Lake Calhoun Name Change Up for Legal Debate in Minnesota Appeals Court

In the Land of 10,000 lakes, one has caused great controversy: Lake Calhoun. Minnesota residents and legislators are currently engaged in a heated debate about what the new name of the lake should be, after a Minnesota court of appeals ruled that a state agency’s change to “Lake Bde Maka Ska” was against the law. Now, everyone is wondering what the new name for Lake Calhoun will be, as a lake with a long history of name changes.

A History of Lake Calhoun

Lake Calhoun, officially Minnesota Public Water No. 27-31, bore the name Bde Maka Ska (pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah), its Dakota Native American name, before the 1800s. Bde Maka Ska translates as “White Earth Lake” in Dakota – a name passed down for generations through the native inhabitants of Minnesota. In the 1800s, the name changed to Lake Calhoun, named after John C. Calhoun. John Calhoun was a statesman from South Carolina, a former vice president, and a supporter of slavery at the time.

Why the return to Bde Maka Ska? One woman, Katherine Beane, and her family took a leading role in the change of Lake Calhoun’s name back to the Dakota designation. Beane is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe, as well as a public historian. She and her family worked with a group of advocates to honor the Dakota language by reverting back to Bde Maka Ska as the name for Lake Calhoun. In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved the name Bde Maka Ska amid opposition from home and business owners surrounding the lake.

The Name Change Appeal

About a year and a half after the change to Bde Maka Ska, a group called “Save Lake Calhoun” filed an appeal opposing the lake’s name change. Those opposed to the change said the new name was rewriting history. Others said it would hurt businesses that use the name Lake Calhoun to attract customers. Tom Landwehr, the DNR Commissioner, said that the department considered community values, made sure the county followed the correct protocols, and found that the name change complied with requirements. He stands by their decision to approve the name change.

Opponents of the name Bde Maka Ska took the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals after the Ramsey County and district courts dismissed the petition to revert to the old name, Lake Calhoun. On April 29, 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court erred by dismissing Save Lake Calhoun’s case. It also ruled that the Department of Natural Resources did not have the authority to approve the name change to Bde Maka Ska since the name Lake Calhoun had existed for more than 40 years – despite Landwehr holding that the statutes does give him the power to determine correct and appropriate names for lakes and streams.

The Future of Minnesota Public Water No. 27-31

Currently, signage around Minnesota Public Water No. 27-31 displays both names: Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska. Members of the group Save Lake Calhoun are celebrating their victory, while Beane and her family are planning to pursue the change back to Bde Maka Ska through different legal means. The official name of the lake is currently up for speculation. According to local legislators, the name of the lake is Lake Calhoun. The federal Board on Geographic Names, however, as adopted the name Bde Maka Ska, and plans to keep the name.

Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey, said in a tweet that he would continue to refer to the lake as Bde Maka Ska, despite the Court of Appeals’ ruling. The president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Brad Bourn, says the agency did not partake in the appeal, and does not have any plans to change the signs around the lake back to “Lake Calhoun” alone. He issued a statement explaining that the Parks and Rec Department had no plans to spend public resources to honor John C. Calhoun’s “blood-soaked legacy of systemic violence against all our communities.” As residents can see, the lake’s name change remains an ongoing debate.