Fort Snelling, the last big thing

What will happen to Historic Fort Snelling, the anachronistic product of Minnesota’s Statehood Centennial celebration of 1958? It is hard to read the tea leaves at the Minnesota Historical Society these days, especially from a distance, but the proposed cuts at the Historical Society give some suggestions. It may be that in the very near future, beginning July 1, 2009, Fort Snelling will shut down so that careful work can begin to remove 16% of the walls of the fort. It would be a good start. But maybe this is all wishful thinking.

Painter Jim Denomie's view or critique of Fort Snelling, reproduced with the permission of the painter.

Ojibwe artist Jim Denomie's playful view or critique of Fort Snelling as a White Castle hamburger stand, with an Edward Curtis paparazzi in the foreground, a Minnesota state seal come to life in the background at left, and many other trenchant historical references; reproduced with the permission of the artist.

One of the many unhappy announcements in the last few weeks of budget-cutting news was that Heather Koop, southern district manager of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Historic Sites Department, was among those slated to be laid off, assuming the Historical Society has to cut 16% of its budget. This announcement has implications for what happens at Historic Fort Snelling since Koop was among the few people in a position to accomplish anything, who was actually confronting the issues about Fort Snelling and trying to make a difference. For the past few years Koop and others at the Historical Society had launched a discussion among many people about changing the nature of the interpretation at the historic fort.

In January Koop summarized the Fort Snelling discussion process in a paper she presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Toronto, entitled “Historic Grief, Engagement, and Meaning Making: Public Participation Process at Historic Fort Snelling.” In summary, the paper stated:

Interpretation at Historic Fort Snelling has focused on early nineteenth century military history, but a revitalization project hopes to broaden the history to include the complex relationships between the military and the Dakota people. Over the last year, a public participation process with Dakota people has been taking place across the American Midwest and Canada. The site is fraught with controversy. Today, Fort Snelling is the subject of on-going protests by some in the Dakota community that seek to “tear the fort down.” Other Dakota hope to develop a memorial or living commemoration to Dakota culture and history. It is a controversy characterized by historic divisions in the Dakota community: friendlies vs combatants, federally recognized groups vs those communities not recognized, treaty ratification and failure. Layer on a dominant narrative that has not paid much attention to these issues and there is quite a lot to suggest the power of place and meaning.

In the paper Koop gave an effective critique of the way Fort Snelling had been interpreted in the past and why it was necessary to overhaul it.

When the historic fort was reconstructed in the 1970s a living history program was developed and implemented. Costumed guides interpreted 1827 military life on the frontier, complete with period-appropriate armaments, uniforms, barracks, and domestic implements with washerwomen, soldiers, and blacksmiths performing daily rituals. First person interpretation was popular in the bicentennial ear with visitors eagerly immersing themselves in living history museums and historic sites around the U.S. and Canada.

While visitors were taking a step back in time during their tours, the interpretive method and historic content did little to challenge visitor’s conceptions of the struggles of the time period let alone their relevancy to contemporary times. Visitors perhaps walked away feeling the early medical science was a lot of guess work and procedures primitive or that more soldiers were bored than exhilarated by battle or that there was little in the way of equality for women. They most definitely did not leave the site with any better understanding of the issues of treaty making, the history of westward expansion, or the role of slavery in supporting the mostly southern officer corp. The limitations of first person interpretation did not allow interpreters to engage visitors with the bigger issues of the day. How could a washerwoman be expected to discuss with visitors the impact of the 1805 treaty that ceded hundreds of thousands of acres of land to the United States and changed the industrial economy of the Dakota Indians? How to explain that the residency of one slave and his wife at Fort Snelling would be the basis for one of the most important Supreme Court cases in United States history? How could we move from these singular perspectives to a dialogue about the broader impacts of history? The Society felt that there was great potential in moving beyond the tried and true interpretation at this site. . . . In order to devise a new interpretive plan, we looked to the public participation processes that are utilized by planners and adapted them for our purposes.

In the rest of the paper Koop described the process itself, how she and other Historical Society staff began and carried on a discussion about the future of Fort Snelling with various groups which had varying interests in Fort Snelling. The process was based on a familiar trope of management theory–a “stakeholder analysis,” the identification of “any individual or organization that can place a claim on the organization’s attention, resources, or output, or is affected by that output.” Once stakeholders were identified, discussions were initiated with stakeholders as a whole and with groups of stakeholders.

While the idea of stakeholder analysis appears to be designed to be a benign way to identify and cater to people who care about historic sites, a stakeholder analysis process hangs or falls on the way in which it categorizes groups of people and determines how to deal with them:

The first step was to find the right stakeholders. A staff-working group was convened to brainstorm a list of stakeholders. . . . We then asked ourselves, whom are we missing? Who else might be interested in a revitalized interpretive plan? Are there groups or individuals who we have purposely neglected? We wanted to know what the power and interest relationships were in relationship to one another. One useful stakeholder analysis techniques is the Power vs. Interest grid, which help to determine the potential coalitions that should be encouraged or discouraged and to provide information on how to convince stakeholders to change their views.

The language here indicates the degree to which stakeholder analysis, like interest-group politics–is both calculating and judgemental. It also demonstrates how it caters to powerful groups and entities. And the way in which groups were identified in this case says a lot about the nature of the Minnesota Historical Society as an institution. The groups categorized as “Subjects” having a “high interest” and “low power” were:  Staff and volunteers, Other local sites, Ojibwe community, Dakota community, History buffs, Re-enactors, and Archaeologists. In contrast, those categorized as “Players” having “high interest” and “high power” were considered to be: National Park Service – MNRRA,  State Historic Preservation Office, National Trust, Fort Snelling State Park Association, DNR Parks, Senior Citizens, Daughters of the American Revolution,  School users,  and Sibley Friends [Friends of the Henry H. Sibley Historic Site].  Those “Context setters” with “low interest” and “high power” were: City of Mendota, Hennepin County, Mn. Dept. of Transportation, Donors, State Gov’t, Other MHS sites & departments, and Other area attractions.

Koop writes that it is these last two “powerful” groups, not the Dakota or others in the first category, that were of primary importance in the process. These were the groups to be satisfied.

Plotting the stakeholders on the Power vs. Interest grid graphically illustrates the quadrant that was most critical to success of the project. Those groups with both high interest and high power – players — and low interest and high power –context setters had to be satisfied first. The subjects and crowd had to be paid attention, as well, but our focus would be on satisfying those in the context setters and player categories.

It is truly shocking to read this analysis and learn that the Historical Society placed Dakota people in the same category as historical re-enactors, history buffs, and archeologists, with less perceived power than the Daughters of the American Revolution. But for anyone who knows the way the leadership of the Historical Society has run the institution for the last 30 years and longer, these statements ring true. Throughout this time period the Historical Society has often sought to identify the powerful–defined in traditional “mainstream,” Master Narrative terms–and to cater to them.

In fact, however, Koop’s paper makes clear that during the process of discussion Dakota people were actually given greater respect than indicated by the outlines of the stakeholder analysis; they were in fact perhaps the most important group of stakeholders of all. Perhaps this was a result of an evolution in the thinking of Historical Society staff members during the process. In particular they may have realized that the initial stakeholder analysis was faulty and that Dakota people, including several powerful Dakota communities in Minnesota were more more powerful in terms of achieving results than anticipated. Perhaps there was a realization of the importance of the Dakota Treaty of 1805 and the longterm claim and very tangible stake it gives Dakota people in the Fort Snelling Reservation. Or perhaps the Historical Society was influenced by a justice argument, realizing that because of what happened to Dakota people at Fort Snelling, Dakota people were different from Ojibwe people and historical re-enactors in terms of their claim on Historic Fort Snelling.

Koop mentions many of the details of what happened historically to Dakota people at Fort Snelling. She and those working with her made a real effort to understand the positions of Dakota people about Fort Snelling and their concerns about how it is to be interpreted in the future. Although Waziyatawin, for one, would not engage in the process, Koop appears to have made an effort to try to understand Waziyatawin’s point of view expressed about Fort Snelling expressed in such works as What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland.

In addition, “deliberative workshops” took place with Dakota people in southern Minnesota. Koop and others heard that not all Dakota people pushed for the tearing down of Fort Snelling, but, “believing that the Society and other dominant cultural institutions had been disingenuous with Dakota history, they urged us to tell the truth about the treaties and dishonesty that led to war.” They learned that many Dakota people wanted this to be the beginning of a relationship that would lead to continuing discussion about the issues. At the time the paper was written Koop anticipated that the discussions would continue this year. Now however, if Koop were to leave it is not clear that these discussions can continue.

From the Minnesota Historical Society website, an image of Director Nina Archabal in front of Fort Snelling

From the Minnesota Historical Society website, a composite image of Director Nina Archabal in front of Historic Fort Snelling.

A few years ago, Fort Snelling was said, among people who knew things about Fort Snelling, to be “the next big thing.” By this it was meant that the fort would become the focus of attention and money. Over the last 25 years this has meant primarily one thing: construction. Among the previous big things were the History Center and the Mill City Museum. In building buildings, the Historical Society appeared to believe it was building a brighter future for history in Minnesota. Several years ago the Historical Society hatched plans to build a new interpretive center at Fort Snelling, which, it was hoped would, among other things, solve the nagging interpretive problems at the fort. But in this case, attempts to raise money at the legislature for a new Historic Fort Snelling interpretive center have met with many  obstacles over the last few years, including finally, the effects of the current recession. Heather Koop’s work in mediating a solution for Fort Snelling was to be part of the same process involving the new interpretive center and it continued even after the interpretive center plan was put on hold. Now it appears that even her work will stop.

Perhaps the problem with the Historical Society’s building plans for Fort Snelling is that the problems with the fort are not ones that more building can cure. There is no way that Fort Snelling can ever fit into the kind of happy, upbeat, nostalgic, popular message some in the leadership of the Historical Society seem to favor. But even some of the scenes of the Holocaust in Germany have museums, so perhaps something could be done to make Fort Snelling into that kind of Museum for the Dakota experience. It may be hard to imagine this ever happening under current leadership of this Historical Society, but something of this kind should be on the table for discussion about the future of Fort Snelling.

