Mdote Minisota

A Public EIS

Part 4

“A truthful, open, and ongoing environmental review process carried out by the public for the public, is needed to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within the area of Mdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed, bit by bit, historic property by historic property. . . .Mdote Minisota, A Public EIS, Part 1

-May 18, 2006-

A Sense of This Place:

Landscape Art by Seth Eastman and James Boyd-Brent


Bruce White

(white [email protected])

For the next few days, through May 21, 2006, there is still time to see an impressive exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul of paintings by Seth Eastman, a display of works which captures a sense of the landscape in and around Mdote in the early 19th century. Eastman was an army officer stationed at Fort Snelling in the early 1830s and throughout the 1840s. In his later years in Minnesota he was commandant of the fort. Eastman was trained in “topographical drawing,” a technique for capturing landscape used by military artists. For a number of years he taught this skill at West Point. The technique allowed him to capture landscape in such detail that although his paintings are small, around 5 by 8 inches, they can be enlarged to many times their original size to reveal many hidden details. The watercolors Eastman did in the mid-1840s, of vistas along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, of village sites, of people fishing, and of people in ceremonies, are extraordinary. In all these paintings the details of trees, grass, and plants, the texture of bark on Dakota summer houses, and the shades of color in the sky are impressive.

Unfortunately, few reproductions of Eastman's work actually convey its detail and use of color, which is why the current exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society is worth seeing. One book that contains some good reproductions includes much of the work Eastman did around Mdote: Mary Eastman's Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux, published in a nice edition by Afton Historical Society Press. Mary Eastman was a writer and Seth Eastman's white wife, who lived with him at Fort Snelling in 1840s. During his earlier tour at the fort he had a relationship with a Dakota woman, Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred). As recounted on the Minnesota Historical Society website, she was “the fifteen-year-old daughter of Cloud Man, a Dakota chief.After Eastman left Fort Snelling in 1832, she gave birth to a girl called Winona, later named Mary Nancy Eastman. She was the mother of Charles Alexander Eastman, author of Indian Boyhood.

Eastman's water colors are not only beautiful works of art but they are also information, a precise record of particular places in the landscape and the Dakota people who inhabited them and gave them meaning. Pilot Knob is one of those places, a high hill above the mouth of the Minnesota River, known to the Dakota as Oheyawahi, a place much visited. It was a burial place and a place for ceremonies. Eastman pictured it once from below at the mouth of the river and in other paintings on the site showing burial scaffolds and a medicine ceremony. In addition, Eastman recorded it in very precise detail in the distant background of several other paintings, such as one at the burial scaffolds at Black Dog's Village, and a view looking across the site of Fort Snelling from the area of Coldwater Spring.

Eastman's view of Fort Snelling from the area of Coldwater Spring, showing Pilot Knob in the distance at far right. Original in the Minnesota Historical Society.

Given the precision of Eastman's work, it is usually possible to locate the exact places where paintings were done, though it is not always easy. There are a variety of factors that prevent people today from seeing the connections between Eastman's work and the present-day landscape. For one thing, the areas in which much of Eastman's work was done in the Twin Cities are cluttered with highways, bridges, and buildings. Furthermore, there is a preference for trees in public landscapes today, while in earlier times, both intentional and accidental burning helped create the extensive prairies and oak savannas along Minnesota's major rivers. Much of south Minneapolis was open space prior to the growth of the city. Many of the magnificent views that Eastman recorded can be seen today only through a screen of tree trunks. Finally, there is simply a matter perception, an inability to see or even look at the landscape of Mdote in the same way. The very idea that there is a place called Mdote Minisota—containing many linked sacred places important to Dakota people—is foreign to present-day non-Dakota perceptions. Eastman may not have known the geographical term himself, but he certainly understood the tie that the Dakota had with many places around Fort Snelling.

What Eastman could not have understood was what would eventually happen within the landscapes he recorded. He could not have known, for example that below Fort Snelling, at the mouth of the Minnesota River, the very center of Mdote, a stockade would be built during the winter of 1862-63 to contain dozens of tepees and 1600 Dakota people, some who would die and others who would go into exile. Eastman could not have known of that awful scene shown in Benjamin Upton's photograph from that winter. Eastman was a soldier, a colonizer, but his world was a world of possibility, one where many other outcomes might have been possible. Eastman's paintings should be valued as a record, a gesture of respect for the Dakota, but no one should ever forget what happened later to negate the world he pictured. Even if one can track down the places he recorded and see the beauty in them today, it is a now very different world.


Benjamin Upton's view of the internment/ prison camp below Fort Snelling at the mouth of the Minnesota River, original in the Minnesota Historical Society.

