Lake Calhoun or Bde Maka Ska?: The Twin Cities has its own name restoration debate

One of the most popular lakes in the Twin Cities has two names.

Lake Calhoun in southwest Minneapolis was named after John C. Calhoun, who was vice president of the United States from 1825 to 1832. He was an advocate of slavery and an architect of the persecution of indigenous people.

A sign on the east side of the lake in southwest Minneapolis lists both Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska, the original Dakota name for the lake. The lake is part of a nationwide debate about changing the titles of monuments and landmarks named after controversial historical figures.
(Staff photo)

The lake’s other name, Bde Maka Ska, is what indigenous Dakota people called the lake before settlers arrived.

Signposts welcoming visitors at the lake, which has been named Calhoun for nearly 200 years, now lists both names: Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska. The name change debate comes during a national debate about changing monuments and landmarks that are currently named after controversial historical figures.

According to Brad Bourn, district commissioner for the Minneapolis Park Board, it’s time to stop honoring Calhoun. Bourn, whose district includes a portion of the lake, supports permanent name restoration of the lake to Bde Maka Ska.

“He [Calhoun] is on the wrong side of history and on the wrong side of progress,” Bourn said. “I think that our communities deserve to have this conversation about that, and I think it sparks conversation and thought around issues today.”

Descendants of the original Dakota settlement that used to 
be on the lake agree. About five years ago, they initiated the name restoration conversation, according to Bourn.

In May, the Minneapolis Park Board voted in favor of changing the lake’s official name to Bde Maka Ska. To become official, the name change needs to go through the Hennepin County Board, then the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and then the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Park Board will act as an advisory for the final decision, according to Bourn.

Melanie Adams, senior director of guest experiences and educational services at the Minnesota Historical Society, said when Lake Calhoun was named, nobody questioned why it was named after a slave owner. Calhoun also was an architect of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“They didn’t question that because a naming is a reflection
of the society at the time,” Adams said.

“We are memorializing and commemorating men who may
not have acted in a way that today we find honorable. But at the time period when it was done, they were considered honorable.”

Changing the titles of land- marks is nothing new, and there is a nationwide debate taking place about monuments and landmarks’ names being changed because of their controversial titles.

Nationally, Yale University recently changed the name of its Calhoun College—also named after John Calhoun—to honor Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and U.S. Navy admiral.

Locally, a middle school in Minneapolis in June changed
its name to Justice Page Middle School, honoring Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan
 Page, also a former NFL player. The school was formerly Ramsey Middle School, named after Alexander Ramsey, a former Minnesota governor who called for the Dakota people to be exterminated, according to reports.

There also have been rumblings of a name change for Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis-St.
Paul International Airport. The Lindbergh name is controversial because, although he was a great aviator, Charles Lindbergh also was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. In 2016, more than 13,000 people signed a petition to change the terminal name to honor Prince (To date, no such decision has been announced).

Despite the controversy, Adams says that continuing to honor people by naming landmarks after them still has a place in modern society.
 “I think it’s still important for a lot of people,” she said. “One way of honoring people is to name something after them. So I don’t think we should take that away just because we’re afraid what will happen 75 years from now.”