The Lesson of St. Paul’s “N-Word” Lake

Loeb Lake, Marydale Park, St. Paul

Of course we have to rename things sometimes. We always have.

At the southeast corner Dale Street and Maryland Avenue in St. Paul, a lovely little body of water called Loeb Lake is the centerpiece of a lovely little public space known as Marydale Park. You can take a leisurely stroll around the lake. You can fish in it. It and its surrounding park constitute a true urban oasis. But Loeb Lake hasn’t always been so lovely.

And it used to have a far uglier name.

During the late 1800s, the lake at Dale and Maryland was bigger than it is now. It extended as far as Farrington Street on the east and across Maryland to the north. It was one of three lakes—the others being McCarron and Sandy—that fed Trout Brook, which joined with Phalen Creek on its way to the Mississippi River. Young people gathered there for skating parties during the winter. The Northwest Ice Company and, later, People’s Coal & Ice Company ran big ice harvesting and storage operations there. But over time, the lake succumbed to misuse and neglect. Industrial development siphoned off much of its water and polluted what was left. By mid-century it was known mainly as a runoff pond. It has since been restored.

I’ve pinpointed the lake on many old maps of St. Paul, but I have yet to find it identified by name. When it appears—which is not always—it’s just a small, blue blob. But the little lake did have a name, even if cartographers didn’t like to make note of it. And although I know what it was, I can’t use it here. It was called “N-Word” Lake.

I haven’t been able to find any explanation for why the body of water at Dale and Maryland was known by that name. All I know is that St. Paulites continued to refer to it that way until at least the second decade of the 20th century—and probably much later. The fact that a geographic feature of Minnesota’s capital city was known for so long by such a repellent name might rate as a mere curiosity if we were all willing to acknowledge today that names periodically need to change. But as we reckon anew with other names and monuments that offend evolving sensibilities, it’s clear that some people need reminding. We rename things all the time for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes we just get tired of the old monikers. (Think of all the Mud Lakes that have been renamed over the years.) But sometimes we replace them because they’re ugly, embarrassing, and hurtful.

The lake in Marydale Park is not the only Minnesota body of water that, at one point in its history, was known by the “N-Word.” Burns Lake in Anoka County, for example, didn’t shed its old, offensive name until 1977. And other places with odious names—especially those referred to by derogatory terms used to describe indigenous people—have taken even longer to remove. Earlier generations of white Minnesotans saw nothing wrong with using such names. We know better. And people who, today, demand that we leave well enough alone are simply ignorant of the history they claim to be protecting.

Indigenous Rejection of Mount Rushmore Goes Way Back

AIM’s Dennis Banks at Mount Rushmore, 1970

Backlash against Trump’s Black Hills stunt brings back memories of an early American Indian Movement protest.

Excerpted from Minnesota in the ’70s, which I co-authored with Thomas Saylor

In the late summer of 1970, a contingent of AIM activists including Dennis Banks and new member of the leadership group, Russell Means, headed to South Dakota to join a protest at Mount Rushmore. The protest, originally started by a determined group of Lakota women, had begun small with a simple goal: to demand that the U.S. government honor its commitments under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty…and acknowledge that the Black Hills belonged to the Lakota people. But the Mount Rushmore demonstration began attracting sympathizers from far beyond South Dakota, including the young activists from AIM. At first, the newcomers were content to support the local protesters by holding signs and making speeches. But soon they began itching to do more.

On the evening of August 24, Russell Means and a few other protesters broke away from the main group and headed up the mountain, determined to make a statement that no one could ignore. Chased by forest rangers, they made it to the summit and set up camp behind Teddy Roosevelt’s head. They painted a homemade banner declaring “Sioux Indian Power” and unfurled it over George Washington’s face. Means, standing on a ledge high above the monument’s amphitheater, delivered voice-of-God lectures on U.S. government perfidy to confused tourists below.

The government…opted to wait out the militants rather than risk a violent confrontation. The protesters, for their part, were in no rush to leave. They remained on the monument for several months until cold weather forced them to abandon camp. The occupation of Mount Rushmore failed to gain any concessions from the government, but it did generate a good bit of national publicity. It also built a foundation of camaraderie that would nurture the movement in the months to come. “Some folks fell in love up there, and a few babies were made on that mountain,” Means later wrote. “Occupying Mount Rushmore was fun.”

Mississippi Bests Minnesota

Mississippi just got rid of its state flag. Why can’t Minnesota?

There’s a saying, especially common in the Deep South—“Thank God for Mississippi!”—that suggests that, no matter how bad things are where you live, they’re probably worse in the Magnolia State. It’s an all-purpose put-down that applies to everything from educational achievement scores to infant mortality rates. Here in Minnesota, we rarely stoop to such belittlements because we automatically assume our state’s superiority. But perhaps we should reconsider our arrogance. After all, Mississippi just got rid of its racist state flag. We’re still stuck with ours.

Minnesota’s state flag has never been particularly beloved. It features a cluttered design that’s impossible to make out from a distance. In fact, 19 years ago, a collection of flag experts (yes, there are such people) voted Minnesota’s flag the fifth worst in the nation, design-wise, behind only New Hampshire, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. Like those other loser states, Minnesota chose to incorporate its state seal in its flag’s design. And it’s the seal that poses the problem.

The state seal, based on a sketch by soldier and artist Seth Eastman, dates back to the late 1840s, before Minnesota was even a state. Its original design featured, in the foreground a farmer plowing a field, with a rifle and ax leaning against a tree stump. In the background, an Indian man on horseback rode into a sunset. There was nothing subtle about the message: Minnesota was to be a land of white people and its indigenous residents were to go away. A poem by Eastman’s wife, Mary, left little doubt about the seal’s prevailing theme of white people’s Manifest Destiny:

Give way, give way, young warrior,
Thou and thy steed give way;
Rest not, though lingers on the hills
The red sun’s parting ray.
The rock bluff and prairie land
The white man claims them now,
The symbols of his course are here,
The rifle, axe, and plough.

The seal appeared on Minnesota’s first official flag in 1893, and has remained its central design element ever since. There have been a few changes, including, most significantly, a course correction for the Indian rider instituted in 1983. He now rides to the south instead of the west, which is apparently meant to neutralize objections to the “riding into the sunset” message.

Critics have periodically tried—and failed—to change Minnesota’s flag and remove its racist imagery. This year, a bill calling for a study of its design died in legislative committee. When it comes to its flag, the North Star State remains a state of inertia. But at least we’ve given the good folk of Mississippi an excuse to say, “Thank God for Minnesota!”