In summer, the lake is a city’s recreation. Sailboats skim the open water, cars on the parkway shimmer like bright foil.
I’ve biked here with Thoreau’s journal transcripts from his time by the shore. In 1861, he lodged seven nights at Lake Calhoun during a Minnesota journey aimed to cure his tuberculosis. The lake then ringed with tamarack bogs, passenger pigeons roosting in the oaks. I imagine Thoreau as he bushwhacks from the boarding house, carrying a spyglass, pocketknife, old music book to press plants.
Backtrack twenty-five years, and the lake is home to Mahpiya Wicasta’s village— Cloud Man to the whites. His community fishes and harvests wild rice, grows corn on the prairie bluffs. Fast-forward one year after Thoreau’s visit—you’ll find Cloud Man among the dead at Fort Snelling concentration camp, imprisoned during the bitter winter that followed the U.S.-Dakota war.
In honor of Mahpiya Wicasta and his living descendants, a push in my city to rechristen the lake its Dakota name: Bde Maka Ska. You don’t have to dig deep to understand why. John C. Calhoun, U.S. war secretary and senator, was a fierce proponent of slavery. He pronounced it our country’s “positive good.” And here’s Calhoun’s sticky connection to Minneapolis: he ordered the construction of Fort Snelling on sheer sandstone cliffs above the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. No accident this place is and was a sacred site: Bdote, where Dakota people came from the stars down to earth.
Today, I sit on a narrow tongue of beach sand six miles away. A meaty dragonfly swoops close to my legs, a red skittles bag floats past. My notations of flora and fauna prove more feeble than Thoreau’s, my canvas more limited—the lake is claimed by million dollar mansions, spandexed bikers, algae blooms. But focus the lens of the past here, and this basin carved by rivers of glacial melt water reveals so many our country’s stories, even if the storytellers have vanished, little more than a scattering of notes balanced on my knees.