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‘Names matter’: Finding out just how much on a stroll around Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Lake Calhoun

“Names matter,” said Sara Schonwald, a lifelong Minneapolis resident, before talking about why she supports Tuesday’s Hennepin County Board vote to return Lake Calhoun to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska. “Names matter,” echoed Tim Prinsen, whose family home overlooks the lake, before launching into a riff about the linguistic difficulties and pronunciation challenges presented by Bde Maka Ska (pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH skah, meaning White Earth Lake).

Hennepin County’s action follows the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board‘s approval of the name change last May. It now awaits approval by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Wednesday afternoon and evening, a stiff breeze churned waves on Minneapolis’s biggest lake, which was originally named Bde Maka Ska by the Dakota people who lived along the shore, and changed in 1839 to honor John C. Calhoun, one of America’s most aggressive segregationists and proponents of slavery

As the sun went down over that glorious body of water, MinnPost collared a few walkers, runners, and lake regulars to get their views on the new name, racism, reparations, and living history:

Dwight Johnson
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Dwight Johnson

Dwight Johnson, Edina. “I’m a lifelong citizen of the area, so I’ve been coming to the lake since I was a child. I’m really in favor of the [name change] concept. As I was coming by the sign on the southeast side, the only thing I wish is that they would put a phonetic spelling under the name, because I recognize the name but I wouldn’t dare pronounce it to somebody who spoke the perfect language. But I’m a firm believer in not glorifying the history of some of the people we have things named after.”

Sara Schonwald
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Sara Schonwald

Sara Schonwald, Minneapolis. “I’m happy with ‘Bde Maka Ska.’ I mean, names matter. Names matter a lot, and we don’t want to honor somebody whose legacy is what Calhoun’s legacy is. This is Lakota land and let’s have Bde Maka Ska be the name. I grew up near Lake of the Isles, and I’ve been coming to this lake since I was little and I’m raising my kids just a few blocks away from here, and they call it ‘Bde Maka Ska’ too. That’s how we do.”   

Braxton Haulcy
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Braxton Haulcy

Braxton Haulcy, Minneapolis. “There’s a new name for it? That’s news to me,” said Haulcy, who listens to jazz on his daily walk around Lake of the Isles, Lake Harriet, or Bde Maka Ska. Told that the name of Lake Calhoun is being changed in part because John Calhoun was a slaveholder, he said, “OK, you can change it now. I’m good with that. I didn’t realize that; now that I realize it, I’m fine with the change. I think it’s great.”

Willie Arradondo Powell
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Willie Arradondo Powell

Willie Arradondo Powell, Minneapolis. “I love it. Because I have Native American people in my family, too, and I think it’s right and he was wrong. He was wrong. This whole thing that they did, naming it after this racist slave owner, was wrong.”

Benjamin Barnes
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Benjamin Barnes

Benjamin Barnes, Minneapolis. “It’s always going to be ‘Calhoun’ for me. I’ve been running the lakes … I’m here 250 days a year. Minneapolis guy. I think it’s absurd that somebody’s got a problem with it not being ‘Lake Calhoun’ for no real valid reason. I don’t get how it could be offensive to anybody, and to have it changed … it’s a piece of history in Minneapolis. To be honest with you, I don’t know what they’re crying about. I’m not a very knowledgeable person about the politics of it, but it’s always going to be Lake Calhoun.”

Peter Welles and Pepper Tharp
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Peter Welles and Pepper Tharp

Peter Welles and Pepper Tharp, Minneapolis. “I grew up in Minneapolis, west of the Cities, I live in Linden Hills, my grandfather was general manager of the Calhoun Beach Club, so there’s history,” said Tharp. “I feel like we cannot atone our cultural sins by name changes and I feel that the money that’s being spent on all this would be better served actually giving to the Native communities and putting some kids through college and actually helping the communities. When we start taking down monuments of people who were born into an era … We were born here, we didn’t create it, we’re the stewards of what we do now, and you know, I just think of all the poor kids who died in the Civil War on the South side, who were sons and brothers and they didn’t have a choice … I think to demonize cultures that were caught up in an era and couldn’t make choices because they were probably poor and they had … you know what I’m saying? On top of it, we’ll have to lose the Statue of Liberty because she could be offensive.”

