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State approves Lake Calhoun name change

Updated: January 26, 2018 - 10:06 am

A years-long effort to rename Lake Calhoun now has the support of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr announced Thursday he has approved a plan to restore the lake’s Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, often translated as “white earth lake.” The DNR acted after the Hennepin County Board on Nov. 28 passed a resolution calling on the department to “take the steps necessary to change the name of Lake Calhoun.”

The signed order issued Thursday by Landwehr states that the county followed the proper protocols and that the renaming “will serve the public interest.”

A citizens group calling itself Save Lake Calhoun last week initiated legal action seeking to halt the name change. In a letter to Landwehr, the group argued that Hennepin County Board members “ignored the opposition” when they voted 4–3 to change the lake’s name and failed to follow the proper legal procedures. The same group also has challenged the widely accepted story that the lake was named for South Carolina statesman and former U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun.

All 15 state legislators representing Minneapolis are on record in support of the change. In their own letter to Landwehr, the legislators wrote that the lake’s current name “was chosen to dignify a man that represents a very undignified part of our American experience.”

During his lifetime, Calhoun was an outspoken proponent of slavery, describing the institution as a “positive good” in one essay. He was also a key figure in the development of the Indian Removal Act, which was used to force some Native American tribes from territories in the Southeast to west of the Mississippi River. One of the most infamous examples of forced resettlement was the Trail of Tears.

“John C. Calhoun was an advocate for slavery, white supremacy, and the extermination of Indigenous Americans,” the Minneapolis legislators wrote in their letter. “The history of Calhoun as a political or historical figure is not honored or dignified by Minnesotans now, nor should it ever have been.”

Save Lake Calhoun leader Tom Austin has argued the lake was actually named for a U.S Army lieutenant, not the secretary of war, offering as evidence an 1890 newspaper editorial others have described as not factual. Landwehr’s order notes that it is “unknown precisely when” Lake Calhoun was named, but adds that written references date to the 1820s and that at least one contemporary account affirms it was named for John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was an author of the plan that led to the construction of Fort Snelling near modern-day Minneapolis.

Landwehr’s order is just the next step in the name-change process. The name Bde Maka Ska becomes official in Minnesota when it is recorded and published in the state register. The DNR will then submit the order and Hennepin County’s resolution to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names to change the name at the federal level.

Last year, after endorsing the name change when it adopted a new master plan for the lake, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board added Bde Maka Ska to signage around the lake.