Lake Calhoun officially recognized as Bde Maka Ska

Posted on January 29, 2018

Community leaders gather for a photo next to a new Bde Maka Ska sign
Community leaders gather for a photo next to a new Bde Maka Ska sign

Bde Maka Ska is now the official name of the lake previously known as Lake Calhoun, following county and state approval of a request to change the lake name.

Bde Maka Ska (pronounced “b-day ma-KHA skah”) is a Dakota name for the lake that has been passed down in oral history for many years. The local American Indian community, and surrounding Dakota communities, still use this name today. Dakota people have always held names and references in the Dakota language for this body of water and surrounding areas. Bde Maka Ska translates to “White Earth Lake” in the Dakota language.

“The restoration of the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska represents another historic milestone for Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota,” said Syd Beane, descendant of Dakota leader Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man), who lived in Heyata Otunwe (Village to the Side), a Dakota community at Bde Maka Ska in the 1830s. “This not only recognizes, but celebrates the original Dakota inhabitants of the area and the contributions we Dakota will continue to make.”

 “I am incredibly honored to stand here on this historic day, alongside descendants of Cloud Man and others from the community and state, to celebrate this name restoration,” said Brad Bourn, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President. “The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board listened to the Dakota community and residents of Minneapolis and is proud to have played a role in the name restoration of Bde Maka Ska. Honoring Vice President Calhoun’s systemic violence towards indigenous and people of color does not reflect the values of Minneapolitans or the values of the Park Board.”

Changes Underway

Effective immediately, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) will refer to the lake as Bde Maka Ska in all digital and print communications and all park entrance signs bearing the name Lake Calhoun are being updated today with new placards that only display the new lake name, Bde Maka Ska. Park entrance signs were previously updated on Oct. 2, 2015 to include both Lake Calhoun and Bde Maka Ska as a public education effort. The MPRB acknowledges that it may take some time to identify all sources where the lake name is referenced and update the name to Bde Maka Ska, but is committed to do so.

The names of Calhoun Parkway, East Calhoun Parkway and West Calhoun Parkway will not be changed by this action nor will city street signs bearing those names change, per the recently approved park master plan and the recommendations of the Citizen Advisory Committee. Additional action would be required by the Board of Commissioners to change the parkway names.

Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska-Harriet Master Plan

MPRB Commissioners approved the Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska-Harriet Master Plan on May 3, 2017, following two years of community engagement. An Equity Subcommittee was formed to make recommendations on the plan as part of an ongoing, organization-wide focus on equity. After much discussion, the Equity Subcommittee voted to support the restoration of the name Bde Maka Ska. The final plan, which sets a 25-year vision for Bde Maka Ska, Lake Harriet and the surrounding parkland, included unanimous MPRB commissioner support for the restoration of the name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun.

“During this process, I was moved by the eloquent, passionate testimony from advocates for restoring the Dakota name Bde Maka Ska,” said MPRB Superintendent Jayne Miller. “We deeply appreciate everyone who took time to help educate people on the issue and explain its importance.”

Official Name Change Process

The MPRB does not have the authority to officially change a lake name. After the Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska-Harriet Master Plan Master Plan was approved, the MPRB submitted a petition requesting the lake name change to the Hennepin County Auditor. A public hearing on the name change was held by Hennepin County on Oct. 17, 2017 and Hennepin County Commissioners approved a resolution requesting the name change on Nov. 28, 2017. Then the County submitted the resolution to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“While changing the signs today is the end of a process, it is the beginning of a process as well,” said Marion Greene, Hennepin County Commissioner representing Bde Maka Ska and the surrounding area. “My hope, and my belief, is that restoring the name Bde Maka Ska will spark an education and interest in mutual understanding that has long been inaccessible to residents and visitors.”

The DNR announced its approval of the name change on Jan. 18, 2018. The lake name change became official in Minnesota today, Jan. 29, 2018, after DNR approval was recorded by Hennepin County and published in the State Register. Next, the DNR will submit the Hennepin County resolution, along with the state approval, to the US Board of Geographic Names, which will approve or deny the name change for federal use.

