It seems such a minor change, just two words added to a sign: Fort Snelling at Bdote. But those two words are heavy with meaning, a long-overdue recognition that the Fort Snelling military installation sits at a place the Dakota called Bdote, the confluence of two rivers but also a spiritual origin place for the Dakota.
That simple move now may cost the Minnesota Historical Society nearly 20% of its budget, a devastating cut meant to penalize the society for having the temerity to acknowledge that the full history of Minnesota predates the arrival of white immigrants. State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, who leads the Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee, slipped the penalty into the funding bill. Remarkably, the full Senate voted on it.
She and Sen. Scott Newman objected to the word addition, with Newman going so far as to call it “revisionist history.” Kiffmeyer, who at first refused to say why she proposed the cut, later said that “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 among all Minnesotans.”
That’s not only wrong, it’s arrogant. Minnesota stretches back millennia, and all but the last fraction of that is the history of Indian peoples on this land. The state’s name is taken from the Dakota phrase Mni Sota Makoce, referring to a land of sky-tinted water.
Some will argue this is just a bit of legislative gamesmanship, that the odious provision surely will be stripped out when the GOP Senate and DFL House get into a conference committee. But there’s more to this issue. If Minnesota is to unify, it must claim all of its history, with all of its warts. The Historical Society’s solution was neatly elegant. It preserved the name that generations of Minnesotans have known and honored, but also educates those who visit on the relevance of this special site.
Others have embraced the change. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2016 named Fort Snelling a “national treasure,” one of just 70 across the country and the first for Minnesota, only they call it Bdote Fort Snelling. Clearly for them, the significance goes beyond the site’s military history.
Coincidentally, the state also now must deal with fresh controversy over Bde Maka Ska, previously known as Lake Calhoun. An appellate court on Monday ruled that the Department of Natural Resources exceeded its authority in restoring the lake’s original name and said the name Lake Calhoun should be restored. That is an affront to those who worked for years to build support for the name change. Starting with a petition, supporters gained approval at every level of government — park board, county, state and even federal. Last July, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names gave its approval for Bde Maka Ska as the official designation.
Putting such questions to the entire Minnesota Legislature as the naming of a single lake or the precise wordage on a sign would be micromanagement in the extreme, resulting in needless politicization and further dividing Minnesotans. The best example? Efforts to affirm the Bde Maka Ska name on Tuesday failed in the Republican Senate and were quickly adopted in the Democratic House, setting up yet another collision point between the two parties.
The Historical Society is doing its job — expanding history rather than denying it. As for Bde Maka Ska, once four levels of government have sanctioned a change, it would seem the people have spoken. The DNR should appeal the ruling. Former Secretary of War John C. Calhoun was an ardent pro-slaver and helped create what would eventually become the Indian Removal Act. He had no tie to Minnesota.
The man behind the legal challenge, Tom Austin, a developer who lives on the lake and explains his thinking in a related commentary, asked in a previous piece, “What exactly have the Dakota Indians done that is a positive contribution to all Minnesotans?”
We can answer that. They built a culture that survived years before they were forced to surrender their land. All of it. They endured for generations the ignominy of a lake named for a man who saw them as subhuman.
Restoring the lake’s Dakota name is small gesture compared to that.