'A Grand Heart Place' Duluth poised to rename downtown park in Ojibwe language

A sculpture in Lake Place Park.
A sculpture in Lake Place Park with Lake Superior visible in the distance, Dec. 7, 2018.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Less than a year after Minneapolis' Lake Calhoun was renamed Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake in the Dakota language, the city of Duluth is on the cusp of renaming a downtown park in the Ojibwe language.

The Duluth City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution Monday to change the name of Lake Place Park to Gichi-ode' Akiing, which means A Grand Heart Place in the Ojibwe language. The park sits across a tunnel over I-35, stretching from the edge of downtown to the Lakewalk and includes a stretch of Lake Superior shoreline.

The city's Indigenous Commission has pushed for the change for more than three years in an effort to help educate the community and visitors about the Ojibwe language, history and culture; to dispel myths; and to create a place of healing for Native people.

"It all comes down to giving more visibility to Indigenous people," said Babette Sandman, chair of the commission and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

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A view of the Aerial Lift Bridge from Lake Place Park.
A view of the Aerial Lift Bridge from Lake Place Park in downtown Duluth.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"You just don't hear about the Anishinaabe history anywhere in Duluth," she said. "You don't see the language. And we want to change that."

She said a young Native American man in the community suggested the name, which will serve as a reminder to enter the park with a good heart.

Native leaders in the community hope to hold cultural events in the park, including storytelling and plays, and have a food truck that serves indigenous food like wild rice and venison, she said. They also envision plaques displaying information on Duluth's Native American history and culture.

Supporters of the change say it's about much more than simply renaming a park. It's about reminding people that Native Americans are still here, and part of the broader community: "Not in this romantic version as a guy on a horse with a bow and arrow, or as some nasty stereotypes, but as real people who are living life just like them," explained Mary Owen, a member of the city's Indigenous Commission.

She's also a doctor and a member of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska, who specializes in Native American health. She said it can have real health impacts for young Native Americans to see their culture recognized and honored in this way, even in something as simple as a park's name.

"We know the power of culture helps build resilience in people," she said. "We know that people in Native communities tend to do better when they are part of their culture. And that is so important to the health of a people to know that we can survive despite everything that's happened, to know that our ancestors fought to keep us here."

Babette Sandman said she expects that Duluth City Council will approve the resolution, and hopes to hold a naming ceremony in early spring, for which she plans to invite people from tribes all around Minnesota.

"It's been a long time coming but our time is here, to honor our ancestors, and to help our future generations feel that they belong here, be proud of who you are, and be proud that the city of Duluth embraces you," she said.