Bde Maka Ska public art project - sidewalk stamp and seating area
Work began on a public art project along the southern shores of Bde Maka Ska last summer

Bde Maka Ska Public Art Project

The Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska-Harriet Master Plan includes a public art project along the shores of the lake, in approximate area of the Heyata Otunwe community in 1835. The MPRB is working in collaboration with the Native American community, descendants of Mahpiya Wicasta/ Cloud Man and other interested participants to create a gathering place and interpretive area along the south and southeast shores of Bde Maka Ska.

This project will commemorate Heyata Otunwe, honor the leadership of Mahpiya Wicasta and help share the broader history and contributions of the Dakota and other indigenous peoples who frequented and/or resided in this area. The project is expected to be complete this summer.

“Our language is an essential part of who we are as Dakota people,” said Kate Beane, also a descendant of Mahpiya Wicasta and longtime advocate in the name restoration effort. “To have our name for this lake that we love be acknowledged and respected is important. We are entering a new era for Dakota people in our Mni Sota homeland, and our grandparents’ contributions to this place and their legacy of resiliency and generosity will live on.”

Bde Maka Ska History

Many indigenous place names and stories significant to tribes, such as the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-chunk, are not often as widely recognized as they should be in Minnesota.

Dakota people have lived in this region since time immemorial, tracing their connections back thousands of years, and their stories of creation are based in this place that we now refer to as the state of Minnesota. Dakota people, and other tribal nations, historically have always hunted, fished, and harvested wild rice, indigenous plants and medicines at this lake. In the 1830s, a Dakota leader by the name of Mahpiya Wicasta (Cloud Man) encouraged the settlement of a community called Heyata Otunwe (Village to the Side) at this lake. This was a very difficult era for the Dakota people, as the fur trade had wiped out much of their traditional game and food sources were scarce.

The approximate location of a Dakota settlement on the shores of Bde Maka Ska in 1835The people of Heyata Otunwe, who had previously moved with the seasons, took up farming at Bde Maka Ska, and this was home for roughly ten years, making this the first long-term Dakota settlement community of this kind. This became a place to adapt new ways of living along with the old, in order to survive in an ever-changing world. They maintained long-held traditional lifeways as Dakota people, even as missionaries moved nearby and began to document their language and culture here. This community shared their harvests with surrounding Dakota communities, so that none of their tribal relatives would go hungry, and the story of this community footprint at Bde Maka Ska left a deep legacy of resiliency, generosity and innovation. 

Following years of broken treaty promises and the Dakota War of 1862, which resulted in the mass execution of 38 Dakota men, Dakota people were imprisoned and exterminated from the state. Approximately 1,700 elderly individuals, women and children were force marched and interned in a concentration camp at Fort Snelling over the winter of 1862-63 where many, including Mahpiya Wicasta, died. The following spring, survivors were loaded onto a steamboat and sent to Crow Creek in South Dakota.

The effects of the forced expulsion of the Dakota people from Minnesota after 1862, and subsequent historical trauma of the unacknowledged genocide are still deeply felt today. Dakota visiting the Chain of Lakes area have expressed that they do not feel welcome because there is little recognition or expression of their history or their deep ancestral connection to this place. For more than a century the only acknowledgment within the Chain of Lakes Regional Park of Native American history or of the Dakota inhabitation of the area has been a small plaque on a boulder on the south side of Bde Maka Ska near a cedar tree.

John C. Calhoun

The very name Lake Calhoun has been particularly onerous to many residents in the Twin Cities, because of former vice president and United States senator John C. Calhoun’s legacy. Calhoun was a staunch defender and advocate for slavery, asserting in an 1837 senate speech that slavery was a necessary and “positive good.” He was also active in advocating for Indian removal policy as secretary of war, stating that the resettlement of thousands of eastern and southern tribes would help solve the “Indian problem.”

Calhoun wrote the first draft of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which passed into law under President Andrew Jackson, and led to the forced removal of thousands of indigenous peoples from their homelands (such as the Cherokee Trail of Tears). Calhoun also created the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the War Department during an era when the indigenous peoples of this land were seen as obstacles to American expansion.