Minnesota's highest court rules state has authority to change name of Lake Calhoun back to its Dakota name

Minnesota's highest court rules state has authority to change name of Lake Calhoun back to its Dakota name
© Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has the power under state law to change the name of the lake in Minneapolis widely known as Lake Calhoun back to the Dakota name by which Native people once called it, Bde Maka Ska. 

According to the court’s opinion, the commissioner of the DNR had first issued an order back in January 2018 changing the official name of the lake.

However, that move was quickly challenged in court by a group known as “Save Lake Calhoun,” which argued that the commissioner did not have the authority to change the name, citing a state law they said barred the official from renaming a body of water that has existed for more than 40 years.

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In April 2018, the group petitioned the Ramsey County District Court for a writ of quo warranto with that argument, which was denied the following June, court documents show. The group later appealed and a court of appeals subsequently found that the commissioner did not have the authority to change the name of the lake.

But after a “careful review” of the 40-year limitation in question, the Minnesota Supreme Court said on Wednesday that it has concluded that the commissioner did have authority to change the name of the lake, with the court stating in its analysis that the limitation “is a check” on local county boards but not the commissioner.

The ruling was met with praise from Minnesota Attorney General Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonMinnesota lawmakers blast pharmaceutical industry lawsuit over insulin affordability law OVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change MORE, who said the name Lake Calhoun celebrated "a 19th-century slaveholder who defended slavery as a ‘positive good.’”

In the facts of the case provided in the court's opinion on Wednesday, the court said the lake became known as Lake Calhoun after John C. Calhoun, a prominent defender of slavery who served as senator and vice president, around the early 1800s.

"Among the names by which Native people knew it was Bde Maka Ska. In the 1820s, white people began to call it Lake Calhoun, and eventually that became the official name of the lake. The name has been in existence for considerably more than 40 years," the court stated.

Ellison said on Wednesday that "the people of Minneapolis and the DNR commissioner chose to remove Calhoun’s name from the lake to alleviate the pain of that history and celebrate instead the dignity of those who originally named the lake."

“I’m very pleased that the Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that we have a reliable mechanism for renaming places that evoke or celebrate racist parts of our past,” he added. “We now have a sure way to reflect our values today and to pass along the state we want our children to inherit tomorrow.”