The Fort Snelling debate, Part 2

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


Comments

The Fort Snelling debate, Part 2 — 2 Comments

  1. To me it seems there are two equally significant issues about Fort Snelling: one, how do we portray the history of this complex, challenging place, and two, how do we teach it to our children in a way that goes beyond the loud cannons and vending machines that I so vividly remember from my childhood.

    Robin Johnson wrote: “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.”

    There is truth in this: our children are not being taught the importance of local history. Broadly throughout the education system children are encouraged to learn the facts and repeat them, facts that though important have greater significance than their simple existence.

    History is the complex story of our becoming and when we distill from it that which we find most significant we ignore all else within it. We ignore our own biases based on our place within society. We ignore the race, class, and gender based circumstances that in many ways define our views. All of these power related issues that were ignored at the time have gone on to influence how we see that time. They are issues related to race gender and class that go beyond our history and in many ways define our current culture. They are issues that make the telling of our history difficult. How do you reveal to someone with racist, classist or sexist tendencies the history of these biases? It is not an easy thing to do, but it is also the goal that I see developing among those who wish to change how the fort is interpreted.

    That said, I think that it is short sighted to ignore the importance of educating children. The reality that our history is controversial is not one that we will escape and the idea that children should have to face the same controversies that we are facing is inevitable as well. The problem is not that children are not going to understand the weight of the issue, the problem is that they are not asked to.

    Many junior high English classes have units on the horrors of the Holocaust in which they read varied narrative experience of this tragedy and where in they learn the history and significance of this event. Why is it so hard to look at our own local history with the same discerning eye for differing experienced narrative. Why is it so hard to teach a tragedy whose repercussions continue to affect us?

    This brings up more questions: Why are children expected to swallow a dominant narrative defined by what those in power? For that matter why do we all expect our history to be hand fed to us by interpretative centers or “via our cellphones.”

    They used to sell some great saltwater taffy at the fort, do they still sell that?

  2. In my experience, teaching about the fur trade at various sites and events such as Grand Portage, Ft William, Eagle Rive, Folle Avoine, and so on, the public (both adult and children) are very capable of understanding and thinking about the very complex set of actions, events and relationships that made up this part of our early history. The other interpreters I work with, both white and Native, don’t “sugar coat” history, nor do we paint one partner or the other in the trade as villains or heroes.

    That said, school children dominant most events because: 1) they have time during the day to take field trips and this is part of school curriculum, 2) for some sites this is a big money maker, and/or 3) our culture relegates our past “to the kids” so adults don’t have to consider it.

    At least one or two programs I teach with are supported by the local Native community (ex. the Potawatomi in the Eagle River WI area). They fund this educational program because they believe that this history is integral to understanding who we are today and how/why things are they way they are.

    As to Fort Snelling, the history there is indeed complex and not a bit vexing. Tearing it down wouldn’t accomplish much. It’s a physical fact. Better to use its physical existence as an opportunity to examine the rich, and oft times very painful, history of our state.

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