Renaming Lake Calhoun

Native American activist Syd Beane explains the Minneapolis lake’s name change

Syd Beane, native americans, activists
Activist Syd Beane. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber.

This summer’s urban beach-goers may notice signs giving two names for an iconic body of water: Lake Calhoun, as it was named around 1839 to honor (vehemently pro-slavery) U.S. statesman John Calhoun; and Bde Maka Ska, which means White Banks Lake in the language of the Dakota people who established a village there in the 1830s. Syd Beane, a descendent of Europeans as well as the Dakota people, moved to Minnesota more than a decade ago and is part of the effort to change the name permanently.

“Lake Calhoun is where our [ancestor] Cloud Man established a village. It had the first school in the Twin Cities as far as we know. The people lived all around the lake. Dakota life as we knew it centered around the water. The water was sacred, the water was where we came from, and our sacred stories related to water. The lake provided not just the spirituality of the people, but the sustenance in terms of food, fish, and whatever animals that came to drink.” 

“My family was exiled, imprisoned, and banished by the state and by federal law. We’re still not supposed to be here—the Dakota/Sioux/Winnebago removal act of 1863 is still federal law.”

“I knew very little about my family’s history in Minnesota when I was growing up. In my culture, the response to tragedy and great crises is not to talk about them. Now, we’re studying that history every day, trying to understand its relationship to us.”

“My wife and I were very comfortable in the San Francisco Bay Area. We had a nice house, great jobs; we thought we’d live there many, many years. But 12 years ago our daughters sat my wife and I down and said, Isn’t it about time we returned to Minnesota? We want to learn how to read and write our language. … I never learned how to write the Dakota language. I am not a fluent speaker. That was taken away from me.” 

“One of the first places our daughters went was Lake Calhoun. They had never been here before, and they envisioned it through the lens of our family history and culture, so they expected there to be something that spoke to that history and culture. They couldn’t find anything. The only thing that’s there is a stone under a tree between two paths that says Sioux Indians were once here. Unless you knew it was there, you wouldn’t even see it.”

“I spent a year going all around that lake, meeting with neighborhood groups, schools, libraries, the Bakken Museum. After hearing the Dakota story from my family’s perspective, most people were receptive. I wasn’t then advocating for changing the name. Without people understanding the story, how were we going to advocate for the name change?”

“Is Calhoun the best name for this lake? We were prevented from growing up in our homeland, and John Calhoun represents that dislocation and relocation and taking away of identity as much as any one person. … It’s been happening all across the country—the appropriating of [the name of] a place, of a people, and interpreting it from a perspective that reflects negatively on those people.” 

“Yes, Bde Maka Ska has multiple syllables. But if it were the name, people would be using it in their language. It’s just like any other name. You learn how to pronounce it: Be-DAY Mah-KAH-Ska.”