By Mordecai Specktor
Bde Mka Ska
On Google Maps, the large body of water on the western edge of Minneapolis now is marked “Bde Maka Ska.” Formerly known as Lake Calhoun (named after slavery proponent John C. Calhoun, a former U.S. vice president), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved the name change on Jan. 18.
The DNR decision followed the November decision of the Hennepin County Board to change the name to Bde Maka Ska, in a 4-3 vote. In the Dakota language, the name (pronounced beh-DAY mah-KAH-skah) means “White Earth Lake” — or “white banks lake,” according to Gwen Westerman and Bruce White, authors of “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota.”
The name-change process began with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), which approved the restoration of the lake’s original name, in May 2017, after forming an Equity Subcommittee and seeking community engagement over two years.
As I’m writing this “Political Matters” column, there’s breaking news that the Cleveland Indians baseball franchise will be getting rid of its Chief Wahoo logo in 2019. Amid the usual churn of gruesome reportage, the news from Cleveland and Minneapolis is heartening.
Of course, there were critics of the change to Bde Maka Ska. A group called Save Lake Calhoun campaigned against the name change and ran large ads in the Star Tribune. Tom Austin, a leader of the organization, wrote what I think was the most despicable oped published in the Star Tribune in 2017. Austin, the CEO of a venture capital firm called F2 Group, said he polled 350 residents living near the lake and found that 80 percent of them opposed the name change.
Opponents of changing the lake name “are upset that American Indian activists seem to have hijacked the discussion and that public officials have not made a bigger effort (and process) to enroll the entire community in a discussion about what alternative names are ‘more inclusive’ than Lake Calhoun,” wrote Austin.
And here’s the paragraph from Austin’s article that really takes the cake:
“These people raised a good question: What exactly have the Dakota Indians done that is a positive contribution to all Minnesotans? What is the heroism or accomplishment that we are recognizing in order to justify renaming the lake to Bde Maka Ska? Unfortunately, nobody had any answers.”
Austin and his ilk seem willfully ignorant about the long Dakota history in this land, and of the horrific repression that Minnesota authorities visited upon the Dakota in the early years of statehood.
Perhaps, members of the Save Lake Calhoun group should visit the Fort Snelling State Park Visitor Center, which has an exhibit about the “Dakota Conflict Concentration Camp,” which was established after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. There is also a memorial to the Dakota men, women and children who perished during the forced march of 1,600 Dakota to Fort Snelling and their internment on the river flats below the fort. In the aftermath of the bloody conflict in Minnesota, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, on Dec. 26, 1862; and Dakota leaders Sakpedan (Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) were executed at Fort Snelling, on Nov. 11, 1865.
Hopefully, with the name change to Bde Maka Ska, school children will have the opportunity to learn more about the Dakota history and lifeway.
Westerman and White, in “Mni Sota Makoce,” which was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, have a chapter about Bde Maka Ska, which looks at the small Dakota agricultural community that flourished at the lake formerly known as Calhoun, from 1830 to 1839. Mahpiya Wicasta, Chief Cloud Man, a member of the Black Dog band of Dakota, created the village after his hunting party nearly perished in a sudden blizzard near the Missouri River.
The authors mention that missionaries and an Indian agent named Taliaferro encouraged Mahpiya Wicasta and his band members in the agricultural experiment. They note also: “It was a time of transformation for the Dakota. Mahpiya Wicasta’s decision was not merely economic or cultural but also political, a move toward self-sufficiency and independence. Mahpiya Wicasta had a choice to make, and he opted to try another way of life….”
While the 19th century missionaries thought that the Dakota were “a dying race of people,” according to the authors, Mahpiya Wicasta “is remembered as a man not afraid to take on a challenge, and he has continued to serve as a source of inspiration for many of his descendants who reside in the Twin Cities area as well as for those who are still living in exile from their home territory of Mni Sota Makoce.”