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Renaming: What Minnesota can learn from the MLB

Bde Maka Ska signage

Minnesota has been home to an unusual trend lately. It goes like this: Good people build on years of efforts by other good people to get buildings and places renamed so they are not offensive. Then, bad people come in and undo it.

The recent examples — featuring a lake, a historical site, and a collection of campus buildings — remind us why words matter, and that white supremacy can show up in mysterious ways.

Take the example of a popular Minneapolis lake: After a white supremacist terrorist killed nine people at a South Carolina church, an online petition built on years of calls for changing Lake Calhoun (named for a slavery supporter) back to its original Dakota name: Bde Maka Ska. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources ordered the name change; a local group challenged it; and then the Minnesota Appeals Court just recently agreed the DNR lacked the authority to change the name (the DNR is appealing).

Over in St. Paul, the Dakota people refer to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers as “Bdote.” The Dakota see the area as sacred, and as where their people began. So the Minnesota Historical Society added “Bdote” to temporary welcoming signs at Fort Snelling, which sits on this confluence. The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate saw it necessary to clap back, threatening to cut the Historical Society’s funding by $4 million a year.

And over at the University of Minnesota, the campus has been embroiled in controversy since a report described the racism of four former administrators whose names adorn key campus buildings — including the very central Coffman Memorial Union.

Now let’s talk baseball. Similar to the intention behind these Minnesota movements, a group of disability advocates recently persuaded Major League Baseball to change the name of the list of players not playing because of an injury to the “Injured List” or “the IL.” It was formerly the “Disabled List,” or “the DL” (read more in ESPN). The change was swift — an activist group, Link 20, sent a letter to the MLB just last November; it took less than one off-season to implement it. Perhaps a key to this was an MLB official’s understanding that the change “is only a rebranding of the name itself,” and that nothing would change in practice.

Katherine Lymn
Katherine Lymn
The change was systemic. Every ballgame now uses “IL” in stats, and commentators use it regularly. That trickles down — to news coverage, everyday language, and, ultimately, less stigma toward people with disabilities. While “DL” had been common game parlance for over a century, the institutional support behind the change has pushed commentators to use — and normalize — “IL.” Fans won’t be far behind.

Inspired by the MLB’s example, here are some of the reasons I’ve read for not renaming the Minnesota places, and why each reason is bad:

1) The name wasn’t changed the correct way.

This was the Court of Appeals’ ruling changing the name of Bde Maka Ska back to Lake Calhoun. The DNR “lacks authority pursuant to Minn. Stat. §§ 83A.01-.07 to change a lake name which has existed for 40 years,” the court wrote.

Speaking of authority, who gave themselves the authority to change the lake’s name to Calhoun in the first place? The Dakota people called the body of water Bde Maka Ska for years before white geologists renamed it after Calhoun, a proponent of slavery and of Native American removal.

2) The new names honor the wrong things.

In the case of Bdote at Fort Snelling, Republican senators are the ones digging their heels in, led by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer. According to the Pioneer Press:

Asked what’s wrong with calling the location “Bdote,” Kiffmeyer replied, “Yes, we can add some of those additional pieces of information, but Fort Snelling is about military history, and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that.”

Yes, Fort Snelling is about military history. That history includes incarcerating Dakota people in concentration camps. How does Kiffmeyer recommend we deal with that? As local writer Scott Russell said in his Healing Minnesota Stories post:

These name changes were tiny steps towards healing and even these were threatening to some white people with power and privilege.

3) Renaming places is unaccountable.

According to the PiPress:

Before the vote, Kiffmeyer said at a news conference that adding “Bdote” to the sign “is greatly objected to by many people, and the historical society has been quite resistant to listen and to make changes. We want them to be accountable and to be more transparent, and this is one way of getting their attention, that this is serious, and they need to pay attention.”

Let’s talk about accountability. When will white people hold themselves accountable for the genocide and continued oppression of Native Americans? When will governmental units hold themselves accountable for ongoing systemic racism and other expressions of white supremacy? Words matter, and changing these names was one step toward accountability; let’s not go backward.

4) And, a bunch of reasons from the U of M regents.

Over at the U, the Board of Regents voted 11 to 1 (the single African-American regent) not to rename four campus buildings after a faculty report pointed out the buildings are named for university administrators who wanted segregated residence halls.