In the meantime, perhaps the best thing to do, for all sorts of reasons, including the budget crunch, would be to shut down Fort Snelling for a few years, to give it a rest. It is an attractive idea, especially with the upcoming 150th anniversary of the events of 1862. Perhaps Fort Snelling should be closed so that all the stakeholders can think about its future. Then in a few years, perhaps the solution about what to do with this stony anachronism will be clearer.

How Tail Feather Woman brought her vision of peace and harmony to Minnesota

According to a traditional account, recorded from Anishinaabe informants at Mille Lacs and other reservations, Tail Feather Woman (Tailfeather Woman) or Wiyaka Sinte Win, the visionary Dakota woman who originated the big drum, went to Mille Lacs Lake around 1880 to teach Ojibwe people about the construction of the drum and the vision and the songs that went with it. According to this account and written records, this was just the beginning of the spread of Tail Feather Woman’s vision across the Midwest. As described here in March, it is this vision that Dakota people plan to commemorate this year at Pickerel Lake in South Dakota.

One of the most misleading myths about Minnesota is the idea that Dakota and Ojibwe people were implacable enemies for generations. The history of shared beliefs, shared territory, and intermarriage among the two groups belies the importance given to that myth. Among the Ojibwe, particularly those who lived at Mille Lacs and along the St. Croix River, the Ma’iingan or Wolf clan owes its existence to marriages between Dakota men and Ojibwe women hundreds of years ago. The story of how Dakota people brought the drum to the Mille Lacs people is yet another example of the shared history of Ojibwe and Dakota people in Minnesota.

In the early 1950s, Fred K. Blessing, a collector of Ojibwe handiwork and technology, recorded the accounts of what happened when Tail Feather Woman brought the drum to Mille Lacs Lake. According to summaries of the information supplied to Blessing by several informants, Tail Feather Woman was Sisseton. She was part of a band of Sisseton Dakota who were being attacked by the U.S. Cavalry. She was cut off from her people. To escape she jumped into some water and hid among some bullrushes. The soldiers camped nearby and she was forced to hide out for four days. During her experience, without food, she had a vision in which the Creator spoke to her and instructed her to build a big drum. The Creator told her that small drums were too faint to hear, so a big drum was called for. It would be a peace drum. Tail Feather Woman was instructed on how to build the drum and how to conduct the drum ceremony.

A  Dakota woman sitting in a tepee in the 1870s; Charles Zimmerman photo; Minnesota Historical Society photograph.

A Dakota woman sitting in a tepee in the 1870s. Charles Zimmerman photo, Minnesota Historical Society.

When the soldiers left, Tail Feather Woman found the remnants of her people and told them of her vision. They made camp and began to build the drum. She taught them the sacred songs. According to Blessing’s notes:

When all was ready, the first Sioux Drum ceremony was held, including the preparation of a feast. A group of Cavalrymen happened along and heard the singing. They thought a war party was being organized and so approached the group carefullly. They saw only a peaceful gathering. Some of the warriors motioned for the soldiers to join them as the feast was about to be served. The soldiers came in and ate. When the ceremony resumed, the soldiers joined in the dances. When the soldiers were ready to leave, they all shook hands in friendship. As near as can be determined, this was in the spring of 1879.

The exact date of these events is not known. Thomas Vennum in his book The Ojibwa Dance Drum (available in book form and online as a pdf)  suggests that Tail Feather Woman was part of a group attacked by the forces of General Custer prior to his death in 1876. Blessing’s notes state that it was in 1880 that Tail Feather Woman and a group of Dakota came to Mille Lacs Lake bringing the drum and the teachings to be shared with the Ojibwe there. However, newspaper accounts from Minnesota and Wisconsin suggest that this may have occurred earlier, in the spring of 1878.

The precise date, however, is not important. What is important is the story of Tail Feather Woman and her vision and how it was shared by Dakota people with Ojibwe in Minnesota and elsewhere. According to Blessing’s notes, some Sisseton “warriors” arrived in Minnesota with Tail Feather Woman leading the way “in the manner of a missionary.” The Ojibwe called her Wah nah skit (as spelled by Fred Blessing), meaning “tail feathers.” The leading warrior was said to have been called by an Ojibwe name that meant “Crooked Leg Sioux,” because he had been crippled by a wound in the knee.

News was received by the Mille Lacs Ojibwe that the Dakota were bringing a “bwan day way ee gun”  (bwaanidewe’igan) or “Sioux drum.” The leader of the Mille Lacs group who met them was Mazomanie (also spelled Mo-zo-ma-na, and a number of other ways), whose village was located on the south shore of the lake, north of Onamia, near a point which still bears his name. Like many Ojibwe at Mille Lacs he was a member of the Ma’iingan or Wolf clan and therefore was part Dakota. Some sources suggest that his name was actually a Dakota word (perhaps similar to the name of the Wahpeton chief Mazamani or Iron Walker).

The Sisseton first offered the drum to Mazomanie, but he suggested that it be given to someone younger. As a result two younger men received drums. According to Blessing, the Sisseton camped at Mazomanie’s village for most of the summer, “teaching the songs and ceremonies that went with the Sioux drum. The two tribes also joined in the social drum ceremonies,” which are the basis of present-day powwows. The Sisseton also presented a woman’s drum to the daughter of Wadena, another Mille Lacs leader. Blessing stated that when the Sisseton left Mille Lacs they traveled on into Wisconsin, as far as Lac du Flambeau. Some of the Mille Lacs people traveled with them “to act as interpreters.”

There are many other written accounts of the spread of the drum and Tail Feather Woman’s teachings. Newspaper articles from the spring and summer of 1878 stated that “Sioux runners” were traveling across Wisconsin and Minnesota bring the new dance, to places such as Chengwatana (near Pine City), Minnesota, and Ashland, Wisconsin. In white communities there were suspicions that an “uprising” was about to occur. Many settlers left their homes and sought protection from the state and federal governments. When the meaning of the dance was explained after a few weeks, whites realized they had nothing to fear. Benjamin Armstrong, a white man who was married to the daughter of Chief Buffalo of Lapointe recalled, in his reminiscences, meeting Tail Feather Woman at Ashland in the spring of 1878. He described her as “a young Sioux girl.” He said that she was part of a band almost completely destroyed by Custer’s forces in May 1876. Armstrong himself had the strange suspicion that the dance was being pushed by ex-Confederatess who wanted to foment a new rebellion. Even he, however, gave a fairly complete account of Tail Feather Woman’s vision and story.

Although the traditions at Mille Lacs said that Tail Feather Woman was Sisseton, Thomas Vennum refers to other accounts that identify her simply as Santee, a term used by many, including the western Dakota and Lakota to refer to the Eastern Dakota, which could have included the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, and Wahpeton. Some of the Menominee accounts of Tail Feather Woman, in particular, use the term Santee. Given what happened to the Dakota throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the story of an attack by the U.S. Cavalry is entirely believable.

It is a tribute to Tail Feather Woman that despite the suspicion engendered by the gatherings when she brought her vision, and the differing ways she has been identified, her vision has been recounted again and again with remarkable consistency, in newspapers, books, and in the oral tradition. The various accounts tell of her taking refuge in the water, the details of the vision, and the construction of the drum. They also make clear that the purpose of her teachings was to bring peace and harmony to warring peoples.

Historic cuts at the History Center–Plans announced for 16% budget reduction, pending legislative action

Ninety four people will be laid off. The library will be open only four days a week. Historic Forestville in Preston, North West Company Fur Post in Pine City, and Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site in Little Falls will be closed to the public. The Minnesota Historical Society Press will reduce by a third the number of book titles it publishes each year. These are just a few of the layoffs and reduced services to the people of Minnesota that will result, beginning July 1, 2009, from the proposed 16% budget cuts that may be asked of the Minnesota Historical Society by the State Legislature and Governor Pawlenty.  What follows is based on a press release by the Historical Society describing the proposed cuts.  There will be further discussion of these cuts on this website in the days ahead.

The North West Company Fur Post, pictured here in 1978, is one of the historic sites that would have to be closed under proposed 16% Minnesota Historical Society cuts announced on April 16, 2009.

The North West Company Fur Post, pictured here in 1978, is one of the historic sites that would have to be closed under proposed 16% Minnesota Historical Society cuts announced on April 16, 2009.

The plan for cuts, announced by the Minnesota Historical Society on April 16, is based on expected cuts in the Society’s funding from the state of Minnesota, as well as the effects of the current economic downturn. The reduction was developed in anticipation of serious budget shortfalls during the Society’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1. A final decision on the Society’s state funding levels is expected in late May when Governor Pawlenty and the Minnesota Legislature announce an overall state budget for the upcoming biennium, which also begins July 1.

In January, the Governor’s budget plan contained a 15-percent reduction to the Society’s operating budget. The Minnesota House recommended a reduction of nearly 10 percent earlier this month, and the Minnesota Senate recommended a seven-percent reduction this week. In addition, the Society is projecting a 20-percent shortfall in its non-state revenues over the next two years, due to declines in admissions, sales, charitable gifts and investments. “We know that Minnesotans value the work of the Historical Society,” says Nina Archabal, director. “Our main objective in meeting the challenges of today’s economic downturn is to continue to preserve the state’s history and educate the state’s schoolchildren and adults.”

Since October, 2008, the Society has been engaged in a comprehensive strategic planning process. This process provided guidance in developing the proposed budget reductions. The planned budget reductions would result in less public access to the Society’s services, programs and facilities. It also would affect the Society’s work to preserve the state’s history. Layoffs would occur for 94 full- and part-time employees, and an additional 223 employees would have their hours reduced. In total, 317 individuals would be affected, or 46 percent of the Society’s staff, including individuals that work directly with the public, as well as people that support public programs and preservation statewide.

