It’s time for politicians to use this year’s statewide bonding bill to fund a new future at Historic Fort Snelling.
This new future at Historic Fort Snelling is about much more than buildings. It’s about histories and the worlds they can create. As an educator, as a historian, and as a born-and-bred Minnesotan, I know that the histories we tell ourselves about each other matter more than we know. History isn’t just about the past. History is about the future.
State bonding money will empower the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) to take advantage of an incredible opportunity to shape a more thoughtful and inclusive future for our state. Working with a wide range of community partners, MNHS will put beloved narratives already associated with the fort alongside less familiar stories. The result will be a stunning redefinition of our state’s history, one that promises a brighter future for all Minnesotans.
Fort Snelling, after all, is unique. Nowhere else in Minnesota can students and elders alike encounter such a wide-ranging mix of painful and joyous histories that collectively define us. Through field trips and family visits, many already know Fort Snelling as the place where the United States military first laid claim to the strategic junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the late 1810s. But there are so many other histories.
Today, Dakota people work to reclaim the sacred center of their universe —B’dote —where, in 1863, state authorities confined hundreds of them to a prison camp just outside the fort’s walls. Two years before that, white Minnesota volunteers mustered at the fort to serve in — and in some cases, die in — a bloody civil war to preserve the Union. That war also resulted in the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. Dred Scott, one of those enslaved people, ensured that emancipation became the defining issue of the coming conflict when, in 1857, he sued for his freedom (based on his time as an enslaved person at Fort Snelling). Though Scott eventually lost his case, it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A generation later, African-American soldiers, popularly known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” garrisoned the fort (1882-1888).
And those are just the 19th-century histories. During World War I, Fort Snelling again served the nation as a mustering site for Minnesota draftees and training center for officers. It also functioned as a hospital where women nurses tended not only to soldiers and veterans, but also local victims of the 1918 global influenza pandemic. During World War II, Fort Snelling became an induction center for soldiers sent off to defend democracy. Meanwhile, wrongfully displaced and imprisoned Japanese-Americans nonetheless made a crucial contribution to the war effort when they staffed the fort’s Military Intelligence Service Language School. There, they taught thousands of soldiers how to translate and decipher enemy messages. Finally, Norwegian-Americans — many from Minnesota — manned a specialized winter warfare unit (the 99th Infantry Battalion) that briefly trained at the fort.
State bonding money for Fort Snelling, money that follows up on the preliminary bonding funds awarded in 2017, will ensure that all these stories — and a host of others — get told. Fort Snelling is the only place in Minnesota where nearly every Minnesotan can encounter histories about themselves and their communities. We owe it to all of Minnesota’s children to invest in making sure that opportunity is not lost.
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