Updated: Jan. 19, 6:23 a.m. | Posted: Jan. 18, 2:47 p.m.

A popular Minneapolis lake named in honor of slavery supporter and former Vice President John Calhoun will get its original American Indian name back, Minnesota officials announced Thursday.

Lake Calhoun will be renamed Bde Maka Ska, the Department of Natural Resources announced. The name, which is pronounced beh-DAY' mah-KAH' skah and means White Earth Lake, was used by the Dakota people before federal surveyors renamed it in the early 1800s for Calhoun, who was then secretary of war. Official signs around the lake use both names.

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Calhoun, who also served as a U.S. representative and senator from South Carolina, and as U.S. secretary of state, defended slavery as a "positive good" that benefited slaves and slave owners alike. While he died in 1850, his views on slavery and states' rights remained influential when Southern states seceded in 1860-61, leading to the Civil War. The Hennepin County Board and the city's park board backed the name change last year after more than two years of public input.

The DNR approved the change despite opposition from some homeowners around the lake who called it an unnecessary rewrite of history and said it would hurt businesses that use the name. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he was confident that the county carefully considered community values and opinion.

"We did not substitute our judgment for that of the duly elected county commissioners," Landwehr said on a conference call with reporters. "Rather, our job is to consider whether the county followed the proper public process prior to making the resolution and whether the county-approved name complies with naming conventions. ... We found everything in compliance and approved the name change."

The DNR will forward its decision to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to decide whether to approve the change for federal use. But Landwehr said his decision essentially makes it official once it's published in the State Register within the next couple weeks, and the state will call the lake Bde Maka Ska in all official state documents and actions.

Opponents of the change said they'll ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reject the decision.

"The Save Lake Calhoun group is gravely disappointed with the DNR's decision to rename Lake Calhoun," said the group's attorney, Erick Kaardal.

Kaardal said the commissioner exceeded his authority under state statutes. He said the relevant statute bars the DNR from changing the name of a lake that's been used for 40 years or more, and that proponents of renaming the lake Bde Maka Ska would need approval from the Legislature instead.

But Landwehr said in his order that other language in the statute, which gives him authority to determine the "correct and most appropriate" names for lakes and streams, is what applies in this case.