The bonding bill at the Minnesota Legislature includes a $34 million request from the Minnesota Historical Society (MnHS) to make sorely needed repairs at Fort Snelling and introduce new interpretations.
But what history will be told? Fort Snelling was built in 1820 by the U.S. Army as a citadel to keep European powers at bay: the French after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the British after the War of 1812. An Indian Agency was established nearby to stop the warfare between the Ojibwe and the Dakota. The latter had already conquered or driven the Otoes, Iowas and other small groups from the area.
Then Fort Snelling served as a mustering ground for America’s wars, sending more than 25,000 troops to the South to preserve the Union and eliminate slavery; to the Spanish-American War; as well as to World Wars I and II, when nearly 300,000 men and women were inducted into service there.
The fort provided troops that protected immigrants as Minnesota was opened to settlement and guarded Indian reservations from white incursion. In 1862, when the Dakota killed more than 650 settlers including more than 100 children under the age of 10, Fort Snelling hurriedly provided supplies and newly enlisted troops before eventually sending them south. From its very beginning, the fort’s story has centered on military protection for the region and the nation.
The story planned by MnHS focuses on a Dakota Indian story that is important but minor in comparison to that larger story of the military. The MnHS says it intends to work with its Indian Advisory Council, including representatives of all federally recognized Minnesota tribes. It also established a new group, the Dakota Community Council.
Yet there is no Military or Veterans Council to ensure that the larger military story is told.
MnHS’ recent publication “Fort Snelling at Bdote” offers clues to what that interpretation could contain. The small primer is based on secondary sources and not primary research into either archeological findings or reports from before the fort was built. Recent oral tradition is used as fact without verification. With that many taxpayer bonding dollars requested for Fort Snelling, we deserve better.
This replacing and elimination of factual history echoes MnHS’ recent decisions on art at the newly restored state Capitol. Several paintings were deemed “controversial art,” and therefore needed to be censored. War-related art was a vital part of architect Cass Gilbert’s vision for the building. MnHS determined to totally remove from the Capitol the only two paintings that memorialize the Dakota War of 1862, a training ground for many Minnesota troops heading south and the watershed event in Minnesota history.
“Attack on New Ulm” is going to the James J. Hill House. The other, “Eighth Minnesota at Killdeer Mountain,” remains in storage with no plans for display. That battle involved more Minnesota troops than other Civil War battles and ended Dakota raids into the state. Its strategic importance was abundantly clear to the generation that built the state Capitol. It is troubling that the MnHS’ publicly funded historians now choose to censor it.
Gilbert’s vision for his 1905 edifice included more than honoring those Minnesotans who had served in past wars, including the Dakota War. He also picked out milestone topics from Minnesota history. Two concern the Dakota and are also deemed controversial.
Francis David Millett’s masterpiece “The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” is based on an eyewitness sketch by Frank Mayer, who was at the actual event. It was the first work selected for the Governor’s Reception Room, but now will be exiled to the third floor, along with “Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony.” The explanation given? It is possible to do “more robust interpretation” there.
Really? Will all voices be heard, or only those wanting to erase — or at minimum revise — history? With MnHS’ seeming flight from military matters and any potential disagreements with vocal Dakota, it seems unlikely that factually based, multidimensional interpretation will be possible, either at the Capitol or at Historic Fort Snelling unless something changes soon.
Controversy and differences of opinion have been part of American life from the beginning, as have battles over ideas, ideals, and land. Minnesota is no stranger to controversy. It is time for MnHS to gird its collective loins and return to authentic history that allows for conversation, debate, and understanding on controversial topics, especially in our public facilities.
Mary Bakeman of Roseville is an independent historian, speaker, author and former managing editor of “Minnesota’s Heritage: Back to the Sources.” She volunteers at the Minnesota Historical Society.
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