What the Park Service doesn’t know about Coldwater Spring might hurt us, and the spring

What does the National Park Service know about Coldwater Spring and what does it not know? Important decisions by public agencies should be made based on complete and accurate information. If the Park Service and the Department of Interior lack basic environmental and historical information about Coldwater Spring and the surrounding area this may well lead to faulty decisions and disastrous results for Coldwater and for those who care about it.

It is now ten days into a comment period for submitting comments on the changes that the Department of Interior will likely make to the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities campus property, which is the site where Coldwater Spring comes out of the ground. The site is very important to Dakota people and is sometimes called “the birthplace of Minnesota.” At a contentious open house held on February 23 at the VA Hospital complex near Fort Snelling the Park Service announced that it was seeking comment on potential changes to the property, such as the clearing of the buildings, restoration of vegetation, and improvement of the spring basin. 

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process relating to the Bureau of Mines property began 2005, with the local branch of the Park Service, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) taking the lead. In December 2008 the Department of Interior announced that it had determined the “preferred alternative” for the disposition of the property to be that it remain in the ownersip of the government, to be managed by MNRRA:

Lyle Laverty, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI) [a Bush administration political appointee who very likely does not still have this job], wrote on November 25, 2008 that the DOI has identified the course of action they recommend for the Bureau of Mines site. It includes the “removal of all existing structures and associated above-ground infrastructure (roads, power lines, ore bins, etc.) at the Center, restoration of the site to natural conditions, restoration of the spring, and retention of the site by the federal government.” DOI also suggests that “…long-term ownership of this property should rest with the National Park Service as part of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area.”

The open house on February 23 was called to receive comment about the changes in the property, not on the basic issue of ownership. A number of Dakota people appeared at the open house and turned it into an ad hoc public meeting where they announced their opposition to the decision. They requested that the property being given to Dakota people. 

p1070172 podium card What the Park Service doesnt know about Coldwater Spring might hurt us, and the spring

"We as Dakota people want Cold Water, Mni Sni, Back!" A comment card posted on the wall at the February 23, 2009, Bureau of Mines open house.

There are certainly differences of opinion about these issues which need to be communicated one way or the other. The decision by the Department of Interior was based on the knowledge that the department has about the property. Among other “facts” in the record was the opinion of the local office of MNRRA that Coldwater Spring was not, as Dakota people stated, a sacred  place or a traditional cultural property (in the strict legal sense of those terms). Unfortunately that opinion was based on faulty information which it does not appear that the Park Service will correct. Among other documents relied upon, the inadequate historical study commissioned by the Park Service, lacked basic historical information that could have produced another opinion. Similarly the archaeological study done on the site barely scratched the surface of the fill on top of the Coldwater Spring-related sites.

At this point it does not appear that the Department of Interior intends to correct the record. Instead it is up to the public to present the facts to the DOI again and again, so that it has adequate information to produce a reasonable result for the Bureau of Mines Property. Information, new interpretations, and opinions should be submitted by March 25. As stated on the Park Service’s website:

The [Feb. 23]  meeting opened a 30 day comment period which ends March 25, 2009. While comments were received at the open house, additional comments are welcome by e-mail, fax (651-290-3214), or by mail either letter or comment card and mailing to:

Bureau of Mines/Coldwater Project
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
111 Kellogg Boulevard East, Suite 105
St. Paul, MN 55101

Further information about this process will appear on these pages in the days ahead.

In praise (but not defense) of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota has a history, and that not altogether an unwritten one, which can unravel many a page of deep, engrossing interest–Alexander Ramsey on becoming the chair of the Minnesota Historical Society in 1851

History is the lifeblood of communities. There is no community without history and the free and open access to that history marks the difference between liberty and tyranny. People who keep history–whether elders, storytellers, archivists, librarians, or even professional historians–who gather it and pass it on to others, perform a crucial function in any society. If history is not kept or if it is kept but not passed on or if it is kept and passed on in distorted or untruthful ways, then the soul of the community where this occurs will suffer.