Under the 16-percent reduction plan, the Society anticipates cuts in all of its major service areas.  Reductions would occur at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Access to the library would be reduced to four days per week, limiting use of the Society’s vast collections. The Society’s Reference and Collections departments would merge. The Minnesota Historical Society Press would reduce the number of books it publishes annually by about 30 percent. Reductions also would occur in functions ranging from collections, reference, conservation, marketing, curatorial services and exhibitions, to institutional support areas such as finance and human resources.

Another view of the interior of the North West Company Fur Post in Pine City, which would be closed under a proposed 16% budget cut.

Another view of the interior of the North West Company Fur Post in Pine City, which would be closed under a proposed 16% budget cut.

Under the plan, access to historic sites would be reduced statewide. Three historic sites would close on July 1, but would continue to be maintained and preserved by the Society. They include: Historic Forestville in Preston, North West Company Fur Post in Pine City, and Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site in Little Falls. Public access to Historic Fort Snelling would be reduced from seven to five days per week except for prearranged group tours and school field trips. Four sites would be open to the general public on weekends only with service during the week limited to prearranged group tours and school field trips. These sites are: Oliver H. Kelley Farm in Elk River, Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia, Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, and Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey. Access to the Sibley House in Mendota would be limited to special events and prearranged group tours. Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul would be open only during the November/December holiday season. Mill City Museum in Minneapolis will be closed on Thursday evenings. Timeframe Following the announcement of the state budgetary decisions in May, the Society will finalize its reduction plan and make a formal announcement. Until an announcement is made, all historic sites, museums and programs will remain in full operation and open to the public. Current hours and services are listed at www.mnhs.org.

Also pending is a decision on how proceeds from the Legacy Amendment will support history education and programming. The constitutional amendment, which was passed by voters in November 2008, calls for funds to preserve Minnesota’s history as a way to supplement, rather than substitute for, current funding and programs. The Minnesota History Coalition, representing historical organizations statewide, including the Society, has recommended that 50 percent of the funding for the Arts and Cultural Heritage portion of the amendment be dedicated to statewide history education and preservation.

The Minnesota Historical Society is a non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849 to preserve and share Minnesota history. The Society collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota’s past through museum exhibits, libraries and collections, historic sites, educational programs and book publishing. More information can be found at www.mnhs.org

Tearing down Fort Snelling-Why it makes sense

What does Fort Snelling say when no one is speaking? The answer to this question is the reason for tearing down the fort. When this idea was first suggested several years ago, it caused the tearing of hair and rending of garments, even among those who never cared for the fort in the first place. When I first heard it myself, I did not embrace the idea. Now after careful thought, I suggest a gradual process of deconstruction, starting with the northwest or southwest walls, so that in the future a person arriving at the fort from the nearby visitor center will see a breach in this monolithic diamond. That would be a good start.

The truth is that many who have dealt with the history of the fort over the years may secretly embrace the idea of tearing down the fort for their own reasons. And if they did so, I believe they would be speaking out for more truthful history as well as for the moral truth that would be affirmed. What many people don’t seem to realize is that much of the fort is a reconstruction done in the 1960s and inspired by the Minnesota Centennial celebration in 1958. By the 1950s only a few portions of the original fort were left. Postcards from the early 20th century show the Round Tower, sitting in the midst of a grassy field, in an almost bucolic setting, with a streetcar line passing nearby. A few of the officer’s quarters had been turned into apartments. The hexagonal tower was still standing above the path down to the river.

Fort Snelling's Hexagonal Tower, as it looked in the early 1900s when much of Fort Snelling had disappeared around it.

Fort Snelling's Hexagonal Tower, as it looked in the early 1900s when much of Fort Snelling had disappeared around it.

In the late 1950s however highway construction and a new Fort Snelling bridge threatened what remained of Fort Snelling. This was in the midst of Minnesota’s Statehood Centennial. Citizens were motivated to help save the fort by building a tunnel underneath it instead of routing the highway through it. At the same time work began to excavate the fort site, to do extensive research into the history of the fort and to reconstruct it as it had existed shortly after it was built.

I know the research part of it from first hand. My mother, Helen White, did quite a bit of the first research on the fort at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s, when my father was working for the Department of Interior. One of my first research experiences was being taken, at the age of 12 or 13 and put to work looking through a register of correspondence from all the military surgeons around the country, searching for documents from Fort Snelling. I don’t remember what I found, but I have a strong memory of the rich odor of that leather-bound volume.

Though she participated in the historical research that led to the reconstruction of the fort my mother was never one to view history as contained only in the physical remains of the past. She knew that places were what people made of them and that their essence was in communities past and present. My mother recalled an argument with an archaeologist about the comparative importance of the information supplied by the documents and the archaeological record. He said: “If I can’t see it in the ground it didn’t happen.” She did not agree, because she knew that history was about people’s memories and the meanings they invest in places.

One of the major decisions made about the reconstruction of the fort, was to rebuild it to the period of the 1820s and to remove evidence of other eras that had become part of the place. For example, inside the ivy-covered walls of the Round Tower was an extensive WPA mural depicting the settlement of Minnesota, painted by Richard Haines, a prominent Iowa-born artist. While art such as this in post offices and public buildings has been preserved across the country, it was felt that its removal would contribute to reconstructing the fort as it had been shortly after it was built. The mural was destroyed. Photographs show it depicting Native and military history in fairly stereotypical ways but with all the energy of other public murals of that era.

I often wonder what it would have been like to see the mural, just as I wonder what it would be like today if the Fort Snelling of the 1900 were still there, with the Round Tower sitting in the midst of a green field. Sometimes ruins are preferable to elaborate reconstructions because when you visit them much is left to the imagination. The problem with Fort Snelling today is that there is too little room for imagination and memory. And there is very little room for the telling the history of Indian people and their place in Minnesota history.

In erecting this convincing historical reconstruction the Minnesota Historical Society, people who were my mother’s friends and colleagues, and some of whom later became my friends and colleagues, with all the best of intentions, succeeded in recreating a setting in which only one kind of history could be told, a military story. Though Indian people came to Fort Snelling, they seldom went in to the fort. Much of their interaction with whites took place at the Indian agency, which was located along the bluff to the west, mostly where the current massive highway intersection and the approach to the Mendota Bridge is located. Unfortunately the Centennial celebration of the 1950s did nothing to preserve the historical evidence of that aspect of Fort Snelling’s history.

pf078557-haines-mural

A portion of the Richard Haines mural which once circled the inside of the Round Tower at Fort Snelling, showing a Dakota family traveling across a prairie. Minnesota Historical Society photo.

Recently I read through all of the journals of Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian agent who managed the  agency at Fort Snelling in the 1820s and 1830s. Taliaferro was on good terms with Dakota and Ojibwe leaders. Though he was certainly patronizing and manipulative, he treated them with respect as representatives of sovereign nations. His journal records extensive speeches by Indian leaders in which they dealt with the issues between themselves and the United States and with each other.

Taliaferro mentioned few occasions where Indians were allowed in Fort Snelling. On several occasions Indian people entered as prisoners, which of course was also the case with the chiefs Medicine Bottle and Shakopee who were held prisoner there until their hanging right outside the walls of the fort in 1864. In Taliaferro’s time there was a continuing discussion between agent  and the officers of the fort about whether Dakota or Ojibwe people should be allowed to enter the fort. Sometimes when they did they were given liquor by the soldiers. In other cases soldiers assaulted them. Both matters concerned Taliaferro a great deal and he was in favor of their never going in the fort at all, for their own protection.

From a historian’s point of view, the real problem with Fort Snelling is that it makes it very difficult to remember, to record, to tell a different kind of history, other than a military one. Certainly in the 1820s and 1830s, there was a lot else going on at Fort Snelling. There were the Indian people who outnumbered the whites. There were traders, missionaries, and settlers. But these people seldom ventured inside the fort. Their history in the area did not occur inside Fort Snelling. It occurred at the Indian agency, at Coldwater Spring, at Pike Island, at Pilot Knob, and in the nearby prairies and river valleys.

Efforts have been made over the years. Talented and thoughtful staff of the Minnesota Historical Society have sought to enlighten and make richer the history told at Fort Snelling. But the place itself always undermined their efforts. The proof of the impossibility of telling a different story at Fort Snelling comes from the checkered history of attempts by the Historical Society to make any permanent change in the interpretation at the fort. In the 1990s a decision was made to try to interpret a broader social history beyond the military history of the place, specifically the stories of what happened there in 1838, among a rich population of Native people, soldiers, settlers, missionaries, lumbermen, slaves such as Harriet and Dred Scott, interacting in the aftermath of the two 1837 treaties with the Dakota and Ojibwe.

In the 1997, the Historical Society’s Historic Sites Department hired two historians, my mother Helen White and I, to do a study to guide the change. We authored a report called “Fort Snelling in 1838: A Historical and Ethnographic Study.” The report had many flaws that I would try to correct if I were doing it today, but people at the Historical Society seemed happy with the result. Within a few years, however, those people had left and one remaining official told me: “There’s no support around here for switching to 1838.” A few years later I heard that the latest plan was to interpret all aspects of the history of the fort: the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Military history was obviously making a comeback as it always does at Fort Snelling. The last I heard, Fort Snelling was to be “the next big thing,” something I did not fully understand, and in any case, that was before the recession.

Inevitably the story of Historic Fort Snelling, that diamond-shaped monolith, is a military story. The fundamental fact about the fort–as reconstructed and as interpreted–is that it is a fortress and that for many years since its reopening, when you walked into the fort you went through a gate, and often there was an interpreter there, dressed as a soldier, guarding that gate. The reconstructed fort created a logic of its own. One could try to give a different message inside the fort, but what did the fort itself say when no one was speaking? What did the mere presence of the fort say? The message was a military message and it told the story of the colonial conquest of the 19th century.

This is precisely the point that Waziyatawin makes in her new book What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland (Living Justice Press, St. Paul, Minnesota). She writes:

Fort Snelling still stands as this moniker of imperialism. In spite of its purpose and history, because it has marked the landscape for so long, many of us have come to accept it as a permanent feature. . . . In fact it has only been through the systematic and faithful efforts of White Minnesotans that the fort continues to be resuscitated. Human activities, fires, gravity, and Minnesota weather have jeopardized the fort on more than one occasion and Minnesotans have had to reinvest consciously in their icon of imperialism in order to save it.