As professor John Wright said before the Regents’ vote (per the Strib):

“This is an issue of honor and institutional integrity, and nobody has a permanent lease on honor,” Wright said, adding that a “conspiracy of silence” around the U’s history is over.

Digging into the 11 “no” votes, the Strib writes:

Regents said the failure of the task force to address directly the role of a powerful board of regents at the time and the resulting constraints on administrators undermined the report’s credibility, along with attribution issues and a string of now corrected errors in a draft report the task force had shared with the regents.

The regents are refusing to use their power to rename buildings because it was the fault of last century’s regents in the first place? And, let’s not miss the irony of the regents questioning the academic integrity of their very own faculty.

Here are more reasons regents gave for not renaming (per the Strib), and why each is bad:

They were not comfortable passing judgment on former leaders with the benefit of hindsight.

Um, no. Hindsight is how we learn and get better. We are not desecrating the graves of these men; we are just asking not to celebrate them on a campus that should purport to be for every Minnesotan.

Regent Peggy Lucas said renaming was “the easy answer,” one that would allow the campus community to look away from troubling aspects of U history.

With the renaming discussion, the campus community is literally looking directly at a troubling aspect of the U history. Renaming on its surface is small, but represents a symbolic rejection of white supremacy.

This backlash is rooted on one thing: white supremacy. When nonwhite people secure more control and power, white people lash out. Take Reconstruction, for example, or theories behind the election of President Trump.

Back to the MLB. One of the folks behind the push to use “Injury list” said the following in reaction to the MLB’s action (NYT):

“Baseball is hugely influential on American culture,’’ he said. “This is really refreshing that a major sport really got the issue very quickly. It’s a huge win for the disability community. Things like this really help break down stigma.”

Other things that are influential? College campuses. Lakes. Historical sites. But even more, how we speak. Place names are what we make them.

Katherine Lymn is a St. Paul resident and a writer.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/23/2019 - 10:19 am.

    “This backlash is rooted on one thing: white supremacy.” Nonsense. The backlash is based on the fear of the slippery slope. I live in St. Paul. Given the cultural attacks on Christianity and the Catholic Church, it’s not unreasonable to expect calls from the usual suspects to demand renaming the city to a less evil, “white supremacist” entity. And I’m neither white nor Catholic. See Saint Petersburg changed to Leningrad. See the Taliban destroying the Buddhist history and culture. See democrat presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg calling for things named after Thomas Jefferson to be renamed because that’s the “right thing to do.”

    Someone with at least a few credits in history needs to stand up to this nonsense. And for the record, not that it matters, I happen to be a member of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal community.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/23/2019 - 12:50 pm.

      In this case the nonsense was changing the name *to* Calhoun. The lake had a name for a long time and the revisionists re-named it after someone with no connection to the Lake. Restoring the original name Bde Maka Ska is the way to stand up to the Calhoun revisionists.

      Also, Leningrad got changed back to St. Petersburg again. We can do the same with Bde Maka Ska.

  2. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 05/23/2019 - 11:43 am.

    The only “slippery slope” I see here is one that leads towards equality and away from white privilege. As usual, the victors have written the history; name changes go a little way to rebalance it. Those who object so loudly are proving the power of these gestures.

  3. Submitted by Tate Ferguson on 05/23/2019 - 12:15 pm.

    One of the most poignant and fascinating aspects of nearing 67 years old is the experience of being sternly educated by young people. I have a lot to learn from those whose attitudes are 40 years more advanced than mine have been.

    In the year 2059, when societal attitudes have moved ahead another 40 years, and I am 107 years old, I have little doubt that younger writers will continue to admonish older people, among whom will be the author of this commentary.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 05/23/2019 - 12:16 pm.

    Each case for renaming must stand on its own merits. I have considerable sympathy for Native American history and little love for John C. Calhoun. But each case for renaming must stand on its own merits. So far, no one has argued that the Lutheran Church should change its name because Martin Luther was a virulent anti-Semite, the influence of whom in that regard has been identified as an important factor that led to the Holocaust. Should we press that argument?

  5. Submitted by Joyce Prudden on 05/23/2019 - 04:01 pm.

    I am fine with Bde Maka Ska, but wonder if naming it Lake Maka Ska might be more palatable to those who are having a fit about it.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/23/2019 - 06:16 pm.

      If I were a betting man, and coincidentally I am, I’d bet that the odds of that are somewhere between slim and none, and slim just left town.

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