When I moved to Minneapolis in 1964, I was encouraged to ride around and see all the lakes located right in the city. For the past four decades, I’ve been privileged to live just a couple of blocks from one of the largest of these wonderful places. When I first saw the name, however, I was surprised and, frankly, dismayed that “northerners” had chosen to call anything after John C. Calhoun. He was one of the most out-spoken and mean-spirited Southern voices justifying and praising the institution of slavery. When I asked people who had lived here much longer than I about this seeming anomaly, they usually admitted that they knew nothing about Calhoun–they just enjoyed the lake.
Over the years since 1964, I’ve found out that “my” lake was once important to native Lakota/Dakota tribes who gathered on its shore and on the cliff near by for yearly ceremonies. What came to be located on the adjoining cliffs is a large cemetery. My present home is half a block from this cemetery so I’ve walked it, biked it, taken picnic lunches to enjoy on the shores of a tiny lake in its center from which it takes its name–Lakewood. When I die, my ashes will be placed in a tiny box right beside that peaceful body of water. The cemetery is full of huge and impressive monuments to the families that built Minneapolis. Of course, there are lots of regular people buried there, but the founding fathers are located atop the land rise so their spirits look down on the same shore line once revered by Native Americans.
For the past few years, there has been a movement to change the name back to its original Lakota name of Bde Maka Ska. Though opposed by some individuals and groups, this idea has struck most people as the right thing to do as we try to make albeit feeble reparations for what white people stole from Native Americans as we moved them off their lands and denied them the right to celebrate their spiritual rituals. I have signed petitions and written checks to help move this project along. A little over a year ago, the park board took down all the signs that said “Lake Calhoun” and installed new ones with “Lake Calhoun” at the top and Bde Maka Ska just below it. Some of us learned how to pronounce the new name and began using it in everyday conversation. Some of us became increasingly irritated by this change, often arguing that it was hollow since it did nothing to help living Native Americans in Minneapolis. I Googled the new name and learned how to pronounce it from two Lakota grandmothers teaching their little grandchildren how to say the name of “our lake.”
Last Saturday, February 10th, I walked that lake with a good friend. The two-level signs were in place. Yesterday, Wednesday, February 14th, I was driving home along the lake shore when my heart leapt up (like Wordsworth’s did so long ago: “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.”) New signage had been installed sometime in those four days. The new signs just say “Bde Maka Ska.” I burst into tears and wondered it my elation in some small way mirrored how Southern black people say they feel if their community votes to take down the Confederate flag from the public square. I felt lighter and less oppressed by what my invading tribe had done to older indigenous tribe over a century ago. And it doesn’t matter to me if this decision doesn’t feed or clothe or hire any living Native Americans in my city. That is a separate and demanding set of actions that must be accomplished.
But a rose is not always a rose, Gertrude notwithstanding, and sometimes a lot is “in a name,” Juliet notwithstanding. I am proud of my park board and legislators for recognizing the empathetic importance of calling people, places, and things by the name preferred by those most intimately involved.