In November 2005, the newly re-elected mayor of Minneapolis presented the newly elected mayor of St. Paul with a pair of etchings showing one artist’s impressions of the two cities. The works were by James Boyd-Brent, a present-day artist who has studied the landscape of Mdote and other areas along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in as much detail as Seth Eastman. A British-born, now naturalized American, James Boyd-Brent is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel. Among other areas of interest, Boyd-Brent is fascinated by the work of his predecessor Seth Eastman. He travels throughout the Twin Cities to track down, sketch, and photograph the views that Eastman recorded. In his studio, he creates complex etchings based on these views, drawing on his feeling and memory of the landscape. Etching consists of incising marks and lines onto sheets of copper, known as “plates.” These plates are inked up—the ink is wiped into the incised marks on the copper—and the plate is run through an etching press, to create a “proof.” Boyd-Brent repeatedly proofs and reworks his plates, often packing the plates into the back of his Saab hatchback, returning to Eastman's landscapes to add more detail. The plates develop layers of visual information, reflecting the layers of meaning in the landscapes themselves. His etchings are living works of art, always growing and changing as Boyd-Brent himself grows and changes. (Visitors to Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association's annual Art-A-Whirl gallery and studio tour this weekend, May 19-21, 2006, will have the opportunity to visit Boyd-Brent's studio.)

Boyd-Brent's own work records some of the same landscapes Eastman painted, but he is not interested in recording them in the same way, as bright, sunny scenes. The key is that he seeks to understand the layers that history has left upon these classic landscapes. Boyd-Brent records not only places but the spirits that inhabit them. Every detail in his etchings seems alive. Figures emerge from the obscurity in the trees. The slightest branch and leaf seems alive. While Boyd-Brent did not set out to record a Dakota view of things, his view does parallel the Dakota belief—a belief shared by many other peoples—of an animate world, where every tree and rock is living and resonating with meaning. (Similar ideas about the spiritual meanings in landscapes are exemplified in a spiritual map of the Twin Cities, produced by James Boyd-Brent and other participants in the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, 2003.)

Boyd Brent's works present its own set of possibilities, for one, the possibility that the viewer will become awake to the beauty in places, apart from their history. As he himself puts it: “Even if a place contains everything that happened in it, the place does not have to be limited by its particular history, because possibility for the future always remains side by side with the echoes of the past.” Just as for Eastman, but for different reasons, Boyd-Brent sees the places he records as imbued with meaning. Boyd-Brent wants those who view his etchings to become awake to the beauty in landscapes, and “to contemplate our humanity in this moment.”

It is worthwhile to compare Boyd-Brent's etching looking from the area of Pilot Knob toward Fort Snelling with a watercolor done by Seth Eastman. Eastman's painting was once in the collection of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles but was later sold at auction and is likely now in private hands. A black-and-white reproduction done in the 1960s shows Fort Snelling and the intervening valley from the perspective of the slope of the Pilot Knob, with a convenient goat standing in the foreground for perspective. Behind the fort it is possible to see a few buildings in the area of Coldwater Spring and beyond, the Mississippi Valley receding in the distance toward Minnehaha Falls and St. Anthony Falls. This view connects these places as they were connected in the minds of those who lived in the region in the 1840s. As well as being a sacred place for Dakota people, the hill was a place where many early visitors climbed to get a perspective on the region's geography and the way it was being transformed by the growing cities of St. Paul, St. Anthony, and Minneapolis. For this reason the hill has become a place of significance for white Minnesotans as well as for Indian people.

Seth Eastman's view from Pilot Knob looking towards Fort Snelling, probably from the 1840s, in a black-white-version of a watercolor, current location unknown.

Today, as in the past, those who come to visit Pilot Knob today are often amazed by the extent of the view possible even from the lower slopes of the hill, but they are not always aware of the significance of what they are seeing, beyond the remarkable view of the Minneapolis skyline. In Boyd-Brent's etching he reconnects the geography and the history, showing the freeway and Mendota Bridge cutting through the center of the picture, with Historic Fort Snelling on the right and the present-day Minneapolis skyline in the distance. A plane takes off at far left. He also includes a variety of figures—one might call them spirits—representing the tormented history of the place. This is not the beauty of a bright open vista of the kind Eastman recorded but a haunted place. In Eastman's watercolor, the space in the center of the picture below Fort Snelling—a wide flat space at the Minnesota River's mouth which was a camping place and meeting place for Dakota and the landing spot for the ferry across the Minnesota River—is open except for a few tepees along the edge of the stream. In Boyd-Brent's etching the space is shrouded by the bridge and the trees.

James Boyd-Brent's etching looking from Pilot Knob across the mouth of the Minnesota River toward Fort Snelling and Minneapolis.

Neither work reveals the terrible secret of that particular place. It was here that in the winter of 1862-63 the enclosure was built to hold the Dakota on their way to exile. Eastman, of course, was unaware of the eventual use of this spot. All of this was yet to happen. James Boyd-Brent's etching does not show it either, but in his work the truth of this detail is contained in the darkness, in the trees underneath the Mendota Bridge, in the very center of Mdote.