My intention is to praise the Historical Society not to defend it. The Historical Society has been criticized for its role in supporting a master narrative or dominant form of history, one that is harmful to Native people, particularly the Dakota of Minnesota who were exiled from this state in 1862 and whose struggle to restore their place here has been long and continuing. I agree with this criticism, although I believe this is not done wittingly, or with a full understanding. Not that this makes the result any more defensible. But before discussing that point, I need to state my own admiration and support for the very real contribution made by the Historical Society–its mission, its collections, its wonderful staff, and its future. The Historical Society’s role in the state provides, in fact, the very means for attacking the master narrative and providing an alternative history which acknowledges the role of Native people in Minnesota and documents the genocide committed upon them. (Of course, I do have numerous conflicts of interest involving the Historical Society, as discussed below.)

The Minnesota Historical Society, through its library, its archives, and its museum collections is Minnesota’s history-keeper. From the Society’s very beginnings it has gathered the records of this place and this state, in manuscripts, books, newspapers, photographs, oral histories, information, and objects. And it has preserved and disseminated the information assembled in endless and useful ways. In this it has performed a crucial cultural role, one that helps to make Minnesota a better place. Whenever this cultural role is harmed or diminished, whenever the budget of these programs is cut, Minnesota itself is diminished.

Archives, libraries, collections, and the gathering of diverse sources of information are a key function of any society. Without such institutions a people cannot exist as a people. Societies without written records still have historians who help others to see where they came from and where they are going. Oral histories, legends, winter counts on buffalo skin are as important a record as the collected records of a state legislature. 

Of course, even totalitarian and criminal societies keep records, often very meticulous ones. The Nazis kept gruesome records of their worst acts. Organized crime keeps careful financial records. In terms of record-keeping one difference between such societies and free and open societies is the degree to which the records are open, accessible, and freely disseminated. Open records are a key to accountability. If a society makes no provision for such access and dissemination and does not support it with adequate funding this causes great harm to democracy.

The Minnesota Historical Society has not always been the State Archives, but its tradition of record-keeping goes back to its beginnings. It is no accident that the second Archivist of the United States, Solon J. Buck, was for many years the director of the Minnesota Historical Society. Some will note that the origin of the Historical Society is enmeshed in the very processes through which criminal acts were committed by the Territory and State of Minnesota against Native people. The first records collected by the Historical Society of Indian people were designed to document a “dying race.” In 1851 Alexander Ramsey wrote: “In tracing the origin of the Indian races around us, we should not overlook the necessity of preserving their languages, as most important guides in this interesting, though perhaps unavailing pursuit. It must be evident to all, that they are destined to pass away with the tribes who speak them, unless by vocabularies we promptly arrest their extinction.”

Alexander Ramsey and Henry H. Sibley, who helped engineer the 1851 treaties with the Dakota, and committed other acts worth detailed cataloging, or posthumous indictment, were both there when the Historical Society was founded in 1849. But if one wants to catalog the crimes of Ramsey and Sibley one needs to begin in the very records kept by the Minnesota Historical Society. People who commit crimes against humanity are sometimes proud of what they have done. The commitment to keeping a record of their actions sometimes blinds them to the understanding of what that record will show. Such records illuminate the nature of the acts but also the complexity of character that led to them.

In December 1850, Alexander Ramsey, as governor of Minnesota Territory, supervised a series of government actions that led to the deaths of hundreds of Ojibwe people at Sandy Lake. The full record of those actions is found in both the National Archives and the Minnesota Historical Society, recorded meticulously by government employees. Ramsey himself wrote in his diary that he could not believe the reports that Ojibwe people were dying in large numbers. On Christmas day he received a visit in St. Paul from the Sandy Lake Indian agent John Watrous, who knew very well what was happening, but, Ramsey reported, Watrous presented him with a “fine long sleeved pair of fur gloves,” and “a pretty segar case.”

A cheerful man, Ramsey was blind to the fatal irony of these gifts, as he was of so much in his life. He and his descendants kept his records carefully and finally gave them to the Minnesota Historical Society. Others who were equally or more guilty appear to have been aware of the nature of their actions, or at least their heirs were. In the case of Henry M. Rice, the same Minnesotan whose white marble statue is in the Statuary Hall of the U. S. Capitol in Washington, who masqueraded all his life as a “friend to the Indian” but dealt with them ruthlessly through a series of terrible treaties, his records were carefully purged of anything that told the true story of his acts.