Waziyatawin is also critical of one of the efforts made to transcend the colonial aspects of the history of the fort and reclaim it and the space it represents for Indian people. Several years ago Brenda Child, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a board member of the Minnesota Historical Society started an effort to “reclaim Fort Snelling,” for Native people by having a Dakota/Ojibwe language and culture institute at the fort, not in the diamond, but in an adjacent empty cavalry barracks. She was aided in this effort by a number of Dakota and other Native people, including some of her Dakota students, who interviewed Dakota and Ojibwe elders around the state in formulating the plans. The resulting proposal was criticized by Waziyatawin and others at a contentious public meeting at the University of Minnesota. Eventually the Historical Society, in a typical response, appears to have lost interest in the plan because of the controversy, not in judgment of the plan’s merits.

Among other criticisms, Waziyatawin stated that the plan “glosses over the genocidal role the fort played in 1862-63 and reaffirms the benign narrative also espoused by literature produced at Historic Fort Snelling.” Despite my basic agreement with Waziyatawin about the importance of recognizing the history of Dakota genocide at Fort Snelling, I disagree with some of her criticisms of the language-school plan. It seems to me that a language school might have been good for the Fort Snelling area, though perhaps not in an old cavalry barracks. In fact the idea of a language school and cultural center was proposed many years earlier by the Mendota Dakota Community, which has sought to play a conciliatory role in shaping what will happen to the area. Over the years Jim Anderson of the Mendota Dakota has spoken frequently of the need for the area around Fort Snelling, particularly Coldwater Spring, to be used as a place for people to come together. Anderson speaks of Fort Snelling as a place of Dakota genesis and of genocide, yet he calls for positive steps to repair the pain of Dakota history.

However, regardless of how one feels about the controversy involving the language school or any other of the controversies about Fort Snelling, the very fact of controversy demonstrates Waziyatawin’s point about the problematic nature of the fort and the need to address those areas which make it problematic. To begin with Dakota genocide and the full history of the fort and the surrounding community must be acknowledged and told.

The problem is that it is so hard to tell that story within the existing Historic Fort Snelling. Despite the best efforts of many the colonial story keeps reappearing. It is no accident that in May 2008, misguided Sesquicentennial commemorators maneuvered their covered wagons to Historic Fort Snelling (see the YouTube videos documenting this event). Something about Fort Snelling attracts colonial re-enactments. It is my understanding that this was not something the Historical Society encouraged, but did not feel it could actively discourage. When Waziyatawin, Jim Anderson and others, lay down in front of the wagon train, along the approach to the old fort, they provided much needed Dakota commentary.

In surprising ways the wagon-train arrival was a very successful interpretive event for a state institution that has sought Native involvement in its interpretation for many years in many ways. At a meeting with some other historians I asked what it was that possessed people to think of wagon trains when they thought of Minnesota statehood, since people seldom came to Minnesota in wagons; they came in steamboats. In response I was told: “You sound like you are saying that all historians should have been lying in front of the wagons.” In retrospect I think this is right; historians should have been there doing the same thing.

Telling the American Indian story has been a challenge everywhere in the Fort Snelling area. One of the best efforts has been done in Fort Snelling State Park, the location of the camp where Dakota people were concentrated during the winter of 1862-63. The story of that period is discussed with great sensitivity in an exhibit in the visitor center there and memorialized in a monument outside. Wisely the Department of Natural Resources has not tried to reconstruct the concentration camp and its surrounding stockade. Every year in the nearby woods the Mendota Dakota hold a ceremony in mid-winter to mark the suffering of the people in the camp. It is hard to imagine a ceremony like that within the walls of Historic Fort Snelling.

On the other hand, in other places within the checkerboard of government ownership in the Fort Snelling area, even in places where one might think a Native story could be told, the overriding military history of the fort takes hold. At Coldwater Spring, little has been done to interpret Native history. The area below the spring, along the stream that leads to the Mississippi is managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. Occasional tours have been given by Historical Society staff and the place is mentioned by tour guides at the old fort, but little has been done to maintain or interpret the area.

Markers for the 38 Dakota hanged in 1862, at Fort Snelling State Park, near the location of the concentration camp.

Markers for the 38 Dakota hanged in 1862, at Fort Snelling State Park, near the location of the concentration camp. Photo taken by Bruce White in January 2009 and the time of the annual Mendota Dakota ceremony honoring those who survived the camp and those who died while there.

As for the Bureau of Mines property, the location of the place where Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground there, it has been a real struggle to achieve recognition of the American Indian connections to this place. Several years ago, when the Park Service addressed the idea that Coldwater Spring might be a place of traditional cultural importance to Dakota people, Park Service officials rejected the advice of a number of experts who had examined the evidence affirmed its importance to the Dakota. In writing to several Dakota communities MNRRA stated that it acknowledged that the spring had “significant contemporary cultural importance to many Indian people,” and in any case the spring was “already a contributing element to the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark and the Fort Snelling National Register of Historic Places District.”

These remarkably condescending words suggested that although the federal government rejected the Dakota communities’ claim to the spring as a historical and cultural feature and in the process rejected the history and cultural traditions on which it is based, the Park Service would try to protect the spring because it is part of a site important for, among other things, its role in colonizing Minnesota and sending the Dakota into exile in 1863. The area’s place in Dakota history was not significant; its white history was. The irony of this juxtaposition was truly lost on the Park Service.

In many ways the message of the failure to get Coldwater Spring acknowledged as a traditional cultural property for the Dakota is that throughout the Fort Snelling area, the military history generally wins out. It is as though the walls of Historic Fort Snelling exist not only in physical form but in the minds of people. If nothing else at all happens these are the walls that need to be torn down. As Waziyatawin stated in her new book: “It is time we take down all the forts, literally and metaphorically.”

No more meetings about the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines site

The National Park Service/Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) has announced that there will be no further public meetings planned concerning the disposition of the Coldwater Spring property. A further meeting had been announced for mid-April, but that meeting will not take place. The decision appears to be the result of what happened at the Open House on February 23, 2009, at which some of those attending insisted on speaking publicly on the various issues involved in front of all those gathered, rather than speaking individually to the officials present. The decision was announced in an email to several of those interested in what happens to the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property.

Email from Steven P. Johnson of MNRRA, April 7, 2009

Thanks, both of you [Waziyatawin and Wicanhpi Iyotan Win Autumn Cavender-Wilson], for asking about the future of public engagement on the Coldwater site (former Bureau of Mines).

We have received considerable public input concerning restoration of the site and spring, and are proceeding to plan accordingly. You had asked about another public meeting. When we first began working on site restoration planning in November, we contemplated having two public meetings on that topic. As we got further into the issue, it seemed clear that one meeting would be adequate. That meeting (February 23) and the subsequent 30-day comment period provided us with ample public input about site restoration alternatives.

I know both of you are primarily interested in the future of ownership/management of the site. We are working on completion of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which will be based on the preferred alternative identified by the property owner, the Department of the Interior. That preferred alternative, as you recall, is that the site  and spring be restored and that the Department of the Interior retain ownership, assigning management to the National Park Service. As was described to you in February, we hope to complete the FEIS and publish it about mid-June.

When it is published, we will notify you and many others of its availability. I have email addresses for the many people who have already submitted comments directly to us on this topic, and will notify each of them.

Publication of the FEIS triggers a 30-day written comment period in which it will be appropriate for individuals and organizations to comment on the Department of the Interior’s preferred alternative for future management of the site. Autumn, you will want to resubmit your petition at that time. All comments received during that 30-day period will be forwarded to the Department of the Interior, which will evaluate the FEIS and the comments received before making a final decision. The Department of the Interior’s final decision will be announced in a document called a Record of Decision. I would hope that Record of Decision would be issued in Fall 2009 so that we can move toward site restoration.

Steven P. Johnson
Chief of Resource Management
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
National Park Service
111 E. Kellogg Blvd., Suite 105
St. Paul, MN 55101

Email: Steven_P_Johnson@nps.gov

Hitching rides on the stereotrope, with Lise Erdrich and other rowdy writers

The stereotrope, invented around 1860, used stop-action photography and persistence of vision to give the illusion of motion to three-dimensional images. In this it resembles the stereotype, which certainly counts on persistent vision and is intended to give the illusion of depth to the one-dimensional. On the other hand, the idea of the trope, which is a trope of itself, is usually defined as a metaphor or a pattern of metaphors, but this leaves out the way tropes trip up both those who carry them and those the tropes are supposed to be about. In this context, one might say that the stereotrope is the tightrope walked by American Indian people when confronted by the stereotypic knowledge about American Indian people. It is the balance between wicked humor and outrage.

My name is white and I’m white (even though I am really pink and blotchy), but because I write about Minnesota Indian history all the whitest people I know are coming to me and asking me what is wrong with stereotypes of Indian people and Native American mascots because, after all, the fans don’t mean anything derogatory, and isn’t intention what it’s all about? And besides, it is a sign of respect for the warrior tradition and the nobility of the race. And don’t Indian people have enough to worry about because of poverty and health issues, so do they really care about those mascots anyway? And now that many Indian people have casinos and are very rich, which is really ruining their lives, weren’t they better off when they were poor and we could feel sorry for them?

An American child of unknown ethnic origin, living in a state where trees grow in barrels, around 1910, wearing an Indian costume.

An American child of unknown ethnic origin, living in a state where trees grow in barrels, around 1910, wearing an Indian costume; postcard purchased in a Minnesota flea market, 2008.

I try to answer these questions politely and in great detail, without calling people names. I think that the job of the historian is like what Milan Kundera said was the job of the novel: to say that things are not as simple as you think. It is difficult to convince people who “know” the history of a people that they do not know what they think they know. There is often little truth contained in all the stereotypes, the tired tropes that people hold so tenaciously. Despite all the history books, the mythic knowledge persists because that knowledge is not real knowledge, it is what comes through movies, cartoons, television shows. It is a set of attitudes and remembered anecdotes. Convincing people requires not better history–because written history does not feed the mythic part of the brain–but better stories, to break through to the television part of the same brain.

