Pocahontas never lived in Roseville — or in Minnesota, for that matter.
But since the 1960s, a park in the Ramsey County suburb has borne her name. Now, after months of research and discussion, Roseville leaders are contemplating renaming Pocahontas Park to better reflect the area's history, including the place that Native Americans hold in that history.
Matthew Johnson, Roseville's assistant director of parks and recreation, said a youth commissioner first raised questions about the park's name.
City staff say they don't know why Pocahontas — a Native American woman who lived in present-day Virginia from about 1596 to 1617 and interacted with Jamestown settlers — was chosen for the name of the 5.7-acre neighborhood park nearly 70 years ago, but that by modern standards the name feels inappropriate to some.
"We have a rich Native American history here in the state," Johnson said. "Pocahontas doesn't really appear to have a tie to Minnesota."
In considering a possible name change, Roseville officials have done historical research and conferred with residents and Native American communities in Minnesota. The parks and recreation commission could recommend a name change, but it's the City Council that would ultimately approve it.
The story of Pocahontas, who was credited with helping English settlers, has been romanticized and distorted — perhaps most notoriously in the 1995 animated Disney film. A 2007 book based on the oral history of the Mattaponi tribe outlines a very different interpretation of the young woman's interactions with settlers, according to the National Park Service biography of Pocahontas.
"There are all kinds of issues with the story of Pocahontas and its portrayal in pop culture — particularly the Disney movie," said Wayne L. Ducheneaux II, executive director of the Native Governance Center.
He said, "100 percent the park should be renamed."
The name fuels misunderstanding about the breadth and diversity of the hundreds of Indigenous communities across the country, Ducheneaux said.
"Oftentimes, when we are quote-unquote 'being honored,' it's as if we are monolith," he said. "We are not viewed as distinct or individual tribal nations."
The Twin Cities is the ancestral homeland of the Dakota people. Johnson said the city has reached out to Dakota tribal members, but city staff understand that Indigenous communities can be inundated with these types of requests.
So far, the debate around the name change has been measured, Johnson said. Ducheneaux said Roseville's process appears to be thoughtful and pragmatic, but he cautioned leaders not to get hung up on perfection.
Johnson said the city is accepting suggestions for possible names. Some parks commissioners have pondered at past meetings if the park should be renamed to honor local people.
Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, threw out some ideas for a renaming when she spoke to the parks commission last December.
"My initial thoughts were to bring a modern name or a modern person," Geshick said, suggesting the park could honor a Dakota person or Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth nation.
The city will host a public listening session about the park name at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7 at City Hall.