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The real truth about history: It evolves as new insights and perspectives become clear

“It’s time for truth telling at Fort Snelling” was the intriguing headline on an opinion piece appearing in Monday’s MinnPost.

Melanie A. Adams

At the Minnesota Historical Society, we couldn’t agree more. It is time to tell the truth —the many truths — at Historic Fort Snelling. And that is exactly what we intend to do in time for the fort’s bicentennial in 2020.

History — like life — never offers us a singular, universal understanding, but rather a collection of truths shared from diverse perspectives. Together, these perspectives create a more complete understanding of the past, and how it impacts our lives today. History is how we understand the past, and that understanding evolves continually as new insights and perspectives become clear.

Recognizing the past’s complexity

Where we might once have understood and represented the past as straightforward — as lists of important dates, key battles, great men, and authoritative narratives — we now recognize the complexity of the past, its people and events.

For example, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, published works in the 1920s arguing for the social benefits of slavery and its benign nature as an institution. His view held sway for more than 50 years. Teachers taught it, and students studied it. Phillips’ work earned him awards and a teaching position at Yale University. Only when later scholars explored different primary sources (and asked new questions of the plantation diaries and records Phillips used) did conflicting stories come to light. If MNHS had told the story of slavery in 1940, it likely would have relied on this broadly embraced scholarship that presumed the superiority of white men. And it likely would have been seen as “objective.” 

At MNHS, we are challenged to preserve our historic resources while re-examining traditional sources, exploring new sources, and inviting new voices into the conversation. Our work to preserve and interpret the paintings associated with the Minnesota State Capitol, and the history of Historic Fort Snelling does just that. The Capitol artwork project included months of study, discussion, and thoughtful input from the people of Minnesota and legislative leaders. As our interpretive plan for the paintings unfolds, we have invited a wide range of reviewers to vet drafts of the material, including the author of Monday’s opinion piece. All voices are welcome.

Guided by many sources

Our current revitalization project at Historic Fort Snelling — which includes expanding the site’s interpretation — calls for us to engage with community partners in new and more meaningful ways. The historic fort is located at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, and the story of the area goes far beyond the four walls of the fort. To that end, a Dakota Community Council has been formed, and collaborative initiatives are under way with independent historians, veterans, Ojibwe people, African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others so that we can work as partners to tell the full, complicated story of Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark. We’re guided by many sources, including the Minnesota Historical Society Press’ new book “Fort Snelling at Bdote,” which provides a synthesis of research and perspectives, a new lens through which to more fully understand this important place.

These collaborations are part of a new interpretive approach that expands the diverse stories of the people who crossed paths here on Dakota homeland for more than 10,000 years — beginning with Native Americans and continuing through the last 200-plus years, when the site’s history also included the stories of soldiers, enslaved people, immigrants, and fur traders.

Let me be clear. We are not replacing or eliminating factual history at Fort Snelling. MNHS does not seek to censor, replace, or eliminate history. We seek to uncover, interpret, and share more broadly the unique stories of American history that happened here in Minnesota.

Without question, the story of Fort Snelling cannot be told completely without sharing the history and perspectives of Native Americans. And, without question, we must share the history of the fort itself as the best-known military outpost in our state, a place with memories for generations of Minnesotans who have served our country.

Certainly, we will present the Civil War-era history of the fort, in part by discussing that Minnesota was a leader and a critical mustering ground for troops. But the story would be incomplete without discussing the site as a foothold of U.S. expansion into Dakota homeland and its role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. 

The story is also incomplete without sharing the histories of enslaved people who lived at the fort, among them Dred and Harriet Scott. Their experience, enslaved in a free territory that would become Minnesota, and their fight for freedom, which rose all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, would ultimately help pave the way to the Civil War.

A range of perspectives

Engaging the public in history today requires offering up primary sources, including oral histories, that reflect a range of perspectives. It means enabling the visitor or reader to examine the information, consider the interpretations, and reach his or her own conclusions. Done successfully, a public history experience leaves you asking more questions, wanting to learn more, and, perhaps most importantly, connecting history not only with worldwide movements, but also with your own life experiences.

As historians, we do not own or determine the truth and, fortunately, we’re less likely to pronounce final answers or “the” authoritative narrative. We are committed to rigorous history, continuously improving our work, and listening to and serving all Minnesotans. The proof will be in the pudding. We invite all Minnesotans to visit all 26 MNHS historic sites and museums, and draw your own conclusions about what history means to you.

Melanie A. Adams, Ph.D., is senior director of guest experiences and educational services at the Minnesota Historical Society.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/03/2017 - 09:33 pm.

    History Lesson

    This is the post I wish I had read on Monday.

    History is often messy, confusing, and fraught with conflicting stories. We should seek out and retell all those stories as they all say a little something about us and how we got to this place and time.

  2. Submitted by Dave Fudally on 05/05/2017 - 10:40 am.

    Fact Checking article.

    Fact checkers clearly did not look over this article before it was posted. Let’s do a few of them for the good of the public.
    1. The use of bdote for the mouth of the Mn. River is incorrect. 1689 was the first Dakota village on the Mn River. Only the Mantanton and Mdewakanton Dakota lived in this area since. All Dakota treaties in this area were made with the Mdewakanton and in Mdewakanton Dakota dialect. The Mdewakanton Dakota are documented by all Dakota/Sioux as the origin group, the genesis, of the Dakota Indians. The correct word therefore is mdote. Also noted in Rigg’s and Williamson Dakota dictionaries. Bdote word is a recent word used by Sisseton-Wahpeton activists as noted in Mni Sota Makoce. These changes are noted as being from “contemporary Language created at the U of MN under guidance of C.Schommer. Ask yourself why these activists are changing words of Mdewakanton dialect?

