Minneapolis Park and Rec. Board president responds to ruling on Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska name change

May 21, 2019 11:47 AM

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, saying the agency did not have the authority to approve the decision to change the name of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to Bde Maka Ska, its original Dakota name.


The name was officially changed in early 2018 after the DNR approved the results of earlier votes by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Brad Bourn issued a statement criticizing the ruling. The MPRB was not a party to the lawsuit, though a release said it is encouraging the DNR to appeal the ruling and is not changing the signage at the lake.

"The most beautiful lake in Minneapolis has been called Bde Maka Ska for generations before white settlers stole it from the Dakota. It will continue to be Bde Maka Ska for generations to come," Bourn's statement read.

"I take heart in the fact that every democratically elected body and the Commissioner of the DNR has supported the name restoration. While it saddens me that 318 property "owners" on stolen Dakota land around Bde Maka Ska calling themselves "Save Lake Calhoun" have prevailed at this stage, I know that we're standing on the right side of history and that its arc bends towards justice.

"In the meantime, as president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, I have no intention of spending any public resources honoring Vice President John C. Calhoun's blood-soaked legacy of systemic violence against all our communities."

Bourn continued to express his disappointment in the ruling at a press conference held on the lake's shore Monday afternoon.

"The Appeals Court put down a ruling," Bourn said. "There's a window to appeal that. And I would encourage the parties there to appeal."

A statement from the DNR said the agency is examining the decision and has 30 days to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court for a review.

"Absent an appeal, the Appeals Court's decision means that, at a state level, the name of the lake would revert back to Lake Calhoun," a statement from the DNR read. "However, it is important to recognize that the federal Board on Geographic Names has adopted Bde Maka Ska as the official name of the lake. Absent a change by the Board of Geographic Names, the federal name for the lake will continue to be Bde Maka Ska.

"Based on our preliminary review of the ruling, DNR is concerned because it appears the Appeals Court's interpretation of Minnesota Statute Chapter 83A effectively eliminates any mechanism whereby waterbodies can be renamed in Minnesota if the name has existed for at least 40 years. It is important that local governments and the state, following a public input process, have a means to change longstanding waterbody names.  

"For example, the DNR has previously renamed lakes that included racial epithets or other derogatory terms."

A spokesperson for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names confirmed the decision will have no bearing on its decision to rename the lake BdeMaka Ska.

"No it will not," executive secretary Lou Yost said in an email. "As per Public Law 80-242 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) decides the official name for use by the Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government, and as you know State legislation (or court ruling) is not binding on the Federal Government.  

"The name at the Federal level will remain Bde Maka Ska as was approved at the BGN's June 21, 2018 meeting." 

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said he too will continue to refer to the lake as Bde Maka Ska despite the ruling.

"The name Bde Maka Ska is about restoring a cultural identity that is much needed in the City of Minneapolis," Frey said.  "We're on Dakota land.  A big part of recongizing that is making sure the names of the lakes and institutions reflect that history and heritage."

"The indiginous population has been pushed aside," he added. "Their heritage, their culture and, yes, the names of the lakes have been abandoned and replaced with the names of people who look like me."

RELATED: DNR gives approval to Lake Calhoun name change

The decision to change the name came after objections arose to the Lake Calhoun name because of former Vice President John C. Calhoun's involvement with treaties that removed Native Americans from their land. There were also objections to the fact Calhoun was a slave owner, and a supporter of the practice.

However, in its ruling, the court of appeals stated a district court was wrong to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Save Lake Calhoun, a group that has opposed the change.

RELATED: Newspaper ad questions origin of Lake Calhoun name

It also found the DNR did not have the authority to change the name.

"We have addressed the merits of the DNR commissioner's purported authority to change lake names existing for 40 years and found no authority permits this action," the decision read. "According, we reverse and remand for entry of judgement in favor of Save Lake Calhoun."

Erick Kaardal, an attorney for Save Lake Calhoun, said the court's decision was the right one.

"It's a proud day if you care about rule of law, and public officials following the limitations of the law placed upon them," he said.

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