Rice’s actions were not widely publicized at the time, but were understood by many. Jacob V. Brower, the archaeologist, credited with a pivotal role in the creation of Itasca State Park, deplored Rice’s role in the theft of the land of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe. Brower had no academic distance from the topic of his study. He had a clear understanding that archaeological record of the Mille Lacs area could not be separated from the treatment of the Indian people who still lived there.

In 1901 Brower addressed a meeting of the Minnesota Historical Society in which he “went to a considerable extent into early Indian history and condemned in the severest terms the persecution of the Indians by the government and the settlers.” He reportedly said that “if such wrongs continued the day would come when the destruction of the government would be chronicled.” (This is from a November 12, 1901 St. Paul Dispatch article.)

The address was a shock to some members of the Historical Society. General John Sanborn, a politician and the director of the Minnesota Historical Society at the time, described Brower’s address as “too radical in places and thought it might be softened a little before it became a record of the society.” Brower published the statement uncensored, at his own expense, but it soon became a valuable record in the Historical Society where one can find it when compiling the full record of Henry Rice’s life.

This incident describes both the strengths and weaknesses of the Minnesota Historical Society. While the Society tries to be comprehensive in its collecting of history, it is also wary, suspicious, conservative, and nervous about controversy. When it comes to interpreting history, the leadership of the Society usually places popularity above truth or complexity.

This is because of the nature of the role that the Society plays in Minnesota civic life. The Society occupies a sacred space in Minnesota, rather like the Vatican, which is why it is only fitting that the Society displayed the recent exhibit of Vatican treasures. The Society is an agency of the state without being a state agency. The Historical Society has the state archives and a free library. It operates a state historic sites network and is designated to receive a variety of federal funding on behalf of the state. The Minnesota legislature gives it many tasks to do, but the Society remains not part of state government. Instead it is perhaps the oldest 501(c)(3) in Minnesota.

In particular, the Historical Society is not a state agency in the strict legal sense of the term, as determined by a ruling from the Commissioner of Administration in 2006. For this anomalous reason, the Historical Society is not required to follow one of the most important laws regarding public record-keeping and the dissemination of information, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. That is to say, that the agency given the task of aiding and furthering public record-keeping in Minnesota and helping to carry out aspects of the Data Practices Act is not actually subject to the act. Instead the Society has its own seldom publicized information policy. This policy states that the society “may deny or limit access to information if providing access would harm the interests of the Society,” an enormous loophole that any state or local government agency would find very useful.  Among other escape clauses, the policy states that the Society reserved “the right to amend or terminate this policy as it deems appropriate.” Until recently the exact words of this policy were unavailable to those seeking information from the Society, even when they were denied access to  information in the possession of the Society.

Many will say that the role of the Historical Society as a non-state state institution—including not being subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act–explains its strength, making possible its sacred functions as keeper of history in Minnesota. But the Society is still publicly funded to a large extent and is not insulated from any of the political pressures that engender a persistent fear of controversy, unlike the University of Minnesota. The university is expressly named in the law as subject to the Minnesota Data Practices Act and does not seemed harmed as a result. Perhaps the doctrine of academic freedom makes a difference.

To return to the starting point, it is precisely in situations in which the status of the Historical Society is at issue that a dominant master narrative so damaging to Indian people makes its appearance. Fear of the legislature increases the stereotypical and superficial presentation of history to the public. In the long run one might hope that adequate, even lavish funding would allow the Society to overcome this recurring syndrome, but sometimes the desire for funding becomes not a means to an end, but a never-ending quest. Circuses become more important than bread. Without a firm tradition of academic freedom to support it, the Society believes it can only hide behind its sacred status and a pious facade if it wishes to survive in the winds of Minnesota legislative politics.

More about master narratives and the Minnesota Historical Society next time

A Personal Note about My Conflict of Interest

Some will say that my credibility about the Minnesota Historical Society, pro or con, is simply nonexistent. My mother worked there for many years (though before her death in 2008 she was very critical of it). I worked there for ten years myself (and ever since then have been described as “disgruntled former staff”). And while working there I met my wife who still works there (which causes many interesting family arguments at the dinner table). On top of that the Historical Society published my book We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People in 2007. I am sure there are some at the Historical Society who believe that I have been too harsh toward the institution. Others will say that I have been too easy. In fact both of these points of view may be right, depending on the occasion. I can give you examples of both. But it seems to me that I have an obligation to be as harsh or as easy toward the Historical Society as I have been in my writing toward the National Park Service, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and the Office of the State Archaeologist. To act any differently is hypocritical. So, despite the complexity of my relationship with “the oldest 501 (c) (3) in the state,” I will try to muddle through, sorting out the issues as they arise.

