What does Fort Snelling say when no one is speaking? The answer to this question is the reason for tearing down the fort. When this idea was first suggested several years ago, it caused the tearing of hair and rending of garments, even among those who never cared for the fort in the first place. When I first heard it myself, I did not embrace the idea. Now after careful thought, I suggest a gradual process of deconstruction, starting with the northwest or southwest walls, so that in the future a person arriving at the fort from the nearby visitor center will see a breach in this monolithic diamond. That would be a good start.
The truth is that many who have dealt with the history of the fort over the years may secretly embrace the idea of tearing down the fort for their own reasons. And if they did so, I believe they would be speaking out for more truthful history as well as for the moral truth that would be affirmed. What many people don’t seem to realize is that much of the fort is a reconstruction done in the 1960s and inspired by the Minnesota Centennial celebration in 1958. By the 1950s only a few portions of the original fort were left. Postcards from the early 20th century show the Round Tower, sitting in the midst of a grassy field, in an almost bucolic setting, with a streetcar line passing nearby. A few of the officer’s quarters had been turned into apartments. The hexagonal tower was still standing above the path down to the river.
In the late 1950s however highway construction and a new Fort Snelling bridge threatened what remained of Fort Snelling. This was in the midst of Minnesota’s Statehood Centennial. Citizens were motivated to help save the fort by building a tunnel underneath it instead of routing the highway through it. At the same time work began to excavate the fort site, to do extensive research into the history of the fort and to reconstruct it as it had existed shortly after it was built.
I know the research part of it from first hand. My mother, Helen White, did quite a bit of the first research on the fort at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s, when my father was working for the Department of Interior. One of my first research experiences was being taken, at the age of 12 or 13 and put to work looking through a register of correspondence from all the military surgeons around the country, searching for documents from Fort Snelling. I don’t remember what I found, but I have a strong memory of the rich odor of that leather-bound volume.
Though she participated in the historical research that led to the reconstruction of the fort my mother was never one to view history as contained only in the physical remains of the past. She knew that places were what people made of them and that their essence was in communities past and present. My mother recalled an argument with an archaeologist about the comparative importance of the information supplied by the documents and the archaeological record. He said: “If I can’t see it in the ground it didn’t happen.” She did not agree, because she knew that history was about people’s memories and the meanings they invest in places.
One of the major decisions made about the reconstruction of the fort, was to rebuild it to the period of the 1820s and to remove evidence of other eras that had become part of the place. For example, inside the ivy-covered walls of the Round Tower was an extensive WPA mural depicting the settlement of Minnesota, painted by Richard Haines, a prominent Iowa-born artist. While art such as this in post offices and public buildings has been preserved across the country, it was felt that its removal would contribute to reconstructing the fort as it had been shortly after it was built. The mural was destroyed. Photographs show it depicting Native and military history in fairly stereotypical ways but with all the energy of other public murals of that era.
I often wonder what it would have been like to see the mural, just as I wonder what it would be like today if the Fort Snelling of the 1900 were still there, with the Round Tower sitting in the midst of a green field. Sometimes ruins are preferable to elaborate reconstructions because when you visit them much is left to the imagination. The problem with Fort Snelling today is that there is too little room for imagination and memory. And there is very little room for the telling the history of Indian people and their place in Minnesota history.
In erecting this convincing historical reconstruction the Minnesota Historical Society, people who were my mother’s friends and colleagues, and some of whom later became my friends and colleagues, with all the best of intentions, succeeded in recreating a setting in which only one kind of history could be told, a military story. Though Indian people came to Fort Snelling, they seldom went in to the fort. Much of their interaction with whites took place at the Indian agency, which was located along the bluff to the west, mostly where the current massive highway intersection and the approach to the Mendota Bridge is located. Unfortunately the Centennial celebration of the 1950s did nothing to preserve the historical evidence of that aspect of Fort Snelling’s history.
Recently I read through all of the journals of Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian agent who managed the agency at Fort Snelling in the 1820s and 1830s. Taliaferro was on good terms with Dakota and Ojibwe leaders. Though he was certainly patronizing and manipulative, he treated them with respect as representatives of sovereign nations. His journal records extensive speeches by Indian leaders in which they dealt with the issues between themselves and the United States and with each other.
