Naming News 01/24/18

Naming News 01/24/18

Naming News 01/24/18

Last year it was brought to my attention via Twitter that a motion was being put forth in Minneapolis, Minnesota to rename the city’s largest lake. The proposal to rename Lake Calhoun was brought before the Hennepin County Board in November where it passed by only one vote (Chanen, 2018) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved the change on January 19, 2018.

Actually, it’s really a rename of a rename and it’s a story that’s somewhat similar to Schoolcraft’s renaming.

Remember that in the last post, I stated that Minnesota is both Ojibwe and Dakhota Territory: the minne in Minnesota is Dakhota (Upham, 2001) and is the same as that in mni wiconi (“water is life”).

Following the War of 1812, the United States government sent out dozens of teams like the one Schoolcraft was engaged with in order to document the interior of North America. While Schoolcraft’s team was specifically looking for the source of the Mississippi, a separate team directed by US Secretary of War John C. Calhoun was sent to scout out the best defensible areas. When this particular team of surveyors came upon the large body of water in what is today Minneapolis (from mni meaning water and polis, the Greek for city), it, like “Lake Itasca,” also had an Indigenous name: Bde Maka Ska, a Dakhota name that means “white earth lake” (Upham, 2001); see the Star Tribune’s short video – for the pronunciation). As with Schoolcraft, the surveyors also decided to rename it, but in this case, they chose to name it for the person who had sent them out on their survey. And so, Bde Maka Ska became known (at least in English) as Lake Calhoun.

Naming places for, or in honour of people is quite common in English; for example, Washingtons and Lincolns abound in the United States (Stewart, 2008), and there’s Victoria, Charlottetown, Regina, and even Brockville in Canada (Historica Canada, 2018). However, there are several connotations to Calhoun that deserve a bit of exploration. First, Calhoun was directly responsible for proposing the removal of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands and relocation to reservations (Satz, 1974). This idea would later solidify into government policy as the Indian Removal Act under Andrew Jackson, which resulted in thousands of deaths during forced marches such as the Trail of Tears (ibid). See more about the forced relocation of the Dakhota people here. Calhoun was also an enthusiastic supporter of slavery, even going so far as to claim in a speech before the US Senate that “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good.” (Calhoun, 1837).

However, it is also important to acknowledge that the act of renaming, itself, is a form of colonialism: an Indigenous name was overwritten by the name of a non-Indigenous person in a non-Indigenous language by non-Indigenous peoples.

Therefore, this particular name change proposal could be considered “reclamation”, or simply, as state Representative Jim Davnie told the Star Tribune, “a deeper appreciation for the vibrant Native American Indian communities that still exist in Minneapolis and throughout the state” (Chanen, 2018).

But, while the name is officially changed in the state of Minnesota, it must now be approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names in order to be applied federally.

This name change comes on the heels of a proposal to change the name of Powell River Regional District, British Columbia to qathet, a Comox term meaning “working together” (McElroy, 2017), although the state of that name change remains unclear, as well as debates about several names in Vancouver




Calhoun, J. (1837). “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, Delivered in the Senate, February 6th, 1837”. Accessed 23 January, 2018, via

Chanen, D. (2018, Jan 19). The state officially changes Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska. The Star Tribune. Retrieved from

Canadian Encyclopedia. (2018). Accessed on 22 January, 2018 at

McElroy, J. (2017 Nov 2). Powell River Regional District wants to change name to Indigenous word ‘qathet’. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from

Satz, R. (1974). American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press

Stewart, G. R. (2008). Names on the Land. New York, NY: New York Review Books Classics.

Minnesota Historical Society, 2018.

Upham, W. (2001). Minnesota place names: a geographical encyclopedia. St. Paul, Minn: Minnesota Historical Society Press.


Comments are closed