MN court: DNR didn’t have power to change Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday renewed the debate over the renaming of Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, overturning a Ramsey County District Court ruling that had derailed a challenge.

The name was changed after three years of efforts to return the name of the lake to its original name, rather than the one it had held, honoring slavery defender John C. Calhoun, a former vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun was also the architect of Native American removal as secretary of war under President James Monroe.

The pro-Lake Calhoun organization — Save Lake Calhoun, an organization funded by Linden Hills venture capitalist Tom Austin — has argued that the Minneapolis Park Board, Hennepin County, and the Department of Natural Resources did not have the authority to change the name.

The DNR had argued the entire question is moot because the U.S. Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the lake to Bde Maka Ska in 2018. A Ramsey County district court judge agreed.

But the Court of Appeals has reinstated the challenge because the Department of Natural Resources decision is “an ongoing use of power.”

“The DNR commissioner’s decision to change the lake name pursuant to section 83A.02(1) does not resolve the question of its authority to do so,” Judge Randall Slieter Heidi Schellhas wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

“Although the lake name has now been changed, the DNR commissioner’s authority to exercise this power persists,” she said (see ruling).

At issue is this provision that gives the DNR the authority to change the name of waterways:

A name of a lake, river, stream, or other body of water may be given or changed under sections 83A.05 to 83A.07 except that a name which has existed for 40 years may not be changed under the provisions of sections 83A.05 to 83A.07.

Because Lake Calhoun as a name existed for more than 40 years, the Court of Appeals said the DNR lacked the power to change it, while noting, too, that the Legislature provided no mechanism for changing the name of a lake that’s existed for more than 40 years.

[Update 2:59 p.m.]
Statement from Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Brad Bourn:

“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.

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.”

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is not party to the lawsuit and is encouraging the Department of Natural Resources Commissioner to appeal this ruling. The MPRB is not changing signage.

(h/t: Elizabeth Shockman)

  • I’m pretty sure the original Dakota name was in use for more than 40 years.

    • I guess Lake Nokomis will be changed back to Lake “Amelia” or the original Dakota name…

      • Sunken Dingus

        You must mean “Bde Amelia,” since Bde means Lake

    • I believe the law was passed well after the original Dakota name was removed.

      • John

        that’s too bad. Because the situation I tried to describe above (just as your post came through) would have made me quite happy.

        I rather love it when people end up getting screwed by the exact point they were attempting to make.

    • John

      that rather begs the question – what group changed it to Calhoun? If it was the DNR, then by the case above, they didn’t have the right to name it that in the first place.

      It would be a sweet irony if this exact ruling could be used as precedence to change the name to Bde Maka Ska

      • jon

        DNR didn’t name it… Army Surveyors (sent out by Calhoun as secretary of war) did.

        Though I do not know under what authority they did so, and I doubt the courts will revisit it.

        • Jerry

          Yes, we have to go through this because some surveyor was sucking up to his awful, awful boss.

      • The law has only been on the books ince 1937

    • Justthink

      True. So then the legislature should decide what it is called, not the DNR as the law clearly states.

  • MrE85

    Just kill me, again.

  • Guest

    The law seems about as clear as it could be. The MN legislature needs to pass a new law to allow name changes.

    We should talk to the same people that pay big bucks to name stadiums 🙂

    • jon

      Mall of america lake at edina realty park, brought to you by the football team from washington.

    • RBHolb

      Good luck with that. There is a goodly portion of the Legislature that is having a conniption fit over adding “at Bdote” to the signs at Fort Snelling.

  • MarkUp

    I guess this really means the DNR can’t rename the lake back to Calhoun.

    • jon

      Only if they can drag the various appeals out for ~39 years.

  • Rob

    I don’t give a rat’s heinie what the Ct of Appeals says; I’m not going back to calling it Slavery and Removal R Good Lake.

    • Keep in mind the court didn’t say it had to go back to being called Lake Calhoun. It ruled only on the question of whether the DNR (and other government bodies) had the authority to change the name. And the only reason it ruled on that was because of it’s determination that the DNR still has the power that was called into question.

      • Guest_whos_coming_to_dinner

        But the court of appeals did order judgment to be entered in favor of Save Lake Calhoun. Presumably, part of the relief they sought was a reversion of the name.

        • The judgement in favor of Save Lake Calhoun wasn’t on the question of the name. It was on the question of the AUTHORITY of the DNR to change the name.

          • Guest_whos_coming_to_dinner

            And administrative actions performed without authority are void ab initio, which means the name was never changed, and the lake is named Lake Calhoun. The judgment the district court has been ordered to enter will reflect that.