Bdote/ Mdote Minisota: A Public EIS continues

Three years ago, early in Department of Interior’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process to determine the fate of the Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities Campus property, I called for a parallel public EIS, stating:  

A truthful, open, and ongoing environmental review process, carried out by the public for the public, is needed to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within the area of Mdote Minisota [the area around the mouth of the Minnesota River, a sacred place for Dakota people]. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed, bit by bit, historic property by historic property. . . .

Since the Department of Interior’s EIS process has dragged on now for almost four years and nothing much has happened in public view until recent months, it is good to look back to how we got to where we are now. In the summer of 2006 the Park Service released the draft EIS on the BOM property, including a denial of the finding by its own expert who stated that Coldwater Spring was a “traditional cultural property,” that is, a place of cultural importance for Dakota people.

The Park Service also questioned the statements of Dakota people that Coldwater Spring is a sacred place for the Dakota. After the comment period closed for the EIS in November 2006, little happened until the fall of 2008, when it was announced that the Department of Interior that it had chosen as the preferred option for the Bureau of Mines property that it remain in the hands of the Park Service. According to this option the property will be treated as open space following a rehabilitation of the land, including the removal of the buildings.

On February 16, 2009, an open house was held by the Park Service to receive input on the rehabilitation of the property, but not on the decision about the ownership of the property. The constraints of the open house spurred contentious opposition, including public statements by Waziyatawin, Sheldon Wolfchild, and Leonard Prescott, and many other Dakota people who insist that the property should be given to the Dakota. Details of this meeting, including links to videos taken there will be placed on this site soon.

There is a lot to talk about. To launch that discussion I am going to reprint what I wrote four years ago, a reminder of how we got to where we are now and a challenge for the future. Some of the questions raised below have been answered already. Others are ongoing and the answers will not be easy.

A Trip through the Center of the World

Bdote or Mdote Minisota is a large area surrounding the mouth of the Minnesota River, including parts of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and several Twin Cities suburbs. Bdote Minisota is for Dakota people a cultural, historic, and sacred center, the place where the world began. It is also the center of Minnesota’s European-American history, the place where European-Americans first began to leave their mark on the Minnesota landscape. And now it is the center of development pressure that can only get more intense in the years ahead.

To visit Bdote, drive east (actually south) along the new Highway 55 from downtown Minneapolis. As you pass over Lake Street you travel through a corridor lined with ornate street lamps, an imitation of a boulevard in a European town, though one with little use for pedestrians. At Minnehaha Creek, just above the mythic Minnehaha Falls, you pass through an odd tunnel just before the bridge crossing the creek. Then you see a tree-filled parkland to the left just beyond the freeway wall, at least what is left of the trees after the highway was built.

Just beyond 54th Street the VA Medical Center complex is up a hill on the right, a hill known as Taku Wakan Tipi, the dwelling place of the gods. On the left is the old Bureau of Mines site with its sacred Coldwater Spring. The road now joins Highway 62 and, in one of the most complex intersections in the state, passes over highways linking St. Paul and Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport. Just beyond the airport is the former site of the Lincoln Mounds, destroyed in 2004 to build two new high-rise buildings called Reflections at Bloomington Central Station. Beyond that looming in the distance is the Mall of America.

When your car shoots out onto the Mendota Bridge, Historic Fort Snelling  is just to the left. Directly below the bridge is the location of the tragic place where 1,600 Dakota men, women, and children were interned during the winter of 1862-63. Nearby the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi around Pike Island, in Fort Snelling State Park, where the Treaty of 1805 was signed. At the end of the bridge is the 150-year-old St. Peter’s Catholic Church and on the right is Pilot Knob or Oheyawahi,a sacred hill. Down the road on the left is the Sibley House Historic Site, the home of Minnesota’s first elected governor. The highway now rises as you head into the suburbs.