“I agree with everything she said,” said Welles. “My house is right there, you can see it between the trees [on the lake shore]. I think that changing the name here is the tip of the iceberg. I mean, what’s going to be next? Washington Avenue? He was a slave owner. If you think about the names within a three-mile radius of where we are now, I just think it sets a bad precedent. And it’s not out of disrespect to the Dakota people at all, I just think we’re going down a very slippery slope.” 

Emily Plombon
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Emily Plombon

Emily Plombon, Minneapolis. “I run around Calhoun or Harriet or Isles four times a week. I think it’s great that we’re restoring the name. I minored in human relations at St. Cloud State, so I learned about a lot of the bullshit that Native Americans have to go through. Literally, white Europeans took them and we labeled them as animals and took away their culture, cut their hair off, put them in boarding schools, gave them stereotypical European names, and we still use the — this is the wrong word, ‘Indian,’ — but Indian mascot names for teams like Blackhawks and Redskins. I think [the name change] is fantastic. I think it’s fair and it makes the most sense. It’s one thing we can do to try and like form back a relationship that’s not based on oppression.” 

April Pascarella
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
April Pascarella

April Pascarella, Minneapolis. “I’ve worked at Calhoun Pet Supply for a while, but I haven’t heard any talk about [the name change] here in the store. I think the name change is amazing. … I think it would be a good idea to change the name of the store, but it’s been named this for so long it might be hard.”

Missy Stricherz
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Missy Stricherz

Missy Stricherz, Minneapolis. “I go to the gym here, I’m here to pay my bill. I have lived near the lake since I moved here in 2000. I understand why [the name change] is important to some people, but I have talked to my kids about it, and what I say is that the name doesn’t necessarily have the same reflection of those people’s views. To be honest, I don’t know the story of [John Calhoun], but it doesn’t change how I reflect on the lake, based on past people’s judgments. We talk about what is fair and what is just, and just because that’s the name of the lake doesn’t mean that that should carry on just based on his name. But I understand also the sensitivity behind it, and the importance of representing blacks, whites, all races. I’m not against it, but I think it’s important for us to not just hold on to a name for how we treat people, or be reflected on.” 

Kyle Hilding
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Kyle Hilding

Kyle Hilding, Minneapolis. “I’m a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas, studying to be a teacher. I’m actually really interested in Native Americans and indigenous tribes and human rights and their tribal issues. I generally agree with the name change. I think it will take a while for the community get used to the change, and people need to learn how to pronounce it and also its significance and the meaning to the Ojibwe people. I’m also very interested in environmental issues, and the name of the lake should not only be changed, but the environment in and around the lake should be restored to what it was with the Ojibwe people.” 

Rheanna Haaland
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Rheanna Haaland

Rheanna Haaland, Minneapolis. “I love the lake. Spent birthdays and holidays here and we used to go swimming in the middle of the night. I’m for the change, it’s just hard to spell. I think that we are, as a nation, moving away from the previous glorification of slaveholders and the cultural divide that happened with Confederate monuments. Yeah, this is important.”

Marlys Nygren
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Marlys Nygren

Marlys Nygren, Minneapolis. “I don’t mind. It’s been Lake Calhoun since I was a child, but I realize there’s a lot of things stirring in the culture about old issues, so I don’t feel strongly about it one way or another. But I knew a lot of Native Americans when I was growing up in St. Louis Park, and a lot of them lived on reservations and I don’t feel good about what happened to them historically, so maybe this is honoring them late in time.”

Lauren Sekelsky
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Lauren Sekelsky

Lauren Sekelsky, Minneapolis. “This is Bennett, I’m his nanny. I like the name change. I think it’s great that they’re honoring the past and that there’s this Native history here. People might be resistant to change, but I don’t really see a problem with changing the name.” 

Tim and Emma Prinsen
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Tim and Emma Prinsen

Tim and Emma Prinsen, Minneapolis. “We’ve lived in this house (on the lake shore) just since June, but we lived on 31st and James (near the lake) for 16 years before that,” said Tim. “I’m not a fan of the name they chose. I’m a fan of changing the name, but I’d rather have the name be ‘Lake Maka Ska’ instead of the ‘Bde,’ which means ‘lake’ as I understand it, but it’s hard to pronounce, and names matter. So I think a compromise between some people who are so adamant about keeping the name Calhoun because they don’t like the name that was chosen would probably be a fair compromise. ‘Lake Maka Ska’ rolls off the tongue easier.”

“I think it’s about time they change the name, because of the history of Calhoun, and it’s important to recognize that the lake did have a name prior to Lake Calhoun,” Emma said. “I know some of the new signs with the new name were vandalized, and that is just really unjust.”

