Archive for the ‘Minneapolis Lakes’ Category

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.

Translation
Bde: lake
Maka: earth
Ska: white

Pronunciation
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.

Usage
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

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The Worst Idea Ever #8: Power Boat Canal from Minnetonka to Harriet

Ok, it wasn’t really a Minneapolis park project, but it still deserves a laugh: Minnehaha Creek converted into a 30-foot-wide power boat canal from Lake Minnetonka to Lake Harriet!

Lake Harriet could have been more like Lake Minnetonka

Lake Harriet could have been more like Lake Minnetonka.

Minneapolis was obsessed in the spring of 1911 with the upcoming Civic Celebration during which the channel between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles would be opened. That was a very good thing. Huzzah, huzzah. But the attention it was drawing to the city also focused a lot of eyes on a very bad thing: Minnehaha Creek was nearly dry — in the spring! — which meant almost no water over Minnehaha Falls. Minneapolis could hardly celebrate the opening of the lake connection at the same time it suffered the ignominy of a dry Minnehaha Falls. The many out-of-town visitors anticipated for the celebration would surely want to see both. And let’s face it, a fifty-foot waterfall written about by a Harvard poet, which attracted visitors from around the world was a bit more impressive to most people than a short canal under a busy road and railroad tracks. The Minneapolis PR machine could call the city the “Venice of North America” all it wanted with its new canal, but visitors’ imaginations were still probably fueled more by the images of the famous poet’s noble heathen, beautiful maiden, and “laughing waters.”

The generally accepted solution to the lack of water over Minnehaha Falls was to divert Minnehaha Creek into Lake Amelia (Nokomis), drain Rice Lake (Hiawatha), dam the outlet of the creek from Amelia to create a reservoir, and release the impounded water as needed — perhaps 8 hours a day — to keep a pleasing flow over the falls. Unfortunately, with all the last-minute dredging and bridge-building for the Isles-Calhoun channel, that couldn’t be done in 1911 between April and July 4, when the Civic Celebration would launch.

Into this superheated environment of waterways and self-promotion stepped Albert Graber, according to the Saturday Evening Tribune, May 28, 1911. With the backing of “members of the board of county commissioners, capitalists, attorneys and real estate dealers”, Graber proposed to dredge Minnehaha Creek into a canal 30-feet wide from Lake Minnetonka to Lake Harriet. This would provide not only a water superhighway from Minnetonka to Minneapolis, and boost real estate prices along the creek, but it would also create a much larger water flow in Minnehaha Creek, solving the embarrassment of no laughing water.

“The plan, say the promoters, would enable residents of summer houses on the big lake to have their launches waiting at the town lake.”
Saturday Evening Tribune, May 28, 1911

Sure, there were problems. Not every plan could be perfect. The plan would require dismantling the dam at Gray’s Bay at the head of Minnehaha Creek, which might lower the level of Lake Minnetonka. But Graber and his backers had thought of that. The Minnesota River watershed in the area of St. Bonifacius and Waconia would be diverted into Lake Minnetonka — no problem! — which also solved another bother: it would reduce flooding on the Minnesota River.

The dam at Gray’s Bay had been operated by Hennepin Country since 1897. Many people then and now consider the dam the cause of low water flow in Minnehaha Creek, but the earliest reference I can find to low water in the creek was in 1820, when the soldiers of Fort Snelling wanted to open a mill on Minnehaha Creek, but were forced to move to St. Anthony Falls due to low water. That was even before two intrepid teenagers from the fort discovered that the creek flowed out of a pretty big lake to the west.

Graber estimated that dredging Minnehaha Creek would cost about $4,000 a mile for the nine miles between the two lakes. He and his backers, which included an officer of the Savings Bank of Minneapolis (who presumably had a summer house on the big lake and could put a launch on the town lake), provided assurances that the money to finance the project could be “readily found.”

The Evening Tribune article concluded with an announcement that meetings of those interested in the project would be held in the near future with an eye to beginning work before the end of the summer. Graber noted that his inspection of the project had been, no surprise, “superficial”, but that he would make a thorough report soon to his backers. I can find no evidence that the idea progressed any further.

The Board of Park Commissioners would have had no role in the plan, except, perhaps, allowing power boats to enter and be anchored on Lake Harriet. (I think they would have said no.) Park board ownership of Minnehaha Creek west of Lake Harriet to Edina wasn’t proposed until 1919 and the deal wasn’t done until 1930.

David C. Smith

© 2013 David C. Smith