"A historical society should not be embroiled in a huge amount of controversy," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who proposed the change. "They should be keeping track of our history."

Star Tribune, June 7


If a historical society is not "embroiled in a huge amount of controversy," it is failing in its duty to its citizens.

History is messy. In telling the story of frontier Minnesota, historians of several generations ago looked at the important people who held public office, ran the newspaper, owned the banks and railroads, for example, and told an inspiring story about hardy pioneers. In my early days of researching 19th-century Minnesota, I read the letters of Mary Carpenter, a farm woman who, with her husband and several children, moved from Rochester to Marshall in the 1870s. Her husband might have been one of those hardy pioneers who flourished on the frontier. She wasn't and didn't. She preferred "all the paraphernalia of civilized life" and found mostly despair and loneliness (and perhaps even suicide) on their new farm. Native accounts reveal a long and deep relationship to place and painful stories about losing that land. These various stories do not sit comfortably alongside each other. Nor do they cancel each other out.

The traditional method of eliminating such conflicts was to ignore them, to limit the stories we allowed to surface, to narrow our vision. But that's not how good history works. We must, instead, reckon with facts and evidence that stand in stark conflict with each other.

Henry Sibley loved and betrayed Indian people; military officers served their country and owned slaves; treaties opened up land for white settlement and cheated Native people. George Carpenter loved the frontier; Mary hated it; Little Crow fought for it; white people were killed; Native people starved; enslaved people took their grievances to the Supreme Court (and lost). Native people were removed and Euro-Americans flooded onto land that they thought was theirs to settle. Not one of these stories cancels out the other. Indeed, they live in painful relationship to each other. The bigger and the more inclusive the story, the messier the history becomes.

The Minnesota Historical Society has in the last several decades committed itself to widening its vision, to listening to more stories, to facing the complexity and conflicts head-on. Those conflicts are most sharply on display at Fort Snelling (around which much of the current legislative controversy swirls).

Yes, Fort Snelling was a U.S. bulwark populated by military men doing their duty. Civil War soldiers mustered there. So did Walter Mondale and thousands of others for other wars. The military made use of the fort in World War II to train Japanese-language speakers who contributed to the war effort and to Minnesota's identity. It was a burial ground for early soldiers at the fort and now adjoins a national military cemetery that celebrates military service. It was a site significant in the fur trade that drew Native and Euro-American people into commercial, cultural and familial relationships. It was the site of a camp that held thousands of displaced Native people. It stands on land that was "purchased" by the U.S. government, but at best only partially paid for. The site itself has a deeper history than the fort, as a sacred place to earlier inhabitants. The Historical Society has rejected any easy historical account of Fort Snelling in order to give voice to all of these people and to draw visitors into the complexity of the place, of our state and, indeed, even of ourselves.

The Minnesota Historical Society wrestles with as many complexities as it can at each of the historic sites it operates. An organization that is brave enough to do this work will be at the center of controversy, just where it should be. Just where we need it to be.

Annette Atkins, of Minneapolis, is a professor emerita of history, St. John's University/College of St. Benedict; a former member of the Minnesota Historical Society Executive Council, and a current member of the MNHS Honorary Council. She's at aaatlarge2@gmail.com.