The Historic Fort Snelling site, a Minnesota landmark for centuries, could get a new name.
The Minnesota Historical Society, which manages the historic site that includes the fort and other historical and newer buildings, announced Wednesday it's exploring whether to rename the larger site — but not the fort itself — as the fort undergoes a $34.5 million renovation.
"Obviously there's conversations around the country about place names," said Kent Whitworth, CEO of the Historical Society. "… We think it's a really important and timely conversation."
The discussion comes at a time that the Historical Society, which is a nonprofit, is adding programs and exhibits to broaden the telling of the state's story through the lens of more diverse communities — from slaves who lived at the fort to Japanese-American soldiers who trained there to the American Indians who lived there centuries before white settlers.
The Historical Society drew controversy earlier this year for adding the Dakota name for the land, Bdote, to temporary signs at the fort. That upset some legislators who called it "revisionist" and threatened to cut funding to the Historical Society.
"Fort Snelling is about military history and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that. It's the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans," state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, told the Star Tribune in April after proposing the funding cuts.
She couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday about the possible site name change.
The Historical Society said Wednesday the temporary Bdote signs were taken down for the renovation and renaming process, and because it created "public confusion" about whether a name change had already occurred.
Any name change will need approval from the Legislature. And the name of the restored 1820s fort won't change in state and federal records.
Instead, the Historical Society is seeking public feedback on whether the 23-acre site around the 4-acre fort should be renamed to reflect its broader history. The public can submit feedback at mnhs.org/naming until Nov. 15 or at statewide meetings, which will be announced in September.
"Everybody's history matters," Whitworth said. "There are so many compelling stories over several thousand years."
The Historical Society's move follows a growing trend nationwide of reexamining landmark names to be more inclusive of diverse communities or to cut ties to controversial historical figures.
In Minneapolis, Lake Calhoun, named for U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who backed slavery and promoted American Indian removal, was renamed by the Department of Natural Resources to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska, though it's still being contested in court.
Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota considered but rejected renaming buildings honoring former administrators who backed policies that segregated student housing or targeted Jews at the U.
Whitworth said a name change, if one is recommended, could still include the name "Fort Snelling." He added that military members and veterans will be among the groups they consult on a possible change.
"The military and veterans will always be a significant part of that," he said, adding that the nonprofit just wants to make sure the site's name "appropriately captures the depth and breath" of all the communities that have called it home. "We want to be really intentional that these stories are continually told there, but they can be told with other stories."
The Historical Society has also boosted work with veterans, adding a new manager earlier this year who is expanding the fort's work with veterans and military members.
Fort Snelling, on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, is the state's first National Historic Landmark. The Dakota have long called the land Bdote, referring to the confluence of the rivers.
The fort was briefly named Fort St. Anthony and changed in 1825 to recognize Josiah Snelling, the commanding officer who oversaw its construction. "Historic Fort Snelling" first appeared in state law in 1993 and Fort Snelling is also used in names for the nearby state park and national cemetery, which aren't affected by this new discussion.
After gathering public feedback, a nine-member task force will consider it and decide next steps in early 2020.
That is also when the fort's renovation is slated to break ground. The project includes tearing down the visitor center and building a new one inside 1904 cavalry barracks that will open in 2022. The state is funding nearly $20 million of the $34.5 million project; the rest is private funding.