G’day Maka Ska, G’bye Calhoun?

Efforts to eradicate the name Lake Calhoun and replace it with Bde Maka Ska have generated a great deal of discussion and passion on many sides. The usage of the recommended new name and its meaning and pronunciation have been badly muddled, however, which confuses the issues unnecessarily.

Let me, a non-Dakota speaker, try to clarify. Bde Maka Ska is one of the Dakota names for the lake that was named Lake Calhoun by white surveyors or soldiers sometime before 1820. We have been told often that the term translates as White Earth Lake. So far, so good. But let’s break it down further.

Bde: lake
Maka: earth
Ska: white

Bde: The “e”, as in Spanish, is more like “ay” as in day. Hear Crocodile Dundee saying “G’day, mate.” Say b’day like an Australian caricature says “g’day” — rather than b-day which suggests a pronunciation more like a fixture in a French bathroom. G’day. B’day. Closer to one syllable than two.
Makaska: I’ve cheated and put the two words together, which to my ear is how Dakota speakers pronounce them. All a’s are pronounced as in “Ma” for mother. Accent the middle syllable, as if you were saying “my Costco.” MaCostco. Makaska.
This is the easy part and should not have any bearing on the merits of changing the name. It’s not hard to say, so let’s not use that excuse. How do you know how to pronounce “Isles” in “Lake of the Isles” with two of five letters silent? You learned — and thought nothing of it. Not difficult.

This is a little trickier. I don’t know Dakota patterns of usage, but to my view the Minneapolis park board’s master plan entitled Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska-Harriet, which recommended the name change, is confusing. If we are dropping “lake” from Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, in this context shouldn’t we also drop “bde” from Bde Maka Ska. Otherwise it would be Lake Lake White Earth.

In other words, Bde Maka Ska replaces Lake Calhoun, not just Calhoun. Maybe Dakota grammarians would box your ears if you said the equivalent of, “I’m going to bike around Maka Ska this afternoon.” Maybe in Dakota “lake” or “bde” must always be part of a lake name. But if the “bde” doesn’t have to bde there, couldn’t the park board have approved renaming the lake “Maka Ska”? I ask in part because I haven’t heard any objection to the word “lake” itself, although Tony Lake, Lake Street, and Veronica Lake all have had detractors. (I’ve never seen her right eye!)

It matters because any use of Calhoun alone then is unaffected, which is a bit exasperating, because that’s the objectionable part. So on the parkway signs that say East (or West) Calhoun Parkway it was incorrect to add Bde Maka Ska, as was done last year. Only signs that say “Lake Calhoun” should have been changed. Even the vandals of signs at Lake Calhoun last year didn’t know what they were doing when they replaced only Calhoun, but not Lake, with Bde Maka Ska. Pretty ignorant activism.

I raise this issue primarily for clarification. We know some lakes around the world by their indigenous names, Loch Ness comes to mind, and others have retained names given by non-English speakers, such as Lac qui Parle in western Minnesota (not just a lake but a county), a French translation of the Dakota words “lake that speaks”. (Was “bde” part of that Dakota name?)

Something to Consider

So… how should we treat Bde Maka Ska? Wouldn’t it be easier to discuss the merits of a name change if we said we wanted to change the name from Lake Calhoun to Lake Maka Ska? Dakota and Ojibwe names for lakes and places abound in Minnesota and no one seems to have a problem with that. Yet I’ve never seen any other lake named Bde Anything. There are many a “mni” — Dakota for “water” — anglicized to Minnetonka, Minnesota, Minnehaha, but not a “bde” that I know of.

I suspect that some people opposed to renaming the lake get hung up on “bde” for “lake”. It’s a diversion from the real issues, which are, “Calhoun or not?” And, “If not, what?” Lake Maka Ska might eventually be adopted by those who don’t speak Dakota. Bde Maka Ska will take decades longer — if the bde isn’t dropped quickly anyway.

Where Does the Name Come From?

Knowing a bit of the history of Lake Calhoun since 1820, I’m also curious how the lake got the name “White Earth”.  We know that parts of the shoreline, especially on the south and west, were quite marshy by the mid- to late-1800s and had to be filled eventually to hold parkways. But we also know from dredging reports that the beach on the north side at the site of the bath house built in 1912 was created or greatly augmented by considerable dredging  from sand found on the lake bottom.

Lake Calhoun aerial 1a

Lake Calhoun’s northwest shore and Bath House in late 1910s, before a parkway existed on the west side of the lake, although there is a light-colored trail or path. The north beach was mostly man-made. Photo likely taken from near the Minikahda Club. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

To my knowledge the dredging at Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake produced little sand from those lake bottoms. Lake Harriet has never been dredged. It’s not obvious from any accounts I’ve seen of why “maka ska” or “white earth” was used to distinguish this lake from neighboring lakes in Cloud Man’s time or earlier.

Maybe a geologist could enlighten me. Were there relatively white deposits of sand in the vicinity at some point? What is the geological explanation? (For those of us who still believe in science anyway.) Were the shores of Lake Calhoun once sandy — before beaches, parkways and retaining walls?