    2. This was not the Dakota homeland. Real Dakota/Sioux oral tradition, documented historical event references, and archaeological evidence and studies tell and show the Dakota took the Mdote area and rest of Mn. from Iowa Indians by force around 1700.
    Ref: “Archaeology of Minnesota” and “The Sioux” By Guy Gibbon.

    3.Article says they are not eliminating factual history. I just showed they are.

    4. The article speaks of presenting slavery issues at Ft. Snelling. “The story is also incomplete without sharing the histories of enslaved people”…. As I recently attended one of the new Ft Snelling interpretation meetings, I brought up the fact Dakota Indians were slave owners and slave traders, quite well documented. MHS does not plan to discuss natives and their captive slaves and slave trading practices.

    5. MHS new bdote book is mainly accusing Ft. Snelling as being a place of genocide, (which it was not), so if we use new MHS genocide guideline on accusation of genocide at the fort, the same guidelines when applied to Dakota Indians and most surrounding tribes applies to them. Dakota Indians and the other nearby tribes committed genocide throughout its history. MHS will not present this. Why not?

    6. Article states, As historians, we do not own or determine the truth and, fortunately, we’re less likely to pronounce final answers or “the” authoritative narrative.” Why was this stated? A real historian searches deeply to tell history as it happened. A real historian can and more often or not can determine the truth. A historian must be truthful and it is the duty and reality this job owns this duty to tell history as it happened. That’s why I am posting this. Clearly, MHS has lost its way.

    7. The article states “We’re guided by many sources, including the Minnesota Historical Society Press’ new book “Fort Snelling at Bdote,” We real historians, some of them advisers to MHS, oppose the use of this agenda activist Bdote book, deliberately created to demonize Ft. Snelling and smear the integrity of all who have served at the Ft. Snelling post through the years. Dakota Indian Historian, John LaBatte has reviewed the bdote book and finds it quite disturbing. Mr. Labatte has his heritage representing all 1862 Dakota War and Friendly Dakota, whites in the military and as traders. He wishes history to be correct, fair, and balanced. Read his review on his website to see how misguided MHS is in its presentation and narrative of Ft. Snelling.

  3. Submitted by Mary Bakeman on 05/05/2017 - 01:00 pm.

    Evolution and history

    Ms. Adams talks a good talk and still demonstrates how far down the slippery slope MnHS has fallen. Just one example, she stated that I was asked to “vet” the materials being prepared for Capitol Art. That statement is false: I was asked to be interviewed to provide content for the new displays, but was refused even the names of the others on the interview list. But it sounds good to say I was asked to “vet” the materials, doesn’t it?

    History is based on facts. Different people who experience the same event may describe that experience differently and yet agree on the underlying facts. No one group’s factual experience is more “truthful” than another’s. Fort Snelling, over its almost 200 years, has many more groups to be recognized than the military and the Dakota.

    In comparison, “perceptions and insights” are interpretations of facts seen through different lenses. They can, and will, change over time but the underlying facts do not.

    When “perceptions and insights” like many of those published in “Fort Snelling at Bdote” are not first evaluated against the factual framework, problems can arise. Without identifying that publication as a Dakota “perception” while subtitling it “A Brief History,” MnHS has indeed stepped away as a trusted source. The Western Dakota term Bdote replaces Mdewakaton history and belittles the other Native American tribes that the Dakota forced out of the area as it implies the area is the Dakota homeland. When the author himself admits the book is mostly based on secondary sources and not on primary research, it is hardly a “trusted source” for Fort Snelling history.

    The Wisconsin State Historical Society publication “Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction” by Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone provides a framework that explains the essential elements of history as a discipline. While intended as a curriculum guide, it follows the published standards of respected historical organizations: the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, and the National History Standards for public schools. I highly recommend it to MnHS staff.

    I started researching Minnesota history over forty years ago, and this book echoes how I was taught to be a historian by past MnHS librarians and their now-missing research staff. They said: Look to all the records in the context of their times, and then check out the commentators. Don’t be misled by current opinion. By merging all that input, a reasoned interpretation can emerge. I hope that current MnHS staff will take that well-worn advice also.

    That said, I am overjoyed to see many other voices as well as the military history of the fort will be included in the MnHS plan. Indeed, the proof will be in the pudding!

  4. Submitted by Paul Nelson on 05/05/2017 - 07:08 pm.

    place names

    The book’s insistence on using Dakota (or its version of Dakota) place names — for Minnesota, for the rivers, for St. Anthony Falls, and other landmarks — suggests that MHS has a project afoot to add them to the common local lexicon.

    That might be an OK project, but the book does not tell us that that is what is going on (if it is.) The book is not a “primer,” as it claims to be, so much as an argument for a particular view of our common past, and how we should talk about it. There is nothing wrong with that — but it should be explicit.

    People interested in Fort Snelling should check out another new book, Steve Osman’s Fort Snelling and the Civil War, published in April by the Ramsey County Historical Society.

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