Taliaferro mentioned few occasions where Indians were allowed in Fort Snelling. On several occasions Indian people entered as prisoners, which of course was also the case with the chiefs Medicine Bottle and Shakopee who were held prisoner there until their hanging right outside the walls of the fort in 1864. In Taliaferro’s time there was a continuing discussion between agent and the officers of the fort about whether Dakota or Ojibwe people should be allowed to enter the fort. Sometimes when they did they were given liquor by the soldiers. In other cases soldiers assaulted them. Both matters concerned Taliaferro a great deal and he was in favor of their never going in the fort at all, for their own protection.
From a historian’s point of view, the real problem with Fort Snelling is that it makes it very difficult to remember, to record, to tell a different kind of history, other than a military one. Certainly in the 1820s and 1830s, there was a lot else going on at Fort Snelling. There were the Indian people who outnumbered the whites. There were traders, missionaries, and settlers. But these people seldom ventured inside the fort. Their history in the area did not occur inside Fort Snelling. It occurred at the Indian agency, at Coldwater Spring, at Pike Island, at Pilot Knob, and in the nearby prairies and river valleys.
Efforts have been made over the years. Talented and thoughtful staff of the Minnesota Historical Society have sought to enlighten and make richer the history told at Fort Snelling. But the place itself always undermined their efforts. The proof of the impossibility of telling a different story at Fort Snelling comes from the checkered history of attempts by the Historical Society to make any permanent change in the interpretation at the fort. In the 1990s a decision was made to try to interpret a broader social history beyond the military history of the place, specifically the stories of what happened there in 1838, among a rich population of Native people, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, lumbermen, slaves such as Harriet and Dred Scott, interacting in the aftermath of the two 1837 treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe.
In the 1997, the Historical Society’s Historic Sites Department hired two historians, my mother Helen White and I, to do a study to guide the change. We authored a report called “Fort Snelling in 1838: A Historical and Ethnographic Study.” The report had many flaws that I would try to correct if I were doing it today, but people at the Historical Society seemed happy with the result. Within a few years, however, those people had left and one remaining official told me: “There’s no support around here for switching to 1838.” A few years later I heard that the latest plan was to interpret all aspects of the history of the fort: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Military history was obviously making a comeback as it always does at Fort Snelling. The last I heard, Fort Snelling was to be “the next big thing,” something I did not fully understand, and in any case, that was before the recession.
Inevitably the story of Historic Fort Snelling, that diamond-shaped monolith, is a military story. The fundamental fact about the fort–as reconstructed and as interpreted–is that it is a fortress and that for many years since its reopening, when you walked into the fort you went through a gate, and often there was an interpreter there, dressed as a soldier, guarding that gate. The reconstructed fort created a logic of its own. One could try to give a different message inside the fort, but what did the fort itself say when no one was speaking? What did the mere presence of the fort say? The message was a military message and it told the story of the colonial conquest of the 19th century.
This is precisely the point that Waziyatawin makes in her new book What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland (Living Justice Press, St. Paul, Minnesota). She writes:
Fort Snelling still stands as this moniker of imperialism. In spite of its purpose and history, because it has marked the landscape for so long, many of us have come to accept it as a permanent feature. . . . In fact it has only been through the systematic and faithful efforts of White Minnesotans that the fort continues to be resuscitated. Human activities, fires, gravity, and Minnesota weather have jeopardized the fort on more than one occasion and Minnesotans have had to reinvest consciously in their icon of imperialism in order to save it.
Waziyatawin is also critical of one of the efforts made to transcend the colonial aspects of the history of the fort and reclaim it and the space it represents for Indian people. Several years ago Brenda Child, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a board member of the Minnesota Historical Society started an effort to “reclaim Fort Snelling,” for Native people by having a Dakota/Ojibwe language and culture institute at the fort, not in the diamond, but in an adjacent empty cavalry barracks. She was aided in this effort by a number of Dakota and other Native people, including some of her Dakota students, who interviewed Dakota and Ojibwe elders around the state in formulating the plans. The resulting proposal was criticized by Waziyatawin and others at a contentious public meeting at the University of Minnesota. Eventually the Historical Society, in a typical response, appears to have lost interest in the plan because of the controversy, not in judgment of the plan’s merits.