Lise Erdrich, in a recent online interview was asked what a story should do. She replied: “It should open up a can of whup-ass. If it can’t do that, it should at least produce a question.” In her book Night Train (Coffee House Press, 2008), Erdrich tells a story entitled “Tribe Unknown (Fleur de Lis),” about an object sitting in a glass case in a village museum seen by a young woman, a medical student, whose “white-clad form suggests a sail in lull,” like the sails on the boats in the harbor outside the museum. Like many of Erdrich’s stories, this is a riddle, so you don’t get the full meaning of it until the end, only after you have gotten details from four hundred years of history: Henry Hudson’s arrival in North America, the charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the start of trade between Indian people and Europeans, the beginnings of the French and Scottish mixed-blood peoples, the formation of the Métis Nation, with its fleur-de-lis banner.

All this leads to the woman who made the thing in the exhibit case, Angeline, who was French, Cree, Ojibwe, and Scottish, and the story about how she sought aid for her sick child from an aged woman, a frightening healer–“although,” Erdrich says, “like a mysterious artifact, this story has changed hands so many times taking varied forms of clues and hints, that nobody living knows for sure what truth was meant to endure beyond the different speakers, families, rumors.”

Angeline holds out to the woman a beaded bag with coins in it. The woman–who looks like and then seems to take the form of a black bird–cannot save the child but offers her knowledge, then “flapped away into the trees.” Angeline survived to have eleven children and was a healer, a medicine woman, a trapper, a teacher in the ways of survival, skilled at beadwork. Her children all moved away, she lived on, until in old age, when, without enough to buy “a winter cache of groceries,” she met a “lady on the eastbound train” who said, “How bout that? I fancy that clever little purse,” and Angeline sold it to her, thinking, “I have outlived everybody and the one I would give it to as a gift is not here and never will be.” And so the purse ended up in a coastal museum to be photographed by a pale girl, who took a picture of it one day, to show her friend the anthropologist, wondering, “Why would an Indian make such a thing as this instead of something more Indian?” after which the story ends with the exhibit caption:

Woman’s Purse
Tanned deer hide with flap and thong closure,
Lined with Bull Durham tobacco pouch.
Outer seams finished with white edging.
Green shamrock pattern on back,
Yellow heraldric device bordered in black,
random pattern of seven white beads on black velvet.
Beadwork.
H. 10.5 cm. W. 10.5 cm.
Collected in North Dakota, 1959.
Tribe unknown.

You can hear echoes in Erdrich’s work of other stories, other writers, not because she is imitating them, but because she taps into culture, language, and humor, a method of turning the tables on the categories into which one might be put by circumstances. It feels like an Ojibwe or a Métis style of story telling, although even to say that builds up a new stereotype that immediately needs to be undermined. Lise Erdrich is unique, not a category. Filling out a job application, which requires a declaration as to race, Erdrich writes in the space under “Other (Explain)”:

I’m a fully processed Indian with official papers from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, eligible for hiring preference or to vote in tribal elections or receive a five-pound brick of USDA cheese, pasteurized process, American. Cheese was unknown until “Li Framaezh” visited in 1801 with high wines and sundry. Chippewa women had been marrying the furmen a la facon du pays since perhaps 1608.

At first, she writes they did not have the gene that allowed them to digest cheese, until through further intermarriage with various cheese-tolerating ethnic groups, “so that some arrived in 1960 processed nearly white! Not quite. . . .”

Indian people are some of the few groups of people whose identity seems to require verification and which is subject to the inspection of everyone. If a person told me he was Irish, I would have no reason to doubt him, even if he did not have papers to prove it or did not believe in leprechauns. Non-Indians have tests they give to Indian people, to gauge their degree and the quality of their heritage.

Some of Erdrich’s stories remind me of one I heard in 2006 from Don Gurnoe, the Chief Judge of the Red Cliff Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, who went out with his cousin to bring in the nets from a fishing operation in the Apostle Islands area. They docked and stopped in for a “much deserved beer” when they were approached by a tourist who said: “The bartender told me I should talk to you. I have a question. Whatever happened to the French voyageurs?” Don Gurnoe said that he looked around the table at various tribal members, all of whom had French last names. “We had a pretty good idea what happened to the French voyageurs.”

In Night Train Erdrich tells her own voyageur tales, in a parody of much-too-serious historical narratives, as in her account “Jolly Beef, Métis Legend,” subtitled,

Remarks printed in the ossified section of various obscure journals concerting the life, times, artifacts, great works, and great northwest of Sylvain “Jolly Boeuf” La Coeuer, Métis Legend

Sylvain La Coeur bears a remarkable resemblance to the legendary Joe Rolette, though Erdrich makes clear that while Rolette stole the bill that would have moved the capital of Minnesota from St. Paul, it was Sylvain LeCoeur, “wordtrapper & marksman extraordinaire, an archetype who my important research indicates did the actually running away” with the bill. The narrator of the notes is an intrepid scholar seemingly lost in the wilds, seeking knowledge, and pleading for help and provisions, having expended most of the bales, bags, kegs, and trunks of goods and supplies with which she set out. Erdrich sets the pages of the old fur trade journals and travel narratives on fire with great enthusiasm, sometimes importing a few of the wild characters from the old accounts. Sherman Alexie, who should know, is right to call Erdrich’s work “rowdy.”

For many Indian people, cultural traditions are not clear-cut or cut-and-dried, as the anthropologist demands. Don Gurnoe, the tribal judge, lives many traditions in ways that do not fit stereotypical scenarios. His mother was Santee and his father was Ojibwe. While growing up in South Dakota, he played a tuba in a polka band. In the 1970s he became the staff person with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and he helped to draft and pass a major new law to protect Indian burial places in Minnesota. He told of finding unexpected support from Florian Chmielewski, a rural legislator and a well-known leader of a polka band. Once he learned of Gurnoe’s past, Chmielewski became a strong ally in getting the law passed.

Stereotypes are tenacious and relentless. Having to deal day-to-day with common ideas of what an Indian person is supposed to be and what an Indian person is supposed to do must be exhausting. Jim Clark, Naawigiizis, a Mille Lacs band member who grew up in Pine County, used to talk about living in Minneapolis after being a medic in the U.S. Army in World War II. He worked in a hospital in Minneapolis for thirty years, during which time people on the job who didn’t know anybody would walk in, see that he was Indian, and call him “Chief,” with that casual tone of someone who thinks he knows you because of your resemblance to a myth.

Stereotypes spring not just from racist traditions, but also from the records assembled by those who have all the best intentions at heart to describe faithfully and accurately the patterns in the lives of a people. In her book Chippewa Customs, Frances Densmore assembled a great deal of valuable information, especially about the lives of Ojibwe women, but she helped in cementing some stereotypes, because she focused on “the way things used to be” at a mythic time in the past. She was more concerned with the canoes that people used in the past than in the cars and trucks they were using in the 1920s. The information she was collecting was not wrong, but it was incomplete, unbalanced by details of the lives people lived then. Her discussion of the seasonal round through the story of Nodinens from Mille Lacs was accurate, at least for Mille Lacs, but it did not take into account what happened later when Ojibwe people out ricing or sugaring were arrested for trespassing. The seasonal round was being criminalized and it was evolving. There was no timeless, mythic seasonal round, only the one people practiced year after year in different ways and different places.

It was just such mythic structures that Jim Northrup undermined, in his March 2004 Fond du Lac Follies column in The Circle, playing on the tropes of the seasonal round:

In the spring we spear fish and make maple syrup. I also take the Corvette out of storage. In the summer we make birch bark fanning baskets and I drive to powwows in the Corvette. In the fall we make wild rice, hunt, and I put the Corvette back in storage. In the winter I write stores, we snare rabbits and I order parts for the Corvette.

The anthropologist wants certainty, and authenticity is at a premium these days. Because of the sheer power of the stereotype, people sometimes seem to believe that authenticity lies in the adherence to all the received ideas. If you don’t follow the actions Frances Densmore describes, can you be a real Ojibwe? Authenticity, however, lies not in the rule, but in the practice, which transforms a seeming violation of tradition into an affirmation.

Linda LeGarde Grover, who teaches at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, gave a rich and interesting paper at a history conference in Collegeville in May 2008 entitled “‘Only Authentic Indian Stand on the North Shore’: A Case Study of Ojibwe Tradition, Compromise and Survival in Northeastern Minnesota.” More than a paper, it is a beautifully detailed story that describes how her family from Nett Lake made and sold seemingly inauthentic axes to tourists, and how both the making and the marketing were integrated into patterns of kinship and relationships in authentic ways. A historian might communicate the same facts in a drier fashion, but would be unable to touch the listener or reader as effectively.

Stories break down stereotypes and tired tropes. But even storytelling, such as the rich folktale traditions of a people, can be made to serve stereotypical ends in tiresome ways. Since the time of Henry Schoolcraft, Ojibwe stories and legends have been packaged in safe, wholesome, lifeless versions, in the same way that the stories collected by the Grimm Brothers have gotten less and less interesting through the generations. But the real stories that people tell come alive because they are not always told in the same way, and sometimes new things happen in them. In the 1930s Sister Bernard Coleman wrote down an Ojibwe trickster story in which Nanabushu talked about working for the WPA, yet another wrinkle in the seasonal round.

A postcard of the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, dressed only in tropes, from Minnehaha Park, around 1910.

A postcard of the statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, dressed in tropes, from Minnehaha Park, around 1910.

In “Corn is Number One,” Lise Erdrich takes on a few of those folktales in telling of Sky Woman, the West Wind, her two sons, G. Howdy and G.I. Joe, who “ran off in order to cause various stories all over the earth,” but more particularly her four daughters. Corn, Squash, and Bean grew out of the ground. They were discovered by Old Magic Woman, who named them and “decided to invent Native American Agriculture.” The story tells of the relationship between the sisters and one can’t help wondering if this does not somehow deal with the relationship between other well-known sisters, particularly ones who write books, but, even though this will probably be the seed of someone’s dissertation some day, it is only a passing thought because I can assure you this is really a tale about plants.