The place you have just passed through is the center of the earth. This is the way the Eastern Dakota viewed and still view the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers. It is also a good way to view the importance of this place in Minnesota history and culture, its importance for all Minnesotans not just Dakota people. It was here that the modern state of Minnesota began. This is a battered landscape, but in the trees, along the highways, and in between the modern buildings, are the remnants of that beginning, the sacred places of the people’s history.

This landscape is the way it is in part because Bdote Minisota is under the control of a dozen different state, federal, and local agencies, each with different priorities and different understandings of the wholeness and significance of this sacred and historic place. Over the years the various cultural resources located within Bdote Minisota have been the subject of some very specific and localized environmental reviews and impact statements. As it happens, one such EIS has been undertaken by the National Park Service for the site of the former Bureau of Mines, Twin Cities Campus, a 27.32-acre site that includes the historic and sacred Coldwater Spring. A draft EIS is now being written. [The EIS was completed in the summer of 2006.]

It is too early to evaluate fully how well the NPS-Bureau of Mines process is working. [That is what I said in 2006. It is clear now that as many feared the process has been problematic on many issues.] However public experience of the various environmental reviews in the past have provided some important warnings about the need for early and continuing public involvement in commenting on these projects and in contributing to and reviewing these environmental reviews.

In the 1950s, the Minnesota Highway Department put together a plan to build a new bridge and highway across the Mississippi River between St. Paul and Fort Snelling. If carried out as originally planned this would have destroyed the remains of Historic Fort Snelling dating back to 1820. Only as a result of public pressure led by the Minnesota Historical Society was this destruction prevented. Shortly after that, however, much of the site of the Indian Agency [including possibly the site of the American Indian burial ground located there] and other nearby historic properties were taken out by highway construction.

In the early 1980s an environmental impact statement was done relating to the reroute of Highway 55, a highway connecting Minneapolis to the southern suburbs. Although a few military sites were mentioned in the analysis of affected areas, the impact of the highway on the area of the early Coldwater settlement and on places of importance to Dakota people such as the spring, was not discussed. It was only when the highway began to be built in the late 1990s that public interest in these areas was expressed. Despite public objections the highway was built, but in the process public groups were able to obtain new protection for Coldwater Spring under state law. This protection would never have happened without the actions of those conscientious citizens sometimes called “protestors.”

Aside from a lesson about public knowledge and participation in reviewing the environmental reviews, these experiences also demonstrated some important lessons about the scope of such studies. Environmental studies done under the mandate of federal and state law tend to look at narrow historic resources and narrow effects, without any understanding of the wider significance of distinctive places. For example, the fact that Highway 55 would interrupt the flow of water to a sacred spring was not initially considered significant because the highway was not going to be built on top of the place where the spring came out of the ground. The effect of the highway on the integrity of Bdote and the Fort Snelling landscape were given short shrift.

Government agencies often prefer to deal with the question of whether there are human remains, historic structures, or identifiable objects on a particular square inch of ground, rather than the wider question of the effect that a particular action has on a sacred area, a historic landscape, or the viewshed of a historic place. This prevalent attitude has created a Bdote Minisota crisscrossed with highways, managed by a dozen different government agencies, each with a different management plans and a different agenda.

Is it possible to change the way the valuable sacred, cultural and historic resources are treated in the Bdote area? It is unclear what can be done to change the culture and practices of some of the agencies involved, but change in the outcomes of environmental review processes can only happen if public pressure is exerted early enough to make a difference in the process. What is required is a truthful, open, and ongoing public environmental review process to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within Bdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed bit by bit, historic property by historic property.

Left to their own devices, few of the public agencies involved would ever undertake such an ambitious process. [However, now in 2009, it appears that there is some movement in this direction.] Instead the public must take the lead in carrying out such a review. In effect a process like this is underway involving the various groups which have worked separately to preserve Fort Snelling, Coldwater Spring, and Pilot Knob. What is lacking however is joint action by these groups and others, working together to protect the whole space of Bdote Minisota. In the long run, this is the only way that this sacred and historic area can be preserved and enhanced effectively in the years ahead.

It is the purpose of this online series to aid the efforts of existing preservation groups by recording the history and culture of Bdote Minisota in such a way that it is available to all. The series will also document and examine the decisions and actions of the government agencies that control the various properties in the area. In the long run it is hoped that by this means the public can do a better job of protecting all of Bdote Minisota, not just fragments salvaged from the whole.