If anyone can enlighten us about the Dakota language or can explain the park board’s garbled use of Bde Maka Ska, sometimes as a substitute for Lake Calhoun and others for Calhoun only, or can tell us about “white earth”, please do. I won’t post comments on whether we should keep or erase the Calhoun name; many other venues provide space for those arguments.

David C. Smith


14 comments so far

  1. […] Bde Maka Ska. Some thoughts on the proposed name change for Lake Calhoun before it was passed. […]

  2. Richard on

    If you are looking for historically correct terms in Dakota, not Lakota or Nakota, then Thomas Williamson’s or Steven R Riggs’ dictionaries are the ones to look at. The recent dictionary from the University is edited by linguists who speak a more western Sioux dialect. There appears to be some very recent “genetic drift” of the language occurring here as there are very few fluent speakers of eastern Dakota left and to my knowledge, they do not use “bde” for the word, “lake”, but mde. Just look at how recent the “bde” term has appeared.

    I think that it would be historically more correct or at least appropriate to rename Lake Calhoun , “Cloud Man Lake”, in honor of the the Mdewakanton chief who helped his people create a more sustainable and consistent food source via agriculture. It would also be more pronounceable.

    • David Smith on

      Thanks for the clarification. Cloud Man Lake is the best naming option I’ve heard. I like it.

  3. Richard on

    I looked up maka ska in Steven R Riggs’ Dakota-English dictionary, p 306, and found “make-san”, meaning whitish or yellowish or clay”, not sand.

    If my interpretation is correct, it would not therefore have referred to Dayton’s Bluff, but neither would it have referred to Lake Calhoun which had a sandy bottom, according to SW Pond.

    PS Both Steven R Riggs and Thomas Williamson both have “mde” meaning lake in their Dakota- English dictionaries. Both spent decades living with and working with 19th C Dakota.

    • David Smith on

      Lake Calhoun was referred to by several names by early white visitors and residents with legitimate claim to some knowledge of the Dakota language who recorded their observations contemporaneously. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any efforts by the Park Board to sort out the alternatives.

      A modern Dakota-English dictionary can be found at https://filemaker.cla.umn.edu/dakota/ — updated as of 2010. But, as with English, it is hard to know exactly how the language has evolved or how names may have changed over the past 150-200 years.

  4. Richard on

    My understanding of MN history tells me that “maka ska” meant “white cliffs”, referring to the sandstone cliffs at Dayton’s Bluff, nothing to do with Lake Calhoun.

    Lake Calhoun was known by the Mdewakanton as “Inland Lake” and Harriet known as “the other lake”. See SW Pond Jr, “Two Volunteer Missionaries among the Dakota, 1893, p36.)

    I have also heard it referred to as “Medoza”, or loon lake but I cannot recall the source. The City of Mpls nearly renamed it such in the 1890’s.

    Also, “mde” is the correct 19th C Mdewakanton term for lake, not “bde” which is the western Dakota pronunciation picked up subsequently by Dakota people and transferred east back into MN.

    The proposed new name makes no historical sense to me.

  5. Gail Lofdahl on

    “Calhoun” should be nixed. Agreed. (Though I wonder if the younger generation has even HEARD of him or knows what he stood for.)

    I’ll be honest–when I read that “Bde (bidet) Maka Ska” is suggested as the new name, I laughed out loud. (And I don’t even HAVE a bidet.) I’m sure it’ll give our European visitors a chuckle.

    If you must, how about LAKE Maka Ska? Or Lake Makaska? (Easier to pronounce.) It’s odd to name a lake for a feature (white earth) that no longer exists, but so be it. Better than naming it after a bathroom fixture.

    The sweetest revenge, in my opinion, would be to rename it Lake Douglass (after Frederick Douglass) or some other figure in the abolitionist movement. Heck, you could even have a “Lake Tubman” next to “Lake Harriet.”

  6. Kathy Swenson on

    Joe Bendickson (Dakota) of the U of M school of American Indian Studies was on Almanac, May 5 speaking about the name change. It’s about 54 minutes into the show.

  7. sueleaf on

    Veronica Lake’s right eye? Sadly. only oldsters will catch that one.

    • David Smith on

      I’m not even old enough to remember her movies, but I do recall her photos. Does it still make me old if suggest Jessica Rabbit as a reference point?

  8. Connie Sullivan on

    How interesting, that neither the pushers of the name change nor any of the Park Commissioners knew enough Dakota language to do the nice analysis you have here. It makes life simpler to realize that we don’t have to say “lake” and the redundant “bde” in the same utterance. We can all manage Makaska, I would guess.


  9. Dan Lapham on

    Hello David and thanks for your interesting posting. As I read this, and the Strib story today as to the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans, I wonder how the greater public today views such issues. Older folks like you and I value and enjoy the lessons that history brings, but it’s not a focus in education as it once was. It would seem that, while there is passion among some, that the greater public may have minimal interest as their attention and interests are with the larger issues of today that more affect them directly.
    Dan Lapham Hopkins

    • David Smith on

      Thanks for your views, Dan. You and I are probably more interested in historical detail than a lot of people, but there is such a wide range of interests across our incredible culture that all of us focus on some issues and ignore others. I guess that makes it more important than ever that we select sources and elect representatives wisely. I would prefer to be informed by, counseled by and represented by thoughtful people with whom I sometimes disagree, than the thoughtless of any persuasion.

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