The first people to call this land home often named their surroundings by using descriptions of what those natural resources looked like. Names we use today for Minnesota waters and lands come from Ojibwe and Dakota people. Cultural observers say how we treat names reflect the barriers Indigenous communities — and Minnesotans of color generally — encounter to be fully seen in society.
“Our language is very visual. It’s descriptive,” said Kate Beane, who is Dakota and holds a doctoral degree in American Studies. “It is something that you can close your eyes and really sort of see through the eyes of those who came before us.”
Beane is a descendant of people who were removed from Minnesota by U.S. soldiers to the Flandreau Santee reservation in South Dakota in the 1860s. A public historian as well as the executive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, Beane thinks deeply about what place names contain.
“The way that I was taught is that ‘Minnesota’ is a reflection of the sky on the water,” she said. “And it's sort of that reflection, which is why oftentimes it gets translated as cloudy water, clear water, it depends on the weather.”
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European fur trappers and explorers would often ask residents what a lake or river was called. Beane is not sure if some titles are names, directions to a place or descriptions of food found there.
As Europeans settled in large numbers they often changed those names.
Beane said the renaming is just part of the larger process of erasing Native culture. That’s reflected in how many Dakota names are mispronounced or anglicized.
“But they [English versions] are actually harder for us to pronounce as Dakota people because they are mispronunciations,” she said.
Some names of cities and landmarks like Nicollet, New Ulm and New Prague are pronounced differently than the European languages spoken by early immigrants and explorers.
Naming is tied closely to the history of colonization and oppression of Indigenous people, Beane said. In 2015, Beane and others led an effort to return Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to its Dakota name Bde Maka Ska which means white earth lake.
Beane said opponents seemed to be more angry about who was leading the reclamation effort than about the name itself. She said they were called ‘militant Dakota’ who were trying to take away the lake.
The restoration effort was successful, Beane said, in part because the Indigenous community and its allies worked together. She recalls Minneapolis park board hearings where members of the Somali community came to advocate for a stop sign near a park where their children played. These Somali neighbors also voiced their support for Bde Maka Ska.
“We are certainly seeing an acceleration of this idea of reclaiming space and of changing names to reflect changing values,” said William Convery, director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society.
“In Minnesota, it's played out from everything from the movement to reclaim the name of Bde Maka Ska to renaming middle schools and high schools named after Minnesota governors who were involved in Native American extermination,” said Convery.
Following a student led-effort, the Minneapolis school board in 2017 agreed to remove the name of former governor Alexander Ramsey from a middle school and honor Alan Page, the former Minnesota Viking who became the first African American to sit on the state’s supreme court.
Last year, Henry Sibley High School, named after the state’s first governor, changed its name to Two Rivers high school for similar reasons.
The debates and discussions over the use of historical names or of derogatory terms for places and things in Minnesota is not unique to the state, nor is it new.
In 1995, after a campaign by northern Minnesota students the state prohibited applying a derogatory word for an Indigenous woman to geographic place names. Despite this, a town in Itasca county still goes by the slur.
Until 1977, two Minnesota lakes bore a racial epithet aimed at Black people.
Indigenous activists in Minnesota have also been at the vanguard of efforts to eliminate the use of Native American mascots for sports teams.
As people in southern states forced some symbols of the Confederacy and white supremacy be removed from public places, Convery said Minnesotans are considering how names of the past no longer reflect modern sensibilities.
“So in some ways, these names are always changing and we're always updating our values and thinking about the way we name things in order to reflect those values,” said Convery.
‘Say his name!’
While protests followed nearly every police killing in Minneapolis over the last 10 years, they did not match the intensity of the global response to the murder by Derek Chauvin of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man who begged the officer to let him up so he could breathe.
The chant, “say his name, George Floyd” resounded through the streets of Minneapolis and in cities across the world.
“Mr. Floyd harkens to a particular, deeper history,” said Rose Brewer, a sociologist and a distinguished teaching professor of African American studies at the University of Minnesota. Brewer said repeating Floyd’s name recalls so many other African Americans killed by Minneapolis police officers.
“But it also, from my perspective, harks to the push for us to place that in the broader Minnesota context.”
That context, said Brewer, is that Minnesota has not always lived up to the progressive image that social liberals aspire to. Racial disparities in health care, employment, housing, education, as well as the criminal justice system have long disadvantaged Black residents.
In response to Floyd’s killing, community members closed down the intersection of 38th and Chicago where he took his last breaths under Chauvin’s knee. Though the area has since reopened to traffic, it has retained the name George Floyd Square.
The square continues to draw people. Brewer believes George Floyd Square is important for several reasons. It is a place where people come together to push for social and political change.
“But also, how can you not have a memorial of sorts that recognizes a heinous, but powerful, emblematic expression of structural racism, of institutional racism?” Brewer said.