A Note on the Spelling of Bdote/Mdote

Recent scholars have pointed out that the word usually spelled Mdote should be transcribed as Bdote, to convey more accurately the way the word is actually pronounced. The word Mdote is used here not as an assertion that this is the correct spelling of the word, but rather to avoid confusion among those not familiar with the Dakota language. 

The words of one language are always difficult to transcribe with the alphabet of another. Even in English the spellings of words do not consistently convey correct prononciations. The missionary Stephen R. Riggs, in his Dakota-English Dictionary transcribed Dakota words using the English alphabet with the addition of a number of special characters and marks. Riggs wrote that the word Bdote means “the mouth or junction of one river with another (a name commonly applied to the country about Fort Snelling, or mouth of the Saint Peters),” the Minnesota River. He spelled the word beginning with the letter m, but he also noted that “some Dakotas in some instances, introduce a slight b sound before the m.”

Work is now under way to produce a new Dakota/English dictionary, as described by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, in her book Remember This! Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2005. Waziyatawin and the linguist and anthropologist Timothy Dunnigan of the University of Minnesota describe the new system of orthography, based on Riggs’s system but making use of some new characters and marks. A special computer font was developed to record and display the new system.

It should be noted that Waziyatawin also prefers the word Bdewakantunwan, referring to “Spirit Lake Village,” a major Dakota community group once located at Lake Mille Lacs in north central Minnesota [also a sacred place for Dakota people], instead of Mdewakantonwan, the spelling given by Riggs and many other earlier writers. Both Waziyatawin and Riggs use English letters to indicate all the sounds in the word except for the n, which is actually an n with a hook on its right leg, a special character known as an “angma,” indicating the nasalized sound of the preceding vowel.

History that really does matter

For several years now the Minnesota Historical Society has been using an advertising slogan that says “History Matters,” with the phrase appearing on everything, from chocolate bars to postcards, buttons,  t-shirts and sweatshirts. (How about putting it on some good Minnesota butter?) Who can argue with the thought that history does matter? It is certainly an improvement on the previous advertising campaign which said: “History is soooo fun!” Doing history that really matters is something that anyone who does history wants to do. But, it is only natural that history matters to different people in different ways. And sometimes people can’t agree on what it is about it that matters and how one should express the matter-reality of it.

Consider the events of February 16, 2009. On that day the Minnesota Historical Society had an event at the State Capitol in St. Paul to mark President’s Day and to further its agenda in the legislative session. At this gathering there were a number of Dakota people protesting, because of President Lincoln’s role in ordering the execution of 38 Dakota people at Mankato on December 26, 1862. Among the protestors was the daughter of Angela Waziyatawin,a young woman named Wicanhpi Iyotan Win or Autumn who was arrested because of her role in protesting. Later in the week Angela Waziyatawin sent out a statement about the event that included a letter to Nina Archabal, the director of the Minnesota Historical Society criticizing her leadership of an institution that has “only entrenched itself as a colonialist institution and guardian of the master narrative in American history.  Rather than launching an era of reparative justice with Minnesota’s Original People, your administration has continued the anti-Dakota sentiment and antagonistic relationship with which it began.”

history matters a little2 History that really does matter

Whether or not I agree with all of what Waziyatawin has to say, it seems to me that it is worth discussing. I am a strong supporter of the Historical Society as a public institution (it did publish a book and a few other things I wrote), but I also have strong differences with the current management of this institution and the various “master narratives” it endorses (whatever they may be). Angela and I are not the only ones who have concerns about this. And it does seem awfully ironic as Waziyatawin points out that “when Autumn was 8, she played the role of her great-great-great grandmother, Maza Okiye Win, to represent one of the Dakota perspectives for the MN Territory exhibit at the MHS.  Now she has been arrested at an MHS event for telling the truth about our ancestors’ experiences.” And what of the irony of arresting someone, at History Matters Day at the Capitol, who really does believe that history matters? 