Corn believed she was “the single most important plant in America”; readers “who need independent verification” are invited to Google “the importance of corn.” The sisters were a little testy with each other until along came the fourth sister Sunflower, whose job it was “to project a positive mental attitude. I will stand to the north, and thus encourage all living things in this beautiful and scientifically sound ecosystem, which is our joint accomplishment.” As a result the sisters all got along well, “because Sunflower could stand with Corn, which would take the heat off Bean and Squash, who could just go and do their things now.”

The story goes on and so does the book, taking on stereotropes, giving them a nice drubbing, a raucous rolfing, a can of whup-ass, as a result of what you might call an effective trope-a-dope strategy.

The importance of Mille Lacs Lake in the history and culture of the Dakota people

Mille Lacs Lake is one of many places in Minnesota that need to be acknowledged for their connection to Dakota people. Known to the Dakota as Mde Wakan or Spirit Lake, it is a place of special importance in their history and culture. The name of the most easterly group of Dakota people, the Mdewakantonwan, memorializes the name of the lake around which they lived until the mid-18th century.

As the website of the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Dakota community states it, the Mdewakakanton Dakota were “those who were born of the waters.” In fact one of the Dakota origin stories places that origin at Mille Lacs Lake. Dakota leader Leonard E. Wabasha stated (on a Mille Lacs Kathio State Park interpretive sign):

My people are the Mdewakanton Oyate. Mdewakanton means the People of Spirit Lake. Today that lake is known as Mille Lacs. This landscape is sacred to the Mdewakanton Oyate because one Otokaheys Woyakapi (creation story) says we were created here. It is especially pleasing for me to come here and walk these trails, because about 1718 the first Chief Wapahasa was born here, at the headwaters of the Spirit River. I am the eighth in this line of hereditary chiefs.

As described by archaeologist Lloyd A. Wilford (1944: 329), Father Louis Hennepin visited the Sioux at Mille Lacs Lake in 1680 and reported that it was the sacred lake of these Indians and the focal point of the whole nation, from which the tribes and bands spread out over a wide area.

The shore of Lake Mille Lacs around 1910, from the Edward McCann photo collection.

The shore of Lake Mille Lacs around 1910, from the Edward McCann photo collection.

In addition to Mille Lacs, Mdewakanton Dakota also described that origin as taking place at Bdote, near the mouth of the Minnesota River. The truth is that among different groups of Dakota and Lakota peoples there have been various origin stories told. Today for many Lakota the Black Hills is considered one of their most sacred sites, the center of the world, the place of the gods, where the warriors would go to wait for visions and to speak to the Great Spirit.” Black Elk, famous religious leader of the Dakota people, was taken to Harney Peak in the Black Hills– the “center of the world”– in his Great Vision.” A timeline of Dakota history states that in the 1830s:  “The Oglala become more centrally organized with most bands following Bull Bear [and] with many of the rest following Smoke. This was a change from their previous more loosely governed bands with many leaders of comparable influence. The Bear Butte area in western South Dakota, extending west to Devil’s Tower was the geographic and spiritual center of their world.”

When addressing the subject of Lakota/Dakota creation stories, Wilhelm K. Meya, one of the most active anthropologists working with the Lakota today, wrote, in an email: “The Mdewakanton are considered in the oral tradition, one of the most ancient divisions of the Sioux Nation or Ocetisakowin ‘Seven Council Fires’. The sacred lake (Mille Lacs) figures prominently in Lakota/Dakota creation stories. The lake is considered sacred because the Dakota people emerged from it as human beings into this world.”

In addition the Rum River originally shared the name of the lake, Wakan, but was mistranslated by early whites. In an Isanti County News article about a 2008 Wakan Wakpa (Rum River) Canoe Expedition that provided a group of inner-city Dakota boys from Minneapolis and St. Paul an opportunity to paddle the natural artery of their ancestors, LeMoine LaPointe, director of the Healthy Nations Program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, stated: “Their 165-mile paddle from Mille Lacs Lake to Minneapolis commemorated many important aspects of Dakota history and culture.” He further noted: ”The Rum, known for centuries as Wakan Wakpa (Holy River), is an important spiritual and cultural artery to the Dakota who, until 1745, lived at Mille Lacs (Mde Wakan) and considered it the center of their world.”

Because of my knowledge of the importance of Mille Lacs Lake and surrounding area as a Dakota homeland, I initiated and am spearheading the local, national and international movement to change the faulty-translation and profane name of Minnesota’s Rum River, the river that flows from Mille Lacs Lake, back to its sacred Dakota name, Wakan. There is more about this at my website: http://www.towahkon.org/

We come with the spring: About those Coldwater people

On a muggy evening in late August 2000, at the Henry B. Whipple federal building at Fort Snelling, John Steinworth, a member of a loose coalition of Coldwater Spring supporters known as the Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition (PCCC) stood up and spoke to the assembled agency representatives who had come to hear public comment about the impending transfer of the Bureau of Mines property to the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). Steinworth talked about accomplishments of the coalition in bringing public attention to the effect of Highway 55 on the spring and the surrounding area. “We have been around quite some time.” Whoever gets the property Steinworth said, “gets us too. We come with the property.”

The 2000 meeting where this occurred came about because the Department of Interior had reached a decision about what would happen to Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property. Now the agency, through the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), a branch of the National Park Service, wanted to get public input about what to put in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with MAC, to protect the character of the property. After the meeting the public would have seven days–later extended to two weeks–to submit written comment.

Not all of the people there that night were members of PCCC, but all who were there were not happy. As John Steinworth also pointed out the Coldwater people felt that they had been pushed around and ignored in the process of determining the ultimate ownership of the property. They wanted to be heard not only on the MOA, but on the basic decision the Park Service was announcing. The Department of Interior and MNRRA wanted to keep things simple. The meeting was intended to start out with various officials speaking about the process. Then people were supposed to split up in smaller groups to discuss and give comments.  After this was announced in the meeting, there was a lot of grumbling. Someone called for a vote. Very few people wanted to go into small groups. Most wanted to remain in the large group, so that everyone could hear what everyone said. Finally, after much hemming and hawing, officials acquiesced and the Coldwater people got the meeting they wanted, where everyone got to talk and say his or her piece.

Watercress growing the stream below Coldwater Spring, May 1977. Photo by Bruce White

Watercress growing the stream below Coldwater Spring, May 1977. Photo by Bruce White

Over the course of the next few, muggy hours, many people spoke, including both Coldwater people and public officials. The Coldwater people who spoke that night were from many different backgrounds and had come to support the preservation of the spring for many different reasons. Some had been involved in the Highway 55 “Stop the Reroute” opposition, but after the battle was lost they re-formed as the PCCC, to preserve the spring. The group met periodically at local restaurants and operated under a consensus-model of decision-making. Also involved and represented that night was the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, the only vocal Dakota support for preserving the spring, but a group with neither money nor federal recognition. Others were like Dave Fudally, a local resident who had gotten to know the area very well over many decades. He was and is an amateur historian who had been a pioneer in trying to convince agencies for several decades to preserve the area.

Though there are a wide diversity of opinions about many things, these diverse people had united in their support for the preservation of Coldwater. Notes of what was said that night are incomplete, but it appears that most of the discussion was about the advisability of giving the property to MAC. Many wanted the Park Service to keep it and manage it. There was fear that the Airports Commission would fill the property with parking lots or would do something else to develop the property.

Lynn Levine pointed out that people supporting the preservation of Coldwater had been lied to a lot. She was concerned about the ongoing health of the spring. Jim Anderson and Linda Brown of the Mendota Dakota spoke about the importance of the spring to the Dakota and a need for that to be acknowledged. Dave Fudally spoke about how important the property was to all Minnesotans, not just Dakota people. Michael Kincaid spoke abut the need to erase the artificial boundaries that divided all the various important properties  in the Fort Snelling area. Legislator Karen Clark questioned the desirability of transferring the property to an agency that had no experience in managing cultural and historic places. Someone stated that the preservation of Coldwater was a “justice issue.” Tom Holtzleiter raised the issue of the fifty-year run of the Memorandum of Agreement governing the transfer of the property to the Airports Commission. What would happen then and how would the National Park Service protect the spring? Answering most of the questions was historian John Anfinson of MNRRA. He gave detailed and credible answers but not ones that truly satisfied the Coldwater supporters. They simply believed that Anfinson was defending the indefensible.

Even so, by the end of the night people who attended had an exhilirating feeling that their voices were finally being heard. After the meeting, when many lingered outside the Whipple Building to hash over what had happened, Susu Jeffrey–a longtime activist on many political and military issues– relished the moment and, referring to the sale of the property to the Airports Commission announced triumphantly: “That agreement is toast.”  It did turn out to be toast, but what ended it was the events of 9/11 which caused fundamental changes in the air-transportation system in the country.

Supporters of Camp Coldwater preservation gathered at Coldwater Spring in December 1999. Dick Bancroft photo.

Supporters of Camp Coldwater preservation gathered at Coldwater Spring in December 1999. Dick Bancroft photo.

At the time of the meeting, many thought that Dakota or Indian ownership of the Coldwater property was desirable, though few believed that it was possible, since there seemed to be no interest among the federally-recognized tribes in Minnesota about owning the property. However, all supporters of Coldwater preservation tried to communicate what they believed to be the importance of the place for the Dakota, something that a number of Dakota elders had made clear to the Minnesota Department of Transportation in public hearings in 1999.

In the following years, the importance of the spring to the Dakota seemed to be an operating assumption of Coldwater supporters. In 2001, they fought and obtained a provision of state law which protected the flow of water to the spring from any governmental action. As described by Mary Weitz, who did a lot of the lobbying for the bill at the State Capitol, Coldwater supporters also fought for inclusion of language designating the area as a “traditional cultural property,” the term used to describe a place of cultural importance to a people such as the Dakota. The language was stripped out of the bill before final passage.  However the law passed contained the following statement:

Neither the state, nor a unit of metropolitan government,  nor a political subdivision of the state may take any action that may diminish the flow of water to or from Camp Coldwater Springs. All projects must be reviewed under the Minnesota Historic Sites Act and the Minnesota Field Archaeology Act with regard to the flow of water to or from Camp Coldwater Springs.

The effect of the law, which was later tested in court, was to force the Minnesota Department of Transportation to protect the flow of water to the spring in the construction of Highway 55 south of the Highway 62 interchange, just west of the Bureau of Mines property.

After 2001, the Park Service went back to the drawing board in arriving at a solution for the BOM property. Meanwhile the Coldwater people met periodically, bided their time, tried to read the tea leaves about what the Park Service might do, and continued to go to Coldwater Spring for water. Whenever the Park Service has done anything to limit access to the spring, Coldwater people have been quick to challenge it, as in 2005 when a permit system was implemented for access to the Coldwater property.

In 2001, Susu Jeffrey split away from the PCCC to form the Friends of Coldwater. In her prolific writing Jeffrey has consistently maintained that federal ownership would provide the greatest protection for the spring, although she also acknowledges the sacredness of the spring to the Dakota. Others continued working with the older group, the PCCC, in arriving at the consensus that the property should first be offered to the Dakota. In 2006, working with environmental lawyer Thomas E. Casey, they drafted comments on the Bureau of Mines draft EIS, urging that the property be transferred to the Dakota:

Preserve Camp Coldwater Coalition strongly recommends that one (or combination of more than one) of the recognized Dakota communities receive title to the Bureau of Mines/Coldwater Spring area property. Dakota communities and other Native American tribes have, from the distant past through the present time, continued to gather at the Coldwater Spring area for water and other ceremonies. This is why the Dakota communities have the largest vested interest in protecting the area. They also may have the financial resources to ward off would be interlopers. Some Dakota communities are also considering a serious bid of private funds for the area. However, albeit unlikely, a future tribal election could result in elected officials who are less dedicated to protecting Coldwater Spring and the surrounding area. In that event – and to provide the highest level of protection – the conservation easement provisions described . . . below are essential conditions for the transfer of ownership.

At the time this was written a lot more interest had been shown in the Coldwater property by federally-recognized Dakota communities, including Shakopee, Prairie Island and Lower Sioux, which all submitted proposals, in 2006, asking for the property. But MNRRA, acting for the Department of Interior, has not considered these proposals seriously and has declined to acknowledge that Coldwater Spring is a traditional cultural property for Dakota people.

All of this is background for what occurred at the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines open house on February 23, 2009, when Waziyatawin, Sheldon Wolfchild, and others demanded that the property go to the Dakota people. Although some of the speakers that night did thank those who had supported the preservation of the property over the years, many Coldwater people felt that their role was not properly acknowledged or respected. They had been advocating for the property and for its importance for the Dakota since 1999 and earlier. They continued to favor ownership by the Dakota. They felt slighted and some simply felt that the style of the demands made in the speeches was not helpful in achieving the desired results. So, in some ways, what occurred that night challenged continuing consensus among Coldwater people about the best way to save Coldwater Spring.

Law enforcement occupation of Coldwater/Bureau of Mines site on March 26, 2009

On Thursday, March 26, 2009,  Hennepin County law-enforcement officers, with the permission of the Fish and Wildlife Service made use of Building 1 and adjacent area of the former Bureau of Mines site for a training operation involving fifty camouflaged officers, numerous vehicles, and plenty of weaponry. The event was apparently unknown and unanticipated by officials of the National Park Service-Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), three of whom went to the site to look at some things “relative to planning for site restoration,” the topic of the public comment period (on the restoration of the property) that had ended just the night before. According to Steven P. Johnson of MNRRA, “they encountered a large number of law enforcement vehicles and officers, and were denied access. The law enforcement folks were conducting training exercises of some sort.”

Learning of this, Johnson called Bob Hansen of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is currently managing the property. Hansen had given the Hennepin County Sheriff’s office permission to use Building 1 and the area around it, though, according to Johnson, Hansen had “expected the rest of the site would be available to the public.” Johnson informed him that this was not the case. “He was going to look into if further in the afternoon.” (It should be noted that the Sheriff’s office provides security for the property, but has done little to prevent extensive spray painting by taggers to the BOM buildings and the historic marker at the spring.)

Later in the morning Debbra Myers, Jeanne Hollingsworth, Susu Jeffrey and other Coldwater Spring supporters received word of the law enforcement actions and decided to go to the spring. Myers, Hollingsworth, and Jeffrey all went to the spring, arriving shortly after 1 PM and staying until 4 PM. During the afternoon they spoke on the phone with Bob Hansen who stated that the property was public property and had to be available to everyone. The account of Debbra Myers about what happened is shown below.

Although the events were a surprise to MNRRA officials, they raise question about the commitment of the Department of Interior to protecting the cultural and historic character of the Coldwater Spring property in the future, and their longterm sensitivity to the concerns of Dakota people. It should be remembered that several proposals put forward during initial phases of the current environmental process were for a Minneapolis Police Department facility and a law-enforcement training facility on this site. It was assumed that these proposals had fallen by the wayside. Is what happened on March 26 a sign of or preparation for things to come, a show of force, or is it intended as a provocation? One way or another it is hoped that no one will be provoked to do anything in response. These events make government agencies look bad enough. They don’t need any competition. 

Account of Debbra Myers about what happened at the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property on March 26, 2009

On the morning of March 26th I was informed that the Sheriff Dept of Hennepin County and several other police divisions were gathering at Coldwater Spring. I immediately called Bruce White, Jimmy Anderson, and several others and headed for the Spring. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service’s 30 day public comment period had ended the night before at midnight. I was wondering if all this was connected.

As we approached the entrance I was not prepared for what lay ahead. There was a large motor home that was a command post complete with a lot of communication equipment on top. A large tent set up on the circular paved area right before the gates. Numerous local suburban police cars as well, Plymouth, Crystal, Golden Valley squads among others. There were around 50 camouflaged clothed males in the immediate area.

A sign on the road leading into the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property on March 24, 2008, showing a sign announcing "SHERIFF'S OFFICE TRAINING SESSION AHEAD." The photo was taken by Debbra Myers with her cellpone.

A sign on the road leading into the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property on March 26, 2009, showing a sign announcing "SHERIFF'S OFFICE TRAINING SESSION AHEAD." The photo was taken by Debbra Myers with her cell phone.

The whole scene was surreal, and totally inappropriate; this is sacred land. It felt like a military camp. I started to visibly shake and had a large knot in my stomach. As we approached the entrance at a slow speed, I was not willing to be denied access, this was not an option. We were able to drive into the Spring without resistance.

We drove down to the Spring to gather our thoughts. The Spring was clear and noticeably without the ducks. I had been coming down all winter the ducks were always gathered on the water. Was this a sign of the hostile actions about to take place. We drove back out the gates to wait for others that were coming. I was not comfortable in the area of the police gathering and hesitated to stay out side of the gates.

As we approached the entrance again, a SUV from the Sheriff’s Department pulled up to our car, his vehicle was inches from my window. He was agitated that we were there, it was obvious. He barked, where we thought we were going? We replied that we were going to the Spring. He told us to go! I was not moving since there was a camouflaged office standing in front of my car. The officer yelled at me to go again, and said “he will move.” The officer in front of my car was hyper and couldn’t wait to aggressively ask,”where do you think you are going?” Again we replied the Springs. We were then told that the Sheriff’s Department were going to be using building 1 for training and the area would have a lot of people running around, so we should not be worried. We informed the officer that no guns should be involved and they really should not be there, this was inappropriate use of the land. We were informed that there would be no live ammunition in the guns. The officer was told any guns on the land were inappropriate and we were terribly upset at the situation.

Our cars were backed in at the top of the drive near the Spring. The training did begin and the officers staged up 20 – 30 feet from the cars. At this point there were 3 women in our group. With guns drawn and some devices that were used to launch “something” from their shoulders, was this thing a rocket launcher? Their games began. I couldn’t believe it was all taking place; it was an appalling and shocking display which played out for 4 hours.

Bob Hansen of the Fish and Wild life Services called on the cell and informed us he had given permission for the Hennepin County Sheriff Dept to use the Building 1. He said it was a property of the Department of Interior, and the land was to be used by all people. He informed us that the Sheriff’s Dept was the agency that was providing security for the Spring, and it was a trade off. Sacred land being used for war maneuvers? The Security Squads have been driving on the grassy areas of the Spring, this has caused erosion and is unacceptable.

This appears to be, as we have seen time and time again, the aggressive and shameless use of power to intimidate the people who are protesting and speaking out on the use and abuse of a sacred area. This is and always will be Dakota land and the latest cowboy show is totally vile. Stop the abuse of this area and do the right thing, give back the land to the Dakota. 

Building 11 photographed on March 21, showing recent damage from spray painting

Building 11 of the Coldwater/Bureau of Mines property, photographed on March 21, showing recent damage from spray painting

Updated: A conversation between the Park Service and Waziyatawin–Another Coldwater email thread

[Updated, to include an additional email from Chris Mato Nunpa.]

Early on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, Steven P. Johnson of the National Park Service responded to the earlier posting on this site about a Villager article describing the February 23, 2009, Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines open house and to an email from Waziyatawin concerning the same article. Waziyatawin had stated:

I had hoped that your comments to me at the public hearing were sincere and that you were going to take actions to respect the concerns of the Dakota people.  I was, therefore, very disturbed to learn that the NPS staff people are still asserting such ludicrous perspectives that diminish Dakota actions and concerns.  All of the Indigenous people who spoke that night were Dakota people (save for someone who was Dakota and part Ojibwe), and fortunately, we have the video to prove it. I  hope that the NPS will take a different approach during the April public hearing.  If you create transparency, NPS folks and Dakota people can have an open conversation.  Your current tactics encourage the perpetration of lies, misrepresentations, and misinterpretations.

Email from Steven P. Johnson addressed to Waziyatawin and Bruce White, March 25, 2009

I suspect you both have had enough contact with newspaper reporters to know the National Park Service did not control the story that appeared in the Highland Villager, any more than we did the story that appeared in the Southside Pride. Some of our staff were interviewed. Who else the Villager reporter chose to interview was up to him. Despite Bruce’s comments to the contrary, the reporter was in attendance at the meeting.You may also not be aware that some of the story was factually incorrect and we have asked the Villager to print a correction. I don’t know if it will or not.

The purpose of the meeting and subsequent written public comment period, as you both know, was to gain public input on what it should mean to “restore” the site and the spring. While we continue to gather public comment on that topic (the comment period ends today), you and others continue to emphasize another subject: that of the future owner of the site. As we explained to you and others that night (and before and since), a determination of a future owner/manager of the site will be made by the property owner (the Department of the Interior) based on the yet-to-be-completed Final Environmental Impact Statement and the written comments received during a subsequent 30-day public comment period on the Final EIS. Comments on future ownership will need to be made again during that comment period, and we will at that time ensure everyone who has commented during the current period is aware of that.

As we discussed on February 23, a recommendation that the property be transferred to “the Dakota people” makes a good slogan at a rally, but doesn’t create an action the property owner can actually take. “The Dakota people,” while a justifiably proud and important people in Minnesota, isn’t an entity that can accept a deed to this or any other land. Land could only be deeded to a federally recognized tribe, or possibly a joint powers agreement among several tribes. It is also not clear who is empowered to speak for “the Dakota people. We are required to communicate with federally recognized tribes through the tribe’s elected leadership. While there are many Dakota people with diverse opinions, as a government agency we must respond to the tribal government. In the same way, we may get many comments on an issue from residents of the city of St. Paul, but the city’s official comments to us would come from the city’s elected leadership.

We were sincere in our comments that evening that there may be some way to accomplish much or all of what you seek for the future of the site. But it will require working through government process and not just slogans at a rally.

Paul Labovitz and Steven P. Johnson of the National Park Service speaking with Waziyatawin at the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines open house, February 23, 2009

Paul Labovitz and Steven P. Johnson of the National Park Service speaking with Waziyatawin at the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines open house, February 23, 2009

Let me be clear about the next steps in the process;

1. Today is the final day for public comments on how the site and spring should be restored.
2. We will soon be reviewing those comments and developing a plan for site restoration. I believe, from everything I’ve heard from you, that we are in general agreement about removal of the builidngs and other infrastructure on the site (roads, concrete pads, etc.).
3. We are currently working on preparation of the Final Environmental Impact Statement. It should be published early this coming summer.
4. Once the Final EIS is published, there will be a 30-day written comment period on the issues of site restoration AND future ownership/management of the site. Everyone who registered at the February 23 meeting and everyone who has sent in comments since will be notified about that comment period.
5. At the conclusion of that comment period, the Final EIS and all comments received will be transmitted to the property owner, the Department of the Interior.
6. Subsequent to receiving and reviewing that material, the Department of the Interior will make a decision about site restoration and future ownership/management, and will announce that decision in a document called a Record of Decision.
7. Once the Record of Decision is made public, implementation can begin.

Response from Waziyatawin to Steven P. Johnson, March 25, 2009

As I stated the evening of the rally, this whole process is a colonial process.  The government of the United States and its citizens worked to systematically break up the Dakota nation, to destroy our traditional governing structure and to replace it with new structures based on the U.S. model.  This was part of the colonization process.  As I explained to you already, for the government and its accompanying institutions to insist now, after more than 150 years of colonial intervention, that the only legitimate voice for Dakota people are the tribal councils, is highly problematic.  As a goverment employee supporting that position, you are doing your part as a good colonizing agent to uphold colonial rule.

Our claim to that land is much more than a slogan at a rally and I find your dismissal of our position deeply offensive.  As I stated on February 23rd, we will not give up that site.  Your actions now can either assist us in challenging the ways things are done, or you can help maintain the colonial status quo.  You can help make the case for return of the site to Dakota people, or you can make the case for keeping that site under colonial rule.  Either way your role will be well-documented and publicized and we will hold you accountable.

Email from Chris Mato Nunpa, May 27, 2009

I would like to add my voice re; the “slogan” – “Return the Land to the Dakota People.” I whole-heartedly agree and support the “slogan.” Also, I agree with Waziyata Win, my younger daughter, when she says that your characterization our position, of returning the land to the Dakota People, is a SLOGAN, and I agree with her when she says that it is “offensive.”

From my point of view, the position of returning the land to the Dakota People is a recognition of a historical proces. The land that we, the Dakota People, call “Mini Sota Makoce” (Land Where the Water Reflect the Skies & Heavens,” a reference to the thousands of lakes in our homeland), was stolen, was exploited, and its Dakota People were killed in the Minnesota Holocaust, and is currently occupied by the stealers of the land, the colonizers, the United State government and its Euro-American citizenry.

I am working with a group called the Oceti Sakowin Omniciye, the Seven Fires Summit, and with a sub-group called the Treaty of 1805 Task Force, as it is known by the International Indian Treaty Council.

We have tried once to get the Treaty of 1805 into the U.S. court system. The charges against our people were dismissed on a legal technicality re: the enforcement process, NOT on treaty issues. We now have, again, the Treaty of 1805 in the U.S. court system.

One of the interesting things about the first process was the judge wrote that the “Treaty of 1805 was not valid.” Our lawyers promptly submitted a brief stating that IF the Treaty of 1805 is not valid, then this means that no JURISDICTION over the 155,000+ acres involved in the treaty was transferred to the U.S. government from the Dakota Oyate (or, “the Sioux Nation of Indians”, a phrase used in the treaty). Furthermore, this means that no LAND was transferred from the Dakota Oyate (People, or Nation) to the U.S. government. Therefore, it was the Homeland Security personnel who were trespassing and NOT the Dakota People, who are the collective owners of the land. From my point of view, this means, also, that it is the National Park Service, and the other federal agencies, and the U.S. government, itself, who are trespassing on Dakota land, the land involved in the Treaty of 1805.

One additional point (among many additional points which could be made about the Treaty of 1805) is that only two Dakota leaders signed the treaty and these leaders, as I understand it, were Bdewakantunwan, “Dwellers By Mystic Lake.” In other words, only one “Fire” was represented out of the Seven Fires of the Dakota Oyate (“Nation” or “People”). These two individuals, in no way, represented the “Sioux Nation of Indians,” as they were fraudulently represented in the opening paragraph of the Treaty of 1805.

Another point is that a Mr. Jim Anderson and other Dakota People, from the Mendota Bdewakantun Dakota Community, have been serving as the protectors and defenders of the sacred sites, of the burial mounds, of the sacred objects, of the bones of our ancestors, etc. in the area around the Twin Cities, than land involved in the Treaty of 1805. It is logical, to me, that the land around the Coldwater Spring, be returned to the Dakota People, with the Mendota Dakota serving as the interim protectors, defenders, and keepers of the area until a council consisting of representatives from the Seven Fires (the Bdewakantunwan, the Wahpekute, the Wahpetunwan, the Sisitunwan, the Ihanktunwan, the Ihanktunwanna, the Ihanktunwann, and the Titunwan) can be designated as the keepers and protectors of this area which includes the sacred site, Coldwater Spring. The Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Fires, is the traditional form of Dakota government and it was this form of government which made treaties with the various foreign powers, including the United States of America.

We, perhaps I should say “I”, believe that your law, U.S. law, protects the U.S. Euro-American citizenry and its colonial institutions and agencies (e.g. the National Park Service, et. al.), and it does NOT protect the interests and rights of the Dakota People and that of other Indigenous Peoples. Treaties, in addition to being “the Supreme Law of the Land,” according to your sacred document, the U.S. Constitution, Article 6, are INTERNATIONAL LAW. This is why we are exhausting the U.S. legal (“yours”, the U.S.) processes before we take it to a world forum such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and to some international legal forum or court. We wish to bring International law to bear on this situation involving Coldwater Spring and on the 155,000+ acres involved in the treaty, and upon all of our treaties. The Treaty of 1805 has already been brought to the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), a NGO, a Non-Governmental Organization, of the United Nations, and it is NOW recognized by the IITC.

It is my understanding that President Obama is recommending that Native/Indigenous Nations have a seat at the United Nations, which means that our (Indigenous) concerns and issues will be represented before the world, before the nations of the world!!

Our Dakota People were once a strong nation and the U.S. government recognized this and made a number of treaties with us, including the Treaty of 1805. Then,we were killed off. The Dakota People became the objects of genocide perpetrated by the U.S. government, the state of Minnesota,, and by its Euro-Minnesotan citizenry. This genocide included: bounties on us, two concentration camps, mass executions, the warfare, forced marches, calls of “Extermination or Removal” by Ramsey, the governor, down to the Euro-Minnesotan citizenry, and forced removals, etc. All of these actions fit the criteria of the UN Genocide Convention of 1948. So, we were reduced to our current pitiful state, a state of colonization, oppression, and exploitation. And people, like you, which is most of the U.S. Euro-American society, do not take our concerns seriously and dismiss, disregard, and disparage our concerns. The idea of “might make right” is rampant, and the notion “white might makes white right” is even more so in U.S. Euro-American society.

I have “cc-ed” both Mr. Bill Means, a founder of the International Indian Treaty Council, and to Ms. Andrea Carmen, the Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council.

In spite of the arrogance and hypocrisy of the U.S. government and its Euro-American citizenry, and in spite of the fact that we are facing overwhelming odds, and in spite of the fact that the U.S. law works against Dakota concerns and interests, WE WILL CONTINUE TO FIGHT. Our struggle is RIGHT! We have our spirituality and TRUTH on our side!

Hau, wanna henana epe kte. “Yes, that is all if have to say now.” Hecetu kte. “It shall be so.”

Thank you for reading this.

 Chris Mato Nunpa, Ph.D., Dakota, Wahpetunwan (“Dwellers In the Leaves”),  Retired, Former Associate Professor  Pezihuta Zizi Otunwe, “Yellow Medicine Community,” Indigenous Nations & Dakota Studies (INDS) (or, in BIA/colonizer terms, Upper Sioux Community)