Local politicos hash out Fort Snelling, Lake Calhoun name controversy
As Shakespeare wrote, what's in a name?
That seems to be a pivotal question institutions across the state are grappling with. Names like Nicholson and Coffey, Lake Calhoun and Fort Snelling at Bdote; places in the center of a much larger debate about meaning, culture and memory, to say little of their political underpinnings.
In the Minnesota Senate, lawmakers passed a bill to slash $4 million in funding for the National Historical Society after temporary signs at Fort Snelling included "at Bdote," an allusion to the Dakota name for the confluence of rivers where the fort is located. Republicans, led by Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, criticized the decision as "revisionist history" at a site known for its long and illustrious military past.
In April of 2018, then Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr approved an initiative to change the name of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska—a transformation, proponents noted, spurred in part by namesake John C. Calhoun's vehemently pro-slavery positions. On April 29, the state court of appeals ruled Landwehr lacked the authority to approve this change, reverting the lake back to its original name of Lake Calhoun.
And then, too, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents announced in an April 26 news release they voted to acknowledge the university's history of discrimination, but declined President Eric Kaler's recommendation to rename several buildings—Coffman Memorial Union and Middlebrook, Nicholson and Coffey halls—to address their legacies of racism and anti-Semitism. The board also directed the administration to develop ongoing commemorations, educational activities or displays in one or more of these buildings to reflect the institution's complex history.
Charles Black Lance
Charles Black Lance, a Native American and the director of TRIO programming at Central Lakes College, said it's not about erasing the past, it's about sharing the whole of it. A complete history, he said, includes the whole story for both Native Americans and white settlers, as recently as yesterday and down the millenium, moments of triumph or harbingers of generational trauma to the present day.
Speaking with his children in mind, Black Lance said incorporating more American Indian markers—whether translated in English, or in their original languages—serves to illustrate Minnesota is a state for all ethnicities and creeds. With perhaps the exception of a few side roads—say, for example, "Squaw Point Road," Black Lance said—the Brainerd lakes area by and large features a number of landmarks that pay homage to Native American history.
In particular, he pointed to Hole-in-the-Day Bay out on Gull Lake, a stretch of water named after the famed 19th century Ojibwe chief, Bagone-giizhiig, whose June 27, 1868, assisnation marked a pivotal moment in the history of the Brainerd lakes area and the founding of Brainerd itself.
"When you travel through Hole-in-the-Day Bay and see the sign by the side of the road, it provides a great opportunity for my wife and I to tell our children, who are American Indian, about Chief Hole-in-the-Day," Black Lance said. "It provides them an opportunity to feel like they're a larger part of this community because of that. They see these things that connect them to the history of this area as well."
If anything, the lakes area would benefit not from renaming or resurrecting physical landmarks, but dealing more in abstract terms—namely, he said, incorporating more Native American history in education curricula so students can understand the place Native Americans occupy in local history and how it resonates within the local community to this day. Often, without independent instruction of parents, this is largely absent from coursework.
In terms of rectifying the past, such as renaming Lake Calhoun with its Dakota name Bde Maka Ska so as to absolve it of John C. Calhoun's deeply racist legacy, while courts may rule one way and lawmakers vote another, what is morally right is independent of these deliberations, Black Lance noted. Arbiters may settle on the correct interpretation, he said, but it's up to people to speak out and call for a better, more inclusive Minnesota regardless of the powers that be.
Area legislators respond
Local elected officials—including state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin—as well as state Sens. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point—gave their thoughts on the ongoing debate. Heintzeman declined to comment by phone and opted to submit his answers via email.
• Heintzeman pointed to local communities—those most affected by the landmarks and buildings in question—as the ones who should be the final arbiters. "This is a decision that should probably be left up to the folks that live in those areas," he wrote.
• Ruud pointed to the value of these historical sites as artifacts to memorialize, preserve and teach the history of Minnesota. Whether that history is bad or good, she noted, it's important to pass these values along and ensure they're taught to coming generations.
"We can't change our history. If we don't have things to remind of our history, that places us in great danger," said Ruud, who lambasted Landwehr's decision to override the process and change Lake Calhoun's name without consensus. "We shouldn't run from our past history and some of isn't very pleasant. Maybe, instead of erasing history, we should tell the story so we remember what happened there."
• Poston said he's in favor of incorporating a stronger emphasis on Native American cultures and histories into the social fabric of Minnesota, and the name of historical sites is part of that conversation.
"I have nothing against our Native American history. In fact, it's very important to the state of Minnesota," Poston said. "Years and years, sometimes hundreds of years after we set up a monument or name a trail or a lake, and want to change it—I don't always agree with that. Our history is our history. Good or bad, it's our history."
• Gazelka said who decides on the identification of sites should remain the domain of courts and legislatures—noting, as he did, that the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that any site, landmark or building over 40 years old must be subject to consensus among elected officials.
"The Legislature should be more engaged in that process," Gazelka said. "It would be good if we were sharing some of these historical perspectives and honoring other cultures, it just should go through the legislative process."
• Lueck said the state should largely stay out of the process, while the identity of historical sites, landmarks and buildings should be the prerogative of local people and them alone.
"That's primarily more of a local issue, far as I can see," Lueck said. "We've got historical sites in the area, and that's largely incumbent on residents around that area. State should be as light-handed as possible."