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Signs of the times: indigenous women and indigenous place names

What better way to honor the work of indigenous leaders like Peggy Flanagan and Kate Beane than to use our voices to support theirs?

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
I had the extreme good fortune recently of tuning in to MPR News at separate moments when two influential indigenous women leaders were being interviewed: Kate Beane, discussing Bde Maka Ska, and Lt. Gov.  Peggy Flanagan, discussing murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. And in the background of these conversations are Republican lawmakers seeking to cut appropriations to the Minnesota Historical Society for … doing its job. Of course, these issues are all related: If we understand our history more fully, we will push for policies that work to undo the damage caused by that history.

Colette Hyman
Colette Hyman
Before becoming lieutenant governor, Flanagan was a state representative, and in her last session in that position, she was one of four women in the Minnesota House of Representatives who identified as Native. One of these women, Mary Kunesh-Podein, introduced last year, and again, this year, a bill to establish a task force that would gather data on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. In her interview on MPR, Flanagan noted that there is a similar bill in Congress, the Not Invisible Act of 2019, H.R. 2438, recently proposed by the first two indigenous women elected to that body, Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, and Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Not surprising: In Congress, as in the Minnesota Legislature, as elsewhere, when previously excluded populations gain representation, they bring along not only their perspectives, but also their issues and concerns, and they add them to legislative agendas.

Yet Native women do not need elected office to make their mark on public policy or public spaces. Over several years, Kate Beane, historian and filmmaker — with her twin sister, Carly Bad Heart Bull, who has a law degree and works in philanthropy — led a campaign of Dakota people, other indigenous people, and their allies, to return to Bde Maka Ska the name it bore prior to the arrival of European Americans. Throughout this time, and in her MPR interview, Beane spoke with great passion and knowledge about how important it is to recognize the full history of our state, not only for its indigenous populations, but for all of us who need to be reminded that history does not start with the arrival of the white people who have written the history of Minnesota and the United States.

But the signs with the name Bde Maka Ska, like the signs bearing the name “Ft. Snelling at Bdote,” have really rattled some folks! After Beane diligently and successfully guided the effort to return Lake Calhoun to its original name, through numerous public comments sessions and numerous decision-making bodies, all the way up to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a venture capitalist and some of his neighbors in the lakeside Linden Hills neighborhood filed a lawsuit to prevent the name change. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled just the other day that only lawmakers can make such a change.

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A few days earlier, lawmakers, led by Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, decided to punish the Minnesota Historical Society for working to present a more inclusive, more complete history. In essence, they are also claiming that it is only themselves, elected legislators, who have the power to change names.

And it is all about power: the power of indigenous people to speak for themselves and put their histories and agendas before the public. In using this power, however, they are challenging the power of historical elites, white men and a few white women, to make decisions, about how to name geographic locations, whom to recognize, and whom to count. And right now, some white people want to re-assert that power, by re-claiming naming and counting rights, using, among others, the power of the purse, which they work so hard to control. How better to re-assert their power than by cutting funding for the Minnesota Historical Society, the organization that had the temerity to embrace a more complete history of the state by acknowledging that one of its most visible sites, Fort Snelling, was originally constructed at a site, Bdote, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, that remains sacred to the Dakota?

We don’t have to let that happen. As Minnesotans, the rest of us have voices as well, and what better way to honor the work of indigenous leaders like Peggy Flanagan and Kate Beane than to use our voices to support theirs?

Colette A. Hyman teaches history at Winona State University.


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