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It’s time for truth telling at Fort Snelling

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.

Mary Bakeman

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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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/01/2017 - 09:48 am.

    Wait a minute…

    If I understand this correctly, the author of this piece believes we’re *over*emphasizing Dakota narratives and perspectives and should focus more on US and colonial military history? Yikes. Minnesota has a long way to go to reckon with what we did to the Dakota and Ojibwe people here. For too long we’ve white-washed this history, and a column like this only adds semantic noise.

    I urge everyone to read some critical histories of early Minnesota, like Mary Lethert Wingerd’s “North Country” or Anton Treuer’s “Assassination of Hole in the Day.” In the 21st century White Minnesotans must finally face our troubling past.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/01/2017 - 05:36 pm.


      If I think critically about the past, I might not feel so good about myself or my ancestors. It all makes me feel uncomfortable.

  2. Submitted by David Wintheiser on 05/01/2017 - 10:04 am.

    Dedication to primary sources is admirable, but…

    …in some cases, not always advisable, due to the old aphorism, “History is written by the victors.”

    In this case, most primary sources of the period are military reports and accounts written by (white) settlers. While they provide useful information on details of the conflict, they do not provide anything like a balanced account of it.

    Curiously, Ms. Bakeman doesn’t appear to have a problem with secondary sources when they suit her narrative; though Ms. Bakeman references the deaths of 650 settlers during the so-called ‘Dakota War’ of 1862, Wikipedia notes that there has never been an official tally of the number of settlers killed during that conflict, noting only that Abraham Lincoln, during his Second Inaugural address, set the number at not less than 800 men, women, and children,

    It’s also unclear, given Ms. Bakeman’s focus on “the larger military story”, whether other elements of the story of the Dakota Wars would be told, from the inciting incidents of the U.S. government failing to adhere to the terms of the treaties it negotiated with the area’s tribes, to post-war atrocities such as the bodies of the 38 Natives executed at Mankato being exhumed during the night and distributed to medical men; one of the bodies found its way into the hands of William Worrall Mayo, who used the cleaned and varnished skeleton to teach osteology to his sons (who themselves would go on to expand their father’s medical practice into what we now know as the Mayo Clinic); the skeleton was not returned to its descendants until after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

    There is definitely a good deal of room for a balanced story of truth-telling on the site of Fort Snelling, and there are definitely conversations to be had on how much of the larger history of the area should be taught there. A focus on primary sources and military history, however, would do little other than continue the glorification of war and the lionization of American military power that has been the focus of official U.S. history nearly since its founding. That history, sadly, has all too frequently been the only history to be taught.

  3. Submitted by Derek Reise on 05/01/2017 - 10:44 am.

    Disingenuous argument

    The author calls for “authentic history that allows for conversation, debate, and understanding on controversial topics.”

    Yet, in this entire column she does not acknowledge the concentration camp at Fort Snelling or displacement of 6,000 people from Minnesota. She brushes it aside vaguely as “a Dakota Indian story that is important but minor in comparison.”

    That does not sound like she’s interested in authentic history or understanding.

  4. Submitted by Tom Johnson on 05/01/2017 - 01:53 pm.

    Never Mond

    The three preceding comments say it better than I can.

  5. Submitted by Dave Fudally on 05/01/2017 - 02:33 pm.

    Fact Checking MHS narrative of Ft Snelling.

    Actually, MHS is not presenting factual material throughout its narrative presentation of native history at its historic sites, several MHS funded books, websites, and at Ft Snelling. The recent books Mni Sota Makoce and Ft.Snelling Bdote are a farce, created by agenda activists not to represent history as it was, but as what they want you to believe. It is very profitable. These agenda activists, failing to make a land grab for a casino and for their personal selves at Camp Coldwater…by using the fake sacred tree and spring lies made up by 3 anti Highway 55 activists trying to stop highway 55 from going through Minnehaha park…and using their own sacred stories…while cherry picking words out of sentences and original context, do this to create a false Dakota Indian history narrative for people who are ignorant of Dakota Indian and Minnesota history. These individuals created a Corporation in 2007 “to research ALTERNATIVE approaches for the recovery of Dakota lands and stories.” First pages (pg4)in this Makoce book, they use the above tricks to alter REAL Dakota origin at Spirit/Mystery/Mille Lacs Lake (documented for centuries, including archaeological evidence) to the area around the mouth of the Minnesota River. This land area is documented by Dakota, Iowa Indian oral tradition, and historical and archaeological evidence documentation, as being taken by the Dakota Indians from the Iowa Indians in 3 battles. Activists declared the whole area as sacred when there was no such idea or presentation until 1998 when some of these individuals wanted land for a casino and for themselves. Mantanton Dakota(sub group of the Mdewakanton Dakota, the origin group of all Dakota/Sioux Indians)after they took the land from Iowa Indians pre 1700, merged with the Mdewakantons who were fleeing from the Ojibway Indians up at Mille Lacs lake. MDE was always used for saying and spelling the word lake and Mdewakantons. Per the Makoce book these agenda activists changed the spelling to Bdewakantons and bdote for mdote using a “contemporary language” one of them created at the U of Mn. The wife of one of these coauthors is the Editor in Chief at Mn Historical Society. These activists have no right to alter historic Mdewakanton Dakota original dialect to their own fancy or to that of Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota/Sioux who did not live or sign any treaty with this land area. Note the spelling and sound Mystic Lake Mdewakanton Sioux use. The Minnesota Historical Society presents this false Dakota origin everywhere they can since the Makoce book came out. The coauthor and participants of that book all write and demonstrate to “Tear Down Ft Snelling.” The Coauthor’s wife Editor in chief at MHS profits from the MHS book sold committing Dakota Indian history GENOCIDE. This is just the beginning of MHS presenting false Dakota history narratives throughout MHS. When you know facts but choose not to use them, in order to further your own agenda…you are known as a liar. MHS hides that Dakota Indians were slave owners and traders, that Dakota and Ojibway Indians killed each other below and around the fort year after year. employees at the fort are forbidden to speak anything about Indians that might be negative.
    If it happened it is history.
    View Dakota Indian John Labette’s reviews of Mn Historical Societies false history narratives for insight to see mistakes and agenda on all MHS products. I have 31 years of studying, discovering, and preserving Dakota Indian history and historic sites.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Griesel on 05/01/2017 - 06:48 pm.

    French and British Troops?

    Were there ever enough French or British forces amassed in the middle of the continent to justify building a fort to protect against them? I’ve never heard of this before. What evidence is there that this was a threat?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2017 - 09:37 am.

      Not the French

      The French were largely absent from North America until their invasion of Mexico.

      There was a British presence in the area. The North Western Company left Grand Portage for Fort William only after the Louisiana Purchase. Various trading companies continued to operate at Pembina, and the line between military and commercial operations was poorly drawn in those days.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/01/2017 - 10:22 pm.

    Fort Snelling History

    Despite my wife being friends with the author, I would have to disagree with the overall thrust of the article. Having spent the past seventeen years in, around, and studying Fort Snelling, I can say that the military aspects of the fort are well documented and represented. If anything, I would like to see more native American stories told as they’re part of our heritage too.

    If you would like to see Fort Snelling in more detail and get a nuanced narrative of what the post’s place in history is, feel free to check out our events page at Fort Snelling Foundation on Facebook. We have a full slate of tours planned this year and plan to add more if the interest warrants it. Tours are free (although donations are welcome) and it’s a good way to find out about Minnesota’s contribution on the national and international stages.

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