Mike Chummers
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Mike Chummers

Mike Chummers, Minneapolis. “I windsurf here all year ’round, even on the ice. I’m fine with the name change. I know a lot of people are upset about it, but I’m not. John Calhoun had some reprehensible views and I don’t think he should be honored. But no matter what, it’s gonna be the same old awesome lake to me; I’m gonna have just as much fun on it as I always do.”

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/30/2017 - 02:42 pm.

    My favorite

    is the guy who says:

    “To be honest with you, I don’t know what they’re crying about. I’m not a very knowledgeable person about the politics of it.”

    but also says:

    “I think it’s absurd that somebody’s got a problem with it not being ‘Lake Calhoun’ for no real valid reason. I don’t get how it could be offensive to anybody[.]”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/30/2017 - 04:49 pm.

      You Would Think . . .

      . . . he would have stopped after acknowledging that he wasn’t very knowledgeable about the question.

  2. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 12/01/2017 - 08:06 am.


    The Chippewa night object— it was their at one point— some bloody feuds between tribes here in Mn.

    Missionary Gideon Pond observed the gruesome celebration of the Sioux victory, “The next evening the dusky runners begin to arrive at Lake Calhoun, from the battle ground at Rum River. Red Bird is killed, his son is killed, the Chippewa are nearly all killed. Seventy scalps dangle from the poles in center of the village close by the tepee of the father-in-law of Philander Prescott. The scalp dance lasted for a month. It seemed as if hell had emptied itself here.”

    Gideon Pond, That racist. Probably Father Hennepin too.

    The renaming of the lake is the height of liberal absurdity in Minneapolis….and that’s saying something.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/01/2017 - 11:42 am.


      You are right – it should never have been renamed. That’s why Calhoun must go and the original name restored.

  3. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 12/01/2017 - 08:26 am.

    Pronunciation Matters Too

    It’s a good thing Monty Python is no longer in production. Otherwise, the Ministry of Silly Names would make short work of Lake Bidet. Better to just keep the vowel-free spelling on the signs.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 12/01/2017 - 01:57 pm.

    Regarding pronunciation

    We all know how to pronounce Edina, Minnetonka, Wayzata, Mahtomedi, etc. I think we can learn how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska.

    • Submitted by jim hughes on 12/01/2017 - 04:34 pm.


      I know that if I’m trying to give someone directions to something in that area I’ll be pronouncing it KAL-HOON.

  5. Submitted by Lydia Lucas on 12/01/2017 - 03:57 pm.

    Historical context

    A little historical context might be in order here. Not that it matters in terms of current symbolism, but the implication that the naming somehow paid homage to Calhoun’s racist views (or, for that matter, that the lake was named for him in 1839) is historically inaccurate. It is cited in Minnesota Place Names as appearing as Lake Calhoun on a map of 1823 (although it seems questionable whether this map survives). William H. Keating, “Narrative of an Expedition… in the Year 1823…” also says it has been named Lake Calhoun, in honour of the Secretary of War. An 1821 narrative by Henry R. Schoolcraft also refers to a “Calhoun Lake” in this area. This was all while Calhoun was Secretary of War, well before he started his Congressional career and earned his reputation as a rabid supporter of slavery.

    Nor is Bde Maka Ska its one and only “original” name. A possible change to what was considered to be its original name of Medoza or Mendoza or Mde Med’oza (Loon Lake) was on the table off and on since at least 1890.

    And indeed there is a history of conflict between the Dakota and the Ojibwe in the early 1800s and probably before. Bde Maka Ska was named by the victors in those conflicts. The Ojibwe probably had a different name, now lost to history.

    Attempts to repudiate history by eradicating names that reflect aspects of the past that we don’t like seems to me to be an exercise in futility. By today’s standards, Calhoun is pretty obviously a reprehensible guy, but where does the renaming stop? And in less obvious cases, who gets to decide? Whose perceptions and feelings are paramount?

    That being said, I personally think Bde Maka ska is a pretty name, one that would do honor to the lake. And it isn’t any harder to pronounce than Winnibigoshish.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/02/2017 - 12:12 pm.

    Renaming things was routine in the Soviet Union – after every change made to the history as prescribed by the Communist Party (usually, after a new Secretary General was installed).

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/04/2017 - 02:33 pm.

      Great analogy

      St. Petersburg got renamed Leningrad by the Soviets, and then the original name was restored.

