Minnesota’s 'Redskin Lake' could see name change

Minneapolis Park and Recreation board started process to rename streets.
Sign near Bde Maka Ska in May 2019. The Minneapolis lake's name was changed recently. Other lakes bearing offensive names may get new ones.
Matt Sepic | MPR News 2019

Earlier this week, the Washington-based NFL football team announced — after years of pressure — that it would drop its “Redskins” name, which is widely viewed as a racial slur against Native Americans.

A small lake bearing the same moniker within the Superior National Forest in far northeastern Minnesota may also have its name changed.

Late last year, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names received a petition to change the name of Redskin Lake, located in Lake County, to Ojibwe Lake.

Trent Wickman, a spokesperson for the Superior National Forest, said the board then asked the U.S. Forest Service for its opinion on the suggested change.

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According to Wickman, the Superior National Forest contacted tribal partners, who were supportive of the name change. But the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa proposed the name be changed instead to “Memegwesi.” Memegwesi, according to the University of Minnesota’s Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, means “a hairy-faced bank-dwelling” spirit.

There already is a lake in Minnesota named Ojibway, located just off the Gunflint Trail on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Fond du Lac Band hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.

The Superior National Forest told the federal Board that it supported changing the name, but suggested that Memegwesi also be considered, Wickman said.

For that to happen, though, a new petition would need to be submitted, which would then first have to go through a county and state process before any name change could be approved, said Pete Boulay, who oversees that process for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

And to his knowledge, no new petition has been submitted to kick-start that process, Boulay said.

To change a name, 15 or more voters in the county where the lake or geographic feature is located — in this case, Lake County — must first petition the county board of commissioners for a public hearing.

If the county board agrees on the proposed name, then the Minnesota DNR commissioner would have to approve of the name change. Then it would move to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names for final approval.

It’s the same process that was followed to rename Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake.

The DNR’s Boulay said there has been a surge of interest in renaming controversial names over the past several months, during a nationwide reckoning over racism that has resulted in the removal of dozens of names, statues and monuments.

“There’s certainly been an uptick in interest” in identifying controversial names, Boulay said, “and people asking questions, what can they do to change it.”

But he said the process takes time. “You can’t snap your fingers and change the name overnight, you have to follow the same process for any geographic name change.”

Boulay keeps a thick folder in his office with names under consideration to be changed. Many are names that are considered offensive. There’s Savage Lake in Ramsey County; and Blackface Lake in Aitkin County.

Over the years many lakes and streams named “Squaw” have been changed. A lake previously called Halfbreed Lake in Washington County was renamed Lake Keewahtin in 2017. But even that proposal required two hearings to get county approval, Boulay said.

“A lot of people will agree that we don’t like this name, we want to change it,” he said. “The tough part is agreeing on what name to change it to. That’s where you want to do the research before you get to the public hearing because that could lead to more public hearings.”