HERE IN Minneapolis we are dealing with the issue of slavery, long after everyone thought the Civil War answered the question. The city is changing the name of one of our beautiful lakes from Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, on the grounds that John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was a wretched man and owned slaves. Bde Maka Ska is the name the Dakotah called it until 1817 when Secretary of War Calhoun sent Army surveyors to look over the territory and, voilà, they named it for their boss.
It’s a lovely name, Bde Maka Ska, and over time, as old people die off and young people grow up, it will come into common usage, but these things take time. The Triborough Bridge in New York was renamed the RFK bridge 10 years ago but nobody calls it that. To Minneapolitans, Calhoun is a lake, not a man, and if you asked us about John C., we’d have to Google him.
I made the mistake the other day of saying this to the wrong people — that the name change, while harmless, does very little for tribal descendants suffering in the epidemic of opioid addiction, many of whom are homeless and camping in the city. It’s a faint gesture, like if your roof blew off and you sat down and wrote a poem about it. Why not take on the French missionary Louis Hennepin who came in 1680 and lorded it over the natives and barged in and named the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi. What right did he have to do that? Minneapolis is in Hennepin County; if you deHennepinize us and put us in Gakaamikijiwan County, you’ve accomplished something.
In the room at the time was an elderly Lutheran who got all red in the face and told me I was looking at this from a position of white privilege and if I were Native American or a person of color, I’d be able to see this but I can’t because I’m a white guy. He was quite incensed. He was white himself but he was now speaking for the others.
This is why I despair of my fellow Democrats as we approach an election year, that we’ll find a righteous nominee who says the correct things about Calhoun-type issues and who will carry five states, and in 2021, as Ginsburg and Breyer retire from the Supreme Court and the country enters a permanent state of E Pluribus Duo, and the twittering gets crazier and crazier, and mass shootings become page 7 news, and Two Corinthians becomes required reading in schools — when that happens, Iceland is going to look better and better.
The language is not terribly hard. “A man walked into a bar with a handful of dog droppings” in Icelandic is “Maur gekk inn á bar me handfylli af hundaskítum,” according to Google Translate, and Reykjavík is a beautiful and civilized city, as I recall, and I wouldn‘t be a citizen so the renaming of glaciers to remove the influence of jerks (skíthaell) wouldn’t matter to me.
As an alien in Iceland, I will have to get used to a herring diet, fried herring and herring coffee and herring ice cream, and I probably will need to resume the consumption of alcohol, which is helpful in the pronunciation of Icelandic. Google shows me only one Anglican church in Reykjavík but the Mass is in Icelandic, only the sermon in English, and that’s the part I don’t want to listen to, so I’ll have to become Lutheran. It will be easy to get off the internet since I won’t understand the directions anyway, and so the New York Times and the Washington Post will be unavailable to me and that will be an enormous relief. I don’t want to read about the willful dismemberment of the Union, anymore than I care to read vampire fiction or listen to Christian pop-rock. As America enters dementia, I want my mind to stay clear.
If 500 of us band together and form a colony, it’ll be much cozier. English will be our language, but I don’t want an English name lest we be marked as imperialists. I’m happy to name it Bde Maka Ska. Let the Icelanders know, we come in peace and are unarmed. All we ask is the right to play baseball, enjoy non-herring hot dogs, and make fun of the self-righteous wherever we find them.
© Garrison Keillor.