      Bde Make Ska was renamed Calhoun, and now the original name is being restored.

      Like Leningrad, the lesson here is that the name should never have been changed to Calhoun. Good to see they are making things right.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/04/2017 - 09:56 pm.

        Actually, St. Petersburg was first renamed Petrograd and only then Leningrad… It is also my understanding that different Indian tribes called this lake differently… Plus, those who named it Lake Calhoun did not rename it since they had never used the old name: They named it. But the main thing is WHY it is being renamed now. Would it be renamed if it were called Lake Beautiful? Or Lake Lincoln? And that is what I meant when I referred to the Soviet history which was changing with every new leader…

  7. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 12/02/2017 - 11:57 pm.

    Ride the Wave

    I think making a permanent name change to something enduring for the sake of a trendy wave is ridiculous and irresponsible. On top of that, it is being changed to something that is not pronounceable in the English language we all speak. “Indian” names abound in Minnesota, and adding one more is not meaningful. Denying John Calhoun his bit of recognition for some of the great things he did in a life including not-great things, like most great people, is wrong.
    It would have been sensible to compromise on Lake Makaska, which is easy to pronounce correctly, but compromise was obviously not on the table here. The simple fact is, no one relates the lake to Calhoun, but only to itself and its neighboring lakes. There are hundreds of other things to rename. And why must everything have an “Indian” name (I use that because my Indian friend referred to herself and her people that way), anyways? There are a lot of great people without things named after them. The fact that the Indians or Natives called it one thing or another does not actually make it more meaningful. And do we really want to admire the Sioux? Not one of the nicer tribes. Yeah, I said it. Minneapolis is just la-la land, so why not call it Lake La-La?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/05/2017 - 11:38 pm.


      Calhoun is long dead, and a minor historical figure at that. Why does he deserve remembrence? Far better than he have been long forgotten, I’m sure. 2. Yep, it sure is terrible to have a hard time pronouncing something, as opposed to oh, say, genocide and cultural extinction. Real tough break there…

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/03/2017 - 04:29 pm.

    Why does Minneapolis have to use the Dakota word for “lake”? We can compromise–Lake Makaska does it all–history, removing a name that is considered the height of racism from a non-race-related name of one of our lakes (see comment above, about who Calhoun was in the 1820s when the name was bestowed by the military), and placating the Dakota tribe that is pushing so hard for Minneapolis to be painfully shy of saying anything that would hurt an indigenous sensitivity that grows ever more sensitive.

    I don’t see the trenchant racism in “Lake” Makaska. Unless, of course, anything in English at all is anathema.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/05/2017 - 11:46 am.

      It’s a language thing

      You’re assuming that “lake” is an equivalent translation, and that the Dakota language is just assemblies of discrete vocabulary similar to English. Bde Maka Ska isn’t just a name for a body of water, it’s a concept that provides context for the body of water within a wider scheme of creation. You can’t insert an English word into that concept without destroying it.

      Furthermore you have to remember that this isn’t just about a lake name, it’s about conquest and genocide. Many native languages have disappeared because they were essentially outlawed and repressed. This isn’t something that happened a hundred years ago, boarding schools prohibited native languages well into the 1950’s. The extinction of native languages was a deliberate and calculated component of cultural genocide that was supposed force integration and assimilation. Restoring the original name of Bde Maka Ska isn’t just changing words, it’s a step towards addressing historical AND personal trauma. If you’re going to do something like that… do it right, not partly right.

      I hate to pop the “centrist” bubble but you don’t negotiate with genocide and conquest. You don’t meet attempts to erase people from the landscape half way. No one complains about using a French word to describe a holding pond, why is it such a problem to use a Dakota phrase to describe a lake?

  9. Submitted by Gary Farland on 12/03/2017 - 06:00 pm.

    Lake Calhoun Name

    Since the objective is to be more inclusive of the Native Americans, I think there are better ways to do it than to impose an unpronounceable name on the populace that is sure to cause resentment once more people realize what is happening. It results in hardship for people with the name in their address, their neighborhood, their business or their organization. As for Calhoun, he was OK at the time of the naming. As a Liberal, I’m afraid that such actions are what cause people to vote for Trump.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2017 - 03:53 pm.

    Few observations.

