Minnesota Supreme Court Restores Lake’s Dakota Name

Many Minnesotans objected to naming Minneapolis’ largest lake after a defender of slavery.

Bde Maka Ska, formerly Lake Calhoun, is the largest lake in Minneapolis.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Ending a years-long debate over honoring a defender of slavery, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 Wednesday that the commissioner of the state’s Department of Natural Resources had authority to restore the name of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, as the Dakota people call it.

Bde Maka Ska, at 401 acres the largest lake in Minneapolis, is popular for its beaches and walking paths. In the 1820s it was named for South Carolina senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of the nation’s most vehement defenders of slavery and an advocate for relocation of Native Americans. Accounts differ on why Calhoun’s name was attached to the lake, but in the 20th century it became a key part of several of Minnesota’s wealthiest neighborhoods and the site of several popular public beaches.

The name’s baggage left a bad taste in the mouths of many Minneapolis residents, though, and in 2017 the Minneapolis Park Board began working to restore the name given to it by the region’s native Dakota people, Bde Maka Ska (buh DAY muh KAHS ka), or White Earth Lake.

The parks board and Hennepin County Board found that they did not have the authority to change the name themselves, and sent the issue to the Department of Natural Resources, which took public comment on the issue and decided to restore the name of the lake in January 2018.

Enter an organization known as Save Lake Calhoun, led by local venture capitalist Tom Austin, who lives near the lake. Austin gathered signatures for a petition opposing the name change, and petitioned the Minnesota Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari. That petition was dismissed, but an appeal of a different case — a petition for a writ of quo warranto in Ramsey County, based in the state capital of St. Paul — was taken up by the Minnesota Court of Appeals after being denied in district court.

In that suit, Save Lake Calhoun argued that the DNR had exceeded its statutory authority by changing the name, citing a statute that prohibits name changes for bodies of water that have had a name for over 40 years. The Court of Appeals reversed the district court, leading the then-former Commissioner of the DNR to appeal to the State Supreme Court.

Austin did not reply to a request for comment Wednesday evening, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune published his opinion piece after the Court of Appeals decision, saying that while he had no love for Calhoun the man, he had challenged the decision because “in the end, I was disgusted by how everyday Minnesotans had been steamrollered by politicians, the media and activists and forced to adopt a name (Bde Maka Ska) that we didn’t support.”

Associate Justice David Lillehaug wrote for the state supreme court that a writ of quo warranto was the proper means to challenge the commissioner’s authority, and that the 40-year time limit applied to name changes made through county boards, not to the DNR commissioner.

“Under Minnesota law,” he wrote, “the body of water that was Lake Calhoun is now Bde Maka Ska.”

The decision was cheered by supporters of the name change, including Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, who tweeted: “A bit of good news: Bde Maka Ska is here to stay!”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose district includes the lake, tweeted: “This decision corrects a historical injustice and embodies the values we want to leave future Minnesotans.”

Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board member Chris Meyer said he was relieved by the ruling. Without it, he said, “We would have been left in a bizarre situation where MPRB-controlled land and parkways had one name, while the body of water itself had a different one.”

He added: “I’m frustrated that the Save Lake Calhoun group forced us to waste so much time and money on the issue, but I’m grateful to the Supreme Court judges and to all the advocates who helped us prevail today.”

Save Lake Calhoun’s attorney, Erick Kaardal with the local firm Mohrman Kaardal & Erickson said he was pleased with the first part of the court’s decision, but expressed concern that the name change could be the first of many.

“We’re thankful that people can still sue public officials in Minnesota for exceeding their authority,” he said. Of the name change itself, he said, “I think we’ll have to see. The next governor may want to change the name of the lake back.

“It might be fine for the people of Minneapolis to have the name changed to Bde Maka Ska, but what happens when people in Northern Minnesota want one changed to Donald J. Trump Lake?”

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea asked a similar question in dissent, arguing that the statute limited the DNR’s power to change lake names to eliminating duplicate names in a state with 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more and just shy of 45,000 miles of shoreline.

“Changing the names of all of our 10,000-plus lakes every time the political winds blow a certain direction undermines stability that residents and communities need,” she wrote.

Lillehaug addressed that issue in the majority opinion. “The power to name and rename lakes has been vested in the State Geographic Board, and then the Commissioner, since 1937. Nothing in the record suggests that a program of wholesale lake renaming over local objection is in the offing,” he wrote.

“In any event,” he continued, “who should have the power to name lakes, and whether all 40-year-old names of bodies of water, places and geographic features, should be permanent, are matters of policy for the Legislature. If the Legislature sees, or foresees excessive name-changing, it can legislate to curb it.”

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