          • You’re going to have to provide a citation that says that.

            I don’t believe you’re correct. Otherwise Save Lake Calhoun would’ve asked the district court to change the name. It didn’t. It asked the district court to declare that the DNR didn’t have the authority to change the name. And I suspect that armed with that decision, Save Lake Calhoun would then seek relief by an order
            restoring the name.

            Having said that, I don’t have a copy of the original filing by Save Lake Calhoun on exactly what questions beyond authority they were asking answers for.

            The complicating factor here is that the U.S. Geological Survey record has the official name as Bde Maka Ska.

          • Rob

            I’m with ya. Unless I missed it, I didn’t see anything in the decision noting that a different governing body has the power to restore the name of the lake to Calhoun. As such, it’s a hollow victory for the venture capitalist.

      • Rob

        Sounds like a fait accompli situation to me.

        • It’s going to the MN Supreme Court. I don’t expect this Legislature to do anything to change the law.

  • ProblemGuy

    I like the idea of selling the naming rights at this point… easy money for natural resource protection. I’d go swimming in Hormel Lake.

    And when do we rename cities and monuments named after our presidents who owned slaves?

    Anybody been to the Bde Maka Ska Beach Club recently?

    • Jerry

      The beach club is private. If they want to be associated with an architect of genocide nothing is stopping them.

      • ProblemGuy

        It’s private? They don’t have to change their name? No!

    • Rob

      Bacon Lake, maybe. Hormel Lake, no.

      I’m ready to rename all the cities, buildings and monuments named after slaveholders. I’d even support chiseling Mount Rushmore.

    • RBHolb

      “And when do we rename cities and monuments named after our presidents who owned slaves?”

      Here we go again.

      John C. Calhoun was not not just a slaveholder, but for being a vocal proponent of slavery, and a theorist who tried to justify slavery as a “positive good,” civilizing and improving the “black race of Central Africa.” He argued that slavery was necessary for the preservation of the Union. That is why he is remembered today, not for his coincidental occupancy of an office at the time a survey was made.

      Yes, a lot of people thought like that back then (as well as now, I have no doubt). The distinction is that we are talking about a U.S. Vice President, Senator, and Secretary of War who is being honored here.

      • ProblemGuy

        Yes, we all know Calhoun was despicable. So we applaud slave owners and condemn those who celebrated slavery. Got it.

        • RBHolb

          And we’re going to stop reading “A Visit from St. Nicholas” at Christmas time. Look it up.

          Why do we remember Calhoun? And why do we remember Thomas Jefferson? That would be where I would make the distinction.

          • I suspect most folks have and had no idea who Calhoun was. And most folks never knew about the “treaties” with the Choctaw, Creeks, Cherokee, Chickasaws, and Seminoles that essentially fraudulently stole their land and forced them west. Thanks to Calhoun, the Cherokee suffered the Trail of Tears.

            Even in all the focus on Calhoun as a result of this latest years-long debate, the brutality against Native Americans is almost never mentioned.

            We’re pretty much idiots when it comes to history.

          • Jerry

            I think most Americans stopped learning American history after elementary school, when it was more American mythology. That doesn’t they weren’t taught it, just that they stopped learning.

          • ProblemGuy

            History is quickly lost upon us. And it’s an easy argument to make against Calhoun. Whose fault it is that we damn him for the slavery, when we seemingly disregard Washington’s dabbling in slave labor, I’m not sure. Bonus points to Calhoun for his “treaties,” no doubt. But the touting of the slavery is what keeps coming up, and it’s a slippery slope to decide what degree of human trafficking we can tolerate historically.

            It’s easy to support stripping the Calhoun name, but why do we seemingly give a pass on those who relished slave labor? Because they did good things for our country, which colonized tribal prairies and opened the door to the likes of Calhoun?

            History ain’t easy.

          • Jerry

            That’s great. Still doesn’t mean there should be a lake in Minnesota named after him.

          • ProblemGuy

            Or a MN high school named after Washington, although how we ended up with a lake celebrating Calhoun has never been clear to me. I’m sure it was documented, and I missed it. Tomkins Lake must have been taken already.

            And I’m fully expecting that at some point in my life we’ll see “naming rights” sold for schools or other public amenities that have otherwise been off limits.

            In the meantime, if only we had a prominent, contemporary MN figure to name a lake after. Someone everyone appreciates.

            Lake Famous Dave doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

          • Jerry

            The reason it was named after Calhoun is that an army surveyor was trying to curry favor with Calhoun, who (as Secretary of War at the time) was his boss.