    First, it’s actually racist to keep pretending that Bde Maka Ska is unpronounceable, specially when the same people who claim they can’t pronounce it go on to compare it to “badet”, a French word they’ve obviously mastered without difficulty. Likewise I’ve never seen anyone complain about learning phrases like: “deja vu”, “auf wiedersehen”, or “ciao”, not mention “skol”. The idea that THIS phrase is impossible to master simply because it’s not derived from a European origin is flat out racist. We got 10,000 lakes some with names like: Haeg, Kjostad, Lac qui Parle, Skriebakken, and Beseau… what to do? You learn how to pronounce stuff, the assumption that you shouldn’t have to learn how to pronounce anything is an expression of white privilege. The idea that you shouldn’t have to learn how to pronounce Native words is racist.

    Speaking of white privilege, the guy who can’t understand why anyone would be bothered by something that’s never bothered him nails it perfectly. And Calhoun was NOT OK at the time unless you pretend that Civil War sprung out of nowhere one day when the slave states suddenly realized they were one of the last places on earth still buying and selling human beings. The abolition of slavery was a huge and divisive issue that Calhoun was on the wrong side of, even BEFORE the US Constitution was ratified slavery was NOT OK.

    Liberals can be just as ignorant and privileged as anyone else and liberal racism is actually responsible for a significant number of the genocidal policies Native Americans have been subjected to. The boarding schools that tried to erase native languages were “liberal” enterprises of their era. If you don’t understand the simple fact that this is NOT about “inclusion”, it’s about restoration and recognition, you’re simply ignorant, and your location on the political continuum is irrelevant. Again, privilege is assuming YOU get to decide what something is “about”. If you think THIS is about “inclusion”, you’re wrong, and you didn’t that from the people promoting the name change.

    Bde Maka Ska is “about” a lot of things. Calhoun wasn’t just a racist who promoted the vile inhumanity of slavery, he was also, as the Secretary of War for the US government; an agent of colonization and genocide. The naming of a lake within the boundaries of Fort Snelling was an act of cultural and military colonization. Remember, this land we live on wasn’t “purchased” from the Indian People who lived here, it was purchased from the French, who couldn’t possibly have “owned” it. The naming of Calhoun was about establishing the irrelevance of natives as much as it was about “honoring” a government official. Colonization is about erasing native people from the land and making them invisible. Reclaiming the name Bde Maka Ska isn’t about seeking inclusion, it’s about becoming visible again, it’s about rolling back colonization and recognizing it’s injustices, it’s a step towards recognizing and addressing historical trauma. If historical and social justice make you want to vote for Trump, so be it.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/06/2017 - 09:10 am.

    Historical context?

    Just one more point of interest regarding the role of language in colonization. In a previous comment Lydia Lucas attempts to provide some historical context, but that attempts fails because it actually decontextualizes Bde Maka Ska. According to Lucas:

    “… indeed there is a history of conflict between the Dakota and the Ojibwe in the early 1800s and probably before. Bde Maka Ska was named by the victors in those conflicts. The Ojibwe probably had a different name, now lost to history.”

    While I’m sure this is historically accurate, it’s also a perfect example of the passive voice that’s typically deployed by colonizers when discussing the effects of conquest. The effect is sanitize genocide and pretend that no one is responsible for “history”.

    We see this all the time in normal discourse regarding native people and issues. I’ve written about it elsewhere in a different context about New York Time story about Wounded Knee, if you’re interested you can read that here:

    Here’s the point: “History” isn’t this thing that goes around sucking stuff up into oblivion. Native languages, history, and place names weren’t “lost to history”, they were deliberately obliterated by the US Government and white colonizers. If you want to talk about tribal conflicts like those between the Dakota and other tribes you have to talk about the displacements that caused those conflicts. Those conflicts didn’t just “happen”, they were the result Indian Wars and American expansion.

    The passive “voice” of history is actually anti-historical in that it obscures rather than records history. This is how language itself becomes a mechanism of colonization, it selectively pretends that no one is responsible for whatever colonizers don’t want to be responsible for.

    Finally, yes… different tribes with different languages had different names for stuff. That doesn’t mean the name of a place changed depending on who “won” or “lost” a conflict. That notion of “ownership” was not part of the native world view. If the Dakota “won” a conflict over fishing and hunting territory with some other tribe, the name of the territory didn’t change, everyone kept calling it whatever they called it before because that was their language and their name for the place. Places didn’t have single names established by conquest, they had multiple names established by different languages. The idea of linear conquest normalizes genocide by pretending that “Calhoun” was just another name change among a history of name changes. In fact is was a unique act of colonization.

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