Some people say it’s time for a new name for Historic Fort Snelling that better reflects the experiences of the Dakota and other diverse people who have called the river bluffs home. But others say they’re concerned about the broader trend of renaming public places.
About a dozen people shared their feedback Monday night at the third of six input meetings that the Minnesota Historical Society is hosting across Minnesota as it explores whether to rename the larger 23-acre site — not the fort itself — as the fort undergoes a $34.5 million renovation. The organization is also seeking to better reflect its broader history.
“History should be a mirror and we can all see our reflection,” said Deb Peterson, 48, of Maple Grove, adding that her husband is a veteran and she doesn’t think renaming the site would diminish military history. “There are so many multicultural views and histories that can be reflected.”
On the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Fort Snelling is the state’s first National Historic Landmark. The Dakota have long called the land Bdote, referring to the confluence of the rivers. So when the Historical Society, a nonprofit that manages the site, added Bdote to signs at the fort, some legislators were upset, calling it “revisionist” and threatening to cut state funding to the nonprofit.
The Historical Society has removed the temporary Bdote signs for the renovation and renaming process, and because it created “public confusion” about whether a name change had already occurred. Officials reiterated Monday that the name of the 4-acre restored 1820s fort won’t change in state and federal records. The fort was briefly named Fort St. Anthony and changed in 1825 to recognize Josiah Snelling, the commanding officer who oversaw its construction.
“We want a name … that reflects all the stories we tell and that goes beyond an 1820s fort,” said Kevin Maijala, the deputy director for learning initiatives. “This is the time to have that conversation.”
‘We’re wasting energy’
Monday’s meeting was the first one in the Twin Cities. Previous meetings in Rochester and Duluth attracted fewer than 25 people each, but an online survey has drawn nearly 5,000 responses so far.
Bill Bakeman, 76, of Roseville said Monday he doesn’t think any public places should be renamed, citing the controversy to rename Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun its Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska — part of a growing trend nationwide of reexamining landmark names to be more inclusive of diverse communities or cut ties to controversial historical figures.
“In most cases, it makes no sense at all; we end up spending public money on new signs … I think we’re wasting energy and resources,” Bakeman said. He added later that he’s fine with the site incorporating new stories but he doesn’t want the site’s name changed.
Historical Society leaders said Monday that a name change isn’t certain and its board could decide not to recommend any change. Feedback will be accepted until Nov. 15 at mnhs.org/naming. The Historical Society is also running an ad in the Minnesota Legionnaire publication seeking input from veterans and meeting with a variety of groups — from military members to Dakota, Maijala said.
A task force will consider the input. If the board recommends a name change, it would go to the Legislature for a vote in 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, opening in 2022. The state is funding nearly $20 million of the $34.5 million project; the rest is private funding.
Adding new stories
Over the last decade, the Historical Society has been 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 has also added a new manager to expand the fort’s work with veterans and military members.
And on Dec. 7, the Historical Society’s Minnesota History Center is adding a permanent exhibit on the Dakota, Ojibwe and other American Indians who have lived in Minnesota for thousands of years.
The name “Fort Snelling” is also used for a nearby state park and national cemetery, both of which aren’t managed by the Historical Society or affected by any potential name change.