Minnesotans Fiercely Debate Name Change Of Minneapolis Lake

May 14, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 6:26 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, but what to call one of those bodies of water is stirring up controversy. Elizabeth Shockman from Minnesota Public Radio reports.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: What exactly should the official name be for Minneapolis Public Water No. 27-31, a lake located in Minneapolis?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bde Maka Ska.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Calhoun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Bde Maka Ska.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Lake Calhoun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Calhoun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Bde Maka Ska.

SHOCKMAN: This is a question being hotly debated by Minnesota residents and lawmakers, especially after a Minnesota appellate court ruled last month that the decision to change the lake's name from Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska was illegal. Whatever you call it, this lake on the highly visible chain within Minneapolis city limits has a long history of trading names. It was known by its Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, prior to the 1800s. Then it was renamed Lake Calhoun, after John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina statesman, former vice president, secretary of state and proponent of slavery.

Kate Beane is a public historian and member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe. She was part of the group that worked to get the lake's name restored to Bde Maka Ska.

KATE BEANE: I think it's important to honor and respect Dakota language in this land. And we want to create a space where we can come together, where we can all feel welcome and feel proud of the places in which we live.

SHOCKMAN: Last year, a former Minnesota DNR commissioner agreed with Beane and ordered the name change to its original Dakota. However, a group called Save Lake Calhoun challenged that, and late last month, the Minnesota appeals court agreed - the DNR didn't have the authority to change a lake name that's been in use for over 40 years. Attorney Erick Kaardal represents the Save Lake Calhoun group.

ERICK KAARDAL: The moral of the story is that, you know, public officials violating the law is not part of our Minnesota tradition. Don't violate the law; that's not how Minnesota works.

SHOCKMAN: This controversy over what to call a beloved lake chafes at familiar American quarrels over the names of schools, monuments and buildings. And Minnesota legislators have taken up the fight. Democrats want to write Bde Maka Ska into Minnesota law, but Republicans say they prefer the name Calhoun and want more public discussion. Down on the three-mile trail that runs around the beloved Minneapolis body of water, longtime friends Barbara Lordi, age 66, and Sharon Bottorff, age 77, say they, too, disagree over what the lake should be called.

SHARON BOTTORFF: Right.

BARBARA LORDI: Because we're really good friends.

BOTTORFF: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SHOCKMAN: Lordi wants to stick with the name Bde Maka Ska. Bottorff wants to keep the name Calhoun.

BOTTORFF: Well, I have a hard time with changing the names of things because of judging people from a different time and a different setting. Now, given that (laughter), I had no idea what Lake Calhoun was - who it was named after. God, how much do I want to advocate for this racist, you know?

SHOCKMAN: They say they've learned a lot about each other recently, thanks to the lake controversy.

BOTTORFF: Getting into some edgy conversations and then backing off and thinking about it and - I don't know - mellowing, perhaps? I don't know.

LORDI: (Laughter).

SHOCKMAN: Lordi, however, says she and her friend recognize that they, as white women, have a certain privilege in how they're able to discuss the issue.

LORDI: Someone with native history - and it is more powerful and more painful for them to see the name Calhoun.

SHOCKMAN: In the meantime, the Minnesota DNR says it's taking the name fight to the state Supreme Court. They say they've changed names of state geographic features more than two dozen times in the last decade; none has been as fiercely debated as this one.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Shockman in St. Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF PYE CORNER AUDIO'S "SLEEP GAMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.