Among other criticisms, Waziyatawin stated that the plan “glosses over the genocidal role the fort played in 1862-63 and reaffirms the benign narrative also espoused by literature produced at Historic Fort Snelling.” Despite my basic agreement with Waziyatawin about the importance of recognizing the history of Dakota genocide at Fort Snelling, I disagree with some of her criticisms of the language-school plan. It seems to me that a language school might have been good for the Fort Snelling area, though perhaps not in an old cavalry barracks. In fact the idea of a language school and cultural center was proposed many years earlier by the Mendota Dakota Community, which has sought to play a conciliatory role in shaping what will happen to the area. Over the years Jim Anderson of the Mendota Dakota has spoken frequently of the need for the area around Fort Snelling, particularly Coldwater Spring, to be used as a place for people to come together. Anderson speaks of Fort Snelling as a place of Dakota genesis and of genocide, yet he calls for positive steps to repair the pain of Dakota history.
However, regardless of how one feels about the controversy involving the language school or any other of the controversies about Fort Snelling, the very fact of controversy demonstrates Waziyatawin’s point about the problematic nature of the fort and the need to address those areas which make it problematic. To begin with Dakota genocide and the full history of the fort and the surrounding community must be acknowledged and told.
The problem is that it is so hard to tell that story within the existing Historic Fort Snelling. Despite the best efforts of many the colonial story keeps reappearing. It is no accident that in May 2008, misguided Sesquicentennial commemorators maneuvered their covered wagons to Historic Fort Snelling (see the YouTube videos documenting this event). Something about Fort Snelling attracts colonial re-enactments. It is my understanding that this was not something the Historical Society encouraged, but did not feel it could actively discourage. When Waziyatawin, Jim Anderson and others, lay down in front of the wagon train, along the approach to the old fort, they provided much needed Dakota commentary.
In surprising ways the wagon-train arrival was a very successful interpretive event for a state institution that has sought Native involvement in its interpretation for many years in many ways. At a meeting with some other historians I asked what it was that possessed people to think of wagon trains when they thought of Minnesota statehood, since people seldom came to Minnesota in wagons; they came in steamboats. In response I was told: “You sound like you are saying that all historians should have been lying in front of the wagons.” In retrospect I think this is right; historians should have been there doing the same thing.
Telling the American Indian story has been a challenge everywhere in the Fort Snelling area. One of the best efforts has been done in Fort Snelling State Park, the location of the camp where Dakota people were concentrated during the winter of 1862-63. The story of that period is discussed with great sensitivity in an exhibit in the visitor center there and memorialized in a monument outside. Wisely the Department of Natural Resources has not tried to reconstruct the concentration camp and its surrounding stockade. Every year in the nearby woods the Mendota Dakota hold a ceremony in mid-winter to mark the suffering of the people in the camp. It is hard to imagine a ceremony like that within the walls of Historic Fort Snelling.
On the other hand, in other places within the checkerboard of government ownership in the Fort Snelling area, even in places where one might think a Native story could be told, the overriding military history of the fort takes hold. At Coldwater Spring, little has been done to interpret Native history. The area below the spring, along the stream that leads to the Mississippi is managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. Occasional tours have been given by Historical Society staff and the place is mentioned by tour guides at the old fort, but little has been done to maintain or interpret the area.
As for the Bureau of Mines property, the location of the place where Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground there, it has been a real struggle to achieve recognition of the American Indian connections to this place. Several years ago, when the Park Service addressed the idea that Coldwater Spring might be a place of traditional cultural importance to Dakota people, Park Service officials rejected the advice of a number of experts who had examined the evidence affirmed its importance to the Dakota. In writing to several Dakota communities MNRRA stated that it acknowledged that the spring had “significant contemporary cultural importance to many Indian people,” and in any case the spring was “already a contributing element to the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark and the Fort Snelling National Register of Historic Places District.”
These remarkably condescending words suggested that although the federal government rejected the Dakota communities’ claim to the spring as a historical and cultural feature and in the process rejected the history and cultural traditions on which it is based, the Park Service would try to protect the spring because it is part of a site important for, among other things, its role in colonizing Minnesota and sending the Dakota into exile in 1863. The area’s place in Dakota history was not significant; its white history was. The irony of this juxtaposition was truly lost on the Park Service.
In many ways the message of the failure to get Coldwater Spring acknowledged as a traditional cultural property for the Dakota is that throughout the Fort Snelling area, the military history generally wins out. It is as though the walls of Historic Fort Snelling exist not only in physical form but in the minds of people. If nothing else at all happens these are the walls that need to be torn down. As Waziyatawin stated in her new book: “It is time we take down all the forts, literally and metaphorically.”