Judge rules DNR did not have authority to rename Lake Calhoun

It appears the legal battle over changing the name of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska will continue after an appellate court judge ruled Monday that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources did not have the authority to rename the lake.  

Efforts to rename the lake began in 2015, with supporters wanting to change the name of the lake back to its Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, to distance the lake from its namesake, Vice President John C. Calhoun, who was a strong supporter of slavery and authored the Indian Removal Act. Bde Maka Ska means “white earth lake.”  

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners approved renaming the lake. Final approval for state use fell to the DNR, who signed off on the name change in January 2018

One of the opponents of the name change, a group called Save Lake Calhoun, filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging the DNR exceeded their authority in changing the name. They lost, but appealed the decision. 

On Monday, appellate court Judge Randall J. Slieter reversed and remanded the decision in favor of Save Lake Calhoun, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings and reconsideration. 

In his decision, Judge Slieter wrote that a state statute denies authority for the DNR to change a lake name that has existed for 40 years or more.

“Really those people who have any misgivings should now look at the whole effort to change the name of the lake to Bde Maka Ska as a fool’s errand because they didn’t choose the proper process,” said Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing Save Lake Calhoun.

Meanwhile, House Democrats say they will offer an amendment to an environmental finance bill renaming Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska. The amendment will be debated Tuesday.

“The DNR’s assertion that its authority permits changing a lake name is not expressed, or fairly drawn or fairly evident from the powers delegated to it within the statute’s context,” the judge wrote. 

The DNR is reviewing the ruling to determine whether to petition for review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The agency has 30 to submit a petition. According to the DNR, without an appeal, the lake's name at a state level will change back to Lake Calhoun. However, on a federal level, the name will remain as Bde Maka Ska because the Board on Geographic Names already recognized the name change.

"I know what to call it and I will call it what people have been calling it for hundreds of years which is Bde Maka Ska and I think it’s as simple as that," said Brad Bourne, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President.

The descendants of Cloud Man, the founder of a Dakota Village on the shore of the lake in the early 1800s, also agree.

"I remain optimistic that Bde Maka Ska is going to remain the name of this lake regardless of the process and that the process isn't over yet," said Carly Bad Heart Bull, a descendent of Cloud Man.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said despite the ruling, the lake will always be its native name to him.

“I personally am going to continue calling Bde Maka Ska by its rightful name, which is Bde Maka Ska. That was its name long before people who looked like me decided to change it to the name of someone who was an apologist for slavery, so that's what I think we should continue to call it," he said.