What’s in a name? Legacies of racism

That which we call Lake Calhoun by any other name would smell as sweet without being offensive.

Alia Jeraj

Last month, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board voted to add the most-accepted modern spelling of Lake Calhoun’s original name, Bda Maka Ska, to the lake’s signage. 
 
Efforts to change the lake’s name have been in and out of the public eye for decades, but they re-emerged this summer along with the campaigns to remove the Confederate flag from southern governmental institutions. Supporters of changing the lake’s name cited John C. Calhoun as a supporter of slavery and thus an unacceptable namesake for the lake. 
 
However, Calhoun was not only a slavery apologist — he was also responsible for building Fort Snelling. Many Minnesotans celebrate Fort Snelling today as a camp where children can learn about churning butter and have tea with Mrs. Snelling. What many of them don’t know is that the fort contributes to Calhoun’s deplorable legacy of white supremacy, having served as a concentration camp where hundreds of Dakota people died of disease.
 
With this knowledge, it is unbelievable to me that Lake Calhoun has managed to keep its name for so long. However, when members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board began to question whether they could change the name of the lake, they were told that the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources was “barred by law from changing the name of a lake or a park after it exists for 40 years.”
 
I cannot begin to speak to the irony of this law being used to defend the naming of Lake Calhoun. The lake has been called such since 1820. However, the Dakota people had been living on and naming the land and its features for centuries — if not millennia — prior to the arrival of the team of United States Army surveyors who named the lake. If the DNR commissioner is going to cite the aforementioned law, it seems only logical to do so in favor of returning the lake’s name to that which the Dakota people called it long before the first white settlers arrived in Minnesota.
 
As we know, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board did decide to add Bde Maka Ska as a secondary name to the Uptown lake. However, I would argue this is not enough. 
 
John C. Calhoun is just one among many people who advocated for the extermination of Minnesota’s native peoples — not only his, but many other legacies live on as the namesakes for lakes, counties or schools. Calhoun is accompanied by the likes of Alexander Ramsey, who explicitly called for the extermination of the Dakota. 
 
I personally cannot even begin to imagine the type of pain that seeing these names inflicts on the Dakota people who continue to suffer the consequences of these men’s actions. I also cannot make any sort of claims as to what reparation for these atrocities should look like. However, it seems to me that the least we can do is end the glorification of the men who led Minnesota’s genocide — and that begins by removing their names from public spaces of honor.