Robin Johnson of Alexandria, Minnesota, says in a recent letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “until Minnesota adults stop thinking of their state’s history and culture as being the almost sole province of children, the complex arguments [about the history of Historic Fort Snelling] will never make an appearance inside the forts, museums or zoos.”
Johnson’s letter to the Star Tribune is part of a continuing a debate about the Historic Fort Snelling and the way it is being interpreted by the Minnesota Historical Society, fostered by the efforts of Waziyatawin and others to call for the tearing down Fort Snelling physically and symbolically. Nick Coleman wrote a column on June 7, entitled Minnesota’s Cradle and Stain, raising questions about whether the Minnesota Historical Society is adequately dealing with the whole negative history of the fort for Dakota people. This week Michael Fox, Deputy Director of the Minnesota Historical Society responded with a column A Full History at Fort Snelling, stating:
While many who come to the fort engage with the reenactment of life on a frontier military post in 1820s, the total visitor experience there today is broader, richer and far more complex. We invite Coleman and all Minnesotans to visit and judge for themselves. View the orientation film in the visitor center that describes the history of this significant place, including the presence of Dakota people at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Sit with kids in the schoolhouse and ask the interpreter about all aspects of the story of the fort. Read the interpretive panels on the 1862 internment camp located below in what is now Fort Snelling State Park, and on the execution of Shakopee and Medicine Bottle outside the fort in 1865. Take one of the special tours we offer on particular eras of fort history, including World War II, the Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota War. Additional interpretation will be available at the site later this summer via your cell phone.
The letter from Robin Johnson of Alexandria takes on the basic problem of how history is presented not only at Fort Snelling, but at other places in the state. The letter is headlined Stop treating state history like entertainment for all ages.
I read with interest Nick Coleman’s assertion that the whole, controversial history of Fort Snelling be told to visitors instead of the edited versions we’re given now (“Fort Snelling: State’s cradle — and stain,” June 6). My reaction: Fat chance of that happening. Historian Bruce White was right when he told Coleman the Minnesota Historical Society “wants to tell a safe, happy story to kids.” Unlike Europe, Britain and elsewhere where you can see a small but visible percentage of contemplative, childless adults visiting cathedrals and historic sites for their personal education and interest, America treats is cultural places like glorified amusement parks. Minnesota children are trotted out to Fort Snelling and the State Capitol at the age of 10, too young to fully understand much beyond the loud cannons or care beyond, “When do we eat?” Most don’t come back until they are distracted, harried parents, or they never come back at all. I don’t really blame the museums, zoos and historical sites for turning themselves into Disneylands. Their economic struggles have been going on for a lot longer than the past two years, and when 98 percent of your audience is under 12 you’re forced to serve up the sterilized pabulum adults feel is appropriate for tender ears. But until Minnesota adults stop thinking of their state’s history and culture as being the almost sole province of children, the complex arguments will never make an appearance inside the forts, museums or zoos. ROBIN JOHNSON, ALEXANDRIA