The issues raised in the letter are important ones, and in the future I plan to discuss them on this site. I want to publish opposing views too. But, to start the ball rolling here I am going to quote directly from Angelan Waziyatawin’s statement and her letter to Archabal

Email from Angela Waziyatawin, PhD

Han Mitakuyapi.  I have pasted below a statement about the events at the state capitol on Monday as well as an “Open Letter to Nina Archabal.”  As many of you already know, Autumn was arrested Monday for expressing corrective truths to the crowd during the MHS’s celebration of colonialism.  Here is a link to the arrest:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYU8lHKPOXE.  Capitol security guards also attempted to yank the camera off my son Sage’s neck (he’s only 11) and I had to physically grab the officer by the chest to pull him away.  They clearly did not want a record of her arrest.  Ironically, when Autumn was 8, she played the role of her great-great-great grandmother, Maza Okiye Win, to represent one of the Dakota perspectives for the MN Territory exhibit at the MHS.  Now she has been arrested at an MHS event for telling the truth about our ancestors’ experiences. Waziyatawin, Ph.D.

history day5 History that really does matter

History Day at the Capitol, February 16, 2009

On Monday, February 16, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) once again demonstrated its disregard for Dakota humanity and its willingness to uphold its racist and colonialist heritage, a heritage that harkens back to the institution’s founding by the imperial fathers of the State of Minnesota such as Alexander Ramsey.  During their “Day at the Capitol,” opportunely falling upon President’s Day, the MHS used their time at the capitol to celebrate U.S. Presidents while paying special homage to Abraham Lincoln with a bicentennial salute.  Replete with the rhetoric of manifest destiny ideology, a Lincoln impersonator reciting the Gettysburg Address, the First Minnesota regiment re-enactors playing Custer’s song, and even children making and donning construction paper stove-pipe hats, it was an absurd event, albeit a recurring one.  Dakota spectators and our allies felt like we stepped into a familiar colonial drama. 

lincoln impersonator History that really does matter

Wicanhpi Iyotan Win or Autumn with an actor representing Abraham Lincoln

Given the fact that Lincoln’s most spectacular legacy in the state of Minnesota is the largest, mass, simultaneous hanging from one gallows in world history, he is better known here as the Great Executioner rather than the Great Emancipator.  Our 38 Dakota warriors lynched in Mankato on December 26, 1862 are not merely a blemish on Lincoln’s otherwise unblemished career (as one of the politicians suggested), nor is it evidence of the “complexity” of the man (as Nina Archabal, the MHS Director stated).  Rather, his hanging of Dakota warriors in this record-breaking and record-setting heinous crime against humanity, can best be seen as a logical outcome of Lincoln’s previous interactions with or policies regarding Indigenous populations.  He began his adulthood as an Indian fighter during Black Hawk’s War, as a presidential candidate that ran on a “free soil” platform (the “free soil” to be stolen from Indigenous populations), and as part of an administration that passed the Homestead Act and the railroad acts (which opened the way for massive flooding of white and black populations onto Indigenous lands and land theft from Indigenous Peoples).  Further, the Lincoln administration routinely violated the terms of U.S. treaties with Indigenous populations and regularly withheld annuities, pushing Indigenous Peoples, including the Dakota, into starvation and war.  Thus, the mass hanging of Dakota patriots was no blemish or uncharacteristic blip in Lincoln’s career, it was simply par for his colonial course.

Dakota people and our allies showed up to contest this colonial representation and to raise the critical consciousness of participants and spectators, or at least make those who continue to organize such events uncomfortable.  We hung two large banners over the second story rail (“Take Down the Fort: Icon of American Imperialism” and “Site of Dakota Genocide”) and we had a large sign with Lincoln’s picture that read “The Great Executioner.”  While several of us were yelling corrective truths to the crowd, Wicanhpi Iyotan Win was targeted by security, arrested and held in Ramsey county jail (an appropriately named oppressive, colonial institution) for about eight hours.  She was charged with disorderly conduct.  Like other familiar colonial dramas, no matter how offensive are the words and actions of the colonizers, Indigenous people are the ones criminalized by colonial society.  In this instance, free speech was granted Wasicu people in the capitol rotunda, but our truth-telling was labeled a crime.

An Open Letter from Angela Waziyatawin to Nina Archabal, Director of the Minnesota Historical Society

On February 16, 2009 I attended the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Day at the Capitol” where, once again, I was astounded by the institution’s total lack of critical engagement with historical figures, ideas, and events. Instead, the MHS continues to present a simplistic and myth-laden history of great, white, male leaders, characteