Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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How Not to Rename a Lake

“Then turn right when you get to....”

The clerk pauses in her direction-giving. A year ago, she would have said “...when you get to Lake Calhoun.” But last summer the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to change the official name of Minneapolis' largest lake back to its original name.

“...Bde Maka Ska,” I say. She nods, gratefully, and continues with her directions.

Really, you can't blame her not being able to remember the “new” name. She doesn't speak Dakota. Most people don't.

I applaud the DNR's decision to shed the imposed triumphalist name, and to call the Lake formerly known as Calhoun what those who originally dwelt on its shores called it.

But I think that they've gone about it wrong.

It's a little much to expect most English speakers to wrap their tongues around a word that begins with bd-. (When's the last time that you used the word bdellium in a sentence?) To most non-Dakota speakers, Bde Maká Ska reads as gibberish: hard to pronounce, hard to remember.

So they end up calling the lake “Calhoun” anyway, which rather defeats the purpose of the change.

Here's what I think that the DNR should have done. The Dakota-speakers who lived on the southern shores of the lake named it Bde Maká Ska, “White Earth Lake,” for the deposits of white clay found on its banks.

White Earth Lake”: that's the new/old name that the DNR should have chosen.

White Earth Lake (Bde Maká Ska) the signs would say, if it were up to me, thus acknowledging two linguistic facts simultaneously.

The DNR had an opportunity, and—well-intentioned though they were—they missed it.

Clearly, what the DNR needs is a resident bard.

They should feel free to give me a call. My rates are extremely reasonable.










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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Mary Lanham
    Mary Lanham Wednesday, 03 April 2019

    Fellow Twin Cities pagan here! My initial reaction to the name change was also that the English translation would have been more effective. But the DNR didn't make the decision on their own - they were advised by Dakota community members. Some of the motivation behind using Bde Maka Ska is language preservation within that community. Here's a brief interview clip with Dakota linguist Joe Bendickson that touches on the reasoning behind keeping "Bde" in the name:

    I think that if the only goal had been to take Lake Calhoun out of common usage, then White Earth Lake would indeed have been the better choice. But this is the first time a body of water in the US has been switched back to an indigenous name, so that's a pretty cool (and magical) precedent to set.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 04 April 2019

    Greetings fellow Twin Citizen, and thanks: blessed are they that do their research.
    Luck to the work of language preservation: there's nothing more central to identity than language.

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