            The difference between Washington and Calhoun is that despite all his faults, Washington was one of the founders of our country and therefore nationally notable. Calhoun was the kind of man that as vice-president, the man he served under regretted never shooting him.

          • ProblemGuy

            I think I do remember reading this anecdote once upon a time. I had forgotten it. Blame it on a senior moment.

          • Everything in context, of course, and while one can criticize Washington for “dabbling in slavery”, he doesn’t come close to the proven, despicable nature of Calhoun. If slavery doesn’t bother people, if destroying Native Americans for all time doesn’t bother you, then maybe leading the effort toward nullification in South Carolina that directly led to the Civil War might influence people.

            There’s nothing good about John C. Calhoun. He was absolutely on the wrong side of history on almost everything.

            Whataboutism doesn’t work when the question is Calhoun.

          • ProblemGuy

            I wouldn’t argue for him, and you knew him better than I did.

    • Mike

      I’m waiting for the movement to return money and property contributed to various institutions by families and corporations who made money off slavery. It won’t be nearly as much fun then.

    • tarry_on

      If it were Hormel Lake I imagine no one would need life jackets due to the high salt content.

      • ProblemGuy


  • Jerry

    FFS. So a now a settled issue gets to go the legislature and get debated by open minded types like the legislators from Glencoe, Alexandria, and Mazeppa. I’m sure their responses will totally reasonable. Great.

  • Mike Worcester

    I’m trying to think of recent efforts to rename other bodies of water in recent years — Squaw Lake in Cass County is one example. Will all of these be called into question?

    Edit — Maybe not in the above example as in that instance, legislative action was taken to force the change(s).

  • Ben Chorn

    This is becoming all too similar to what North Dakota did when the NCAA said they needed to change the University of North Dakota mascot.

    I guess I don’t understand why people cling to objects and names others have said are racist and offensive.

    • Jerry

      That’s easy. Some people are really racist.

    • JANK

      Just because a minority objects does not merit a name change!!

      • Barton

        this majority person also objected to the Calhoun name. Does that merit a name change for you?

        • JANK

          Eh yeah leave it – the majority of us in the Twin Cities like it as it is. Also, I just like the name “Calhoun” – just like Harriet. Easy names I associate with. No context needed. Why change?

          • Because people don’t think we should honor slavery, racism, and the forced removal of Native Americans from their land?

            Just guessing here.

          • JANK

            As stated elsewhere in these comments, “Where does it end? Are you willing to forfeit your house?” Also, I don’t feel we are ‘honoring’ this Calhoun guy so much as the name is so inured that it doesn’t relate to him anymore. Not to many others too, I suspect.

          • Where does history begin?

            Confederate flags, slavery and racist symbols… the bottom line is some people just want their tributes. They should at least say that rather than come up with these smokescreen arguments.

            At least the Senate Republicans were honest that their objections on a similar manner was because they felt white people’s history was cheapened by acknowledging Native Americans’ history at the same time.

          • BJ

            >The majority of us in the Twin Cities like it as it is

            – so you know ‘as is’ is “Bde Maka Ska” – since that is the current legal name.

            President Trumps Secretary of Interior oversees U.S. Board on Geographic Names and Executive secretary Lou Yost said, “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”

          • Jerry

            Mental laziness is a stupid reason to not correct an injustice.

  • Gary F

    Shouldn’t someone be checking on that stuff before they get to far down the road?

  • jon

    83A.07 also says they are required to check for and avoid duplicate names…

    Wonder where that rule was when they named 55 different lakes some variation of “round”, and ~100 lakes named “long”

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Since the whole of the lake is contained within the borders of the City of Minneapolis and the name change was moved by the duly elected body for governing such things (The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board), shouldn’t that be enough to state that the name change is the “will of the people”?

    • Barton

      you’d think so, just like the Mpls City Council should be able to declare a plastic bag ban within its city limits. But that seems to bother people who don’t live in the city (though Save Lake Calhoun was started by a Mpls resident…)

    • It’s not the duly elected body for governing such things.

    • 212944

      Maybe the city should declare it to be the site of a future pro sports venue. That seems to trump everything.

    • JANK

      Does the Park Board speak for all? Is the Park Board the ‘will of the people’? Um I don’t believe so.

  • Kassie

    Does Minneapolis have the authority to rename the park? Can’t the lake officially keep the racist name, but the beach be called Bde Maka Ska North Beach and the signs say Bde Maka Ska because it is the park’s name, not the lake’s name? It is clear the name of the park is Bde Maka Ska:

  • Rixware

    I love stuff like this! The question is NOT what the lake should be called, but rather what our laws say about who gets to decide what a lake is called. You can argue all you want about the relative merit of the two names, but it misses the point. It’s the rule of law at the heart of this dispute, and that is what makes our system of government great. This case should be talked about in social studies classes everywhere!

    Of course, this is also the perfect opportunity for the legislature to step in and clarify — not which name to use, but how to change the name which has been on a lake for more than 40 years. Hello, St. Paul?

    • The thing I really love about this opinion is the precedents that were cited that have nothing to do with lakes or slavery or anything. It’s really the beauty of the law, at least for me.

      Those precedents cited included:

      (a) The 2005 Minnesota state shutdown in which DFL and GOPers couldn’t agree on state healthcare programs and public schools and whether the state could fund core operations.

      (b) the attempt by people who lived near Lake Bemidji to create a village of North Pole in order to get a license to sell liquor (1942)

      (c) The 1992 effort by Canterbury Downs to establish out-of-market race betting.

      (d) The elimination of the position of state treasurer in Minnesota

      (e) The Hubbard clans attempt to build a house on the bluff overlooking the St. Croix River.

      It’ll be interesting to see in the future where this case is cited.

  • ProblemGuy

    I’m sure the name is already taken elsewhere in the state, but I’ve got the perfect, contemporary name for the former Calhoun Lake that we can all agree upon: Purple Lake.

    If we can’t agree upon naming a Minneapolis lake in honor of the little fella who grew up in the big city, and practically walks on water posthumously, there’s no hope for us.

    • Jerry

      And what is the opposition to Bde Maka Ska?

      • ProblemGuy

        I don’t know… it’s not racist enough? Ask the people lusting to keep the Calhoun name, [insult deleted]

        I say we come up with something relatively fresh, something contemporary, to represent the evolution of Erotic City. But no, God forbid we do that!

        • ProblemGuy

          Referring to someone as a sidekick to a comic book superhero is an insult? OK! I thought it was silly and harmless, as it was meant to add a degree of frivolity to these otherwise morose discussions. Oops, don’t make that mistake.

      • Glsai

        For me it’s the transition to getting used to the new name. It can be difficult to remember in your head that something has a new name. I understand that the lake is named after a historic person who was for slavery. That I think is not the sort of person who we want to honor with putting his name on a lake. The trouble is that is what I’ve grown up calling it and it will take me a little while to remember Bde Maka Ska. I am also working on using that name and learning to pronounce it properly. For now though I use both names interchangeably. It takes time for it to be renamed in my head.

        It’s like one of the parks that I attended as a child at Disney World. When I was a kid it was MGM Studios. That’s the name that I associate with the park even as an adult 30+ years later even though the name has changed to Disney-Hollywood Studios, Hollywood Studios, and Disney Studios? It isn’t a sign of disrespect or malicious intent that I call it MGM Studios, that is just what I’ve always known the park as. Changing the names of things takes time, and a bit of conscious effort.

        • Jerry

          That’s fair. In actual practice the lake is pretty much named “Lake Calhu…I mean Bde Maka Ska”, at least among those who are trying.

  • Red Cloud

    Mr. Park Board’s argument regarding “stolen Dakota land” is interesting. Where does it end? Are you willing to forfeit your house?

    • “Where does it end?” is the wrong question. The question, since we’re talking history is “Where does it begin?”

      For people in this debate and the Republicans in the Senate who are gutting the MNHS budget, the answer is “When white people got here.”

  • tCotUS

    DNR/EPA/IRS are NOT Law Makers or Policy Creators ……Period
    But sofar under Democratic leadership they think they can do whatever they wish.

    • If you read the court ruling, you’ll probably learn that the DNR has been given authority in the manner of changing the name of lakes by the Legislature. The issue here is that the authority does not extend to lakes that have had a name for more than 40 years.

      • tCotUS

        Bottom line Bob…They overstepped their authority. As history has proven, many other Dept have a track record of doing just that.
        Now how much tax money did the the DNR peez away? And how much time & money did it take to correct the problem? Defunding & firing is the only solution…

  • JANK

    Perhaps a better name would be “White Earth Lake”

    • Jerry

      How could we ever expect a Minnesotan from Mahtomedi or Anoka to be able to use a Native American place name.

  • lless

    If appealed, I predict a State Supreme Court reversal. The contestants in this matter have only political interests to protect. Almost no one other than a state cartographer would have standing.

    • How do you figure no one else would have standing. COA did a pretty good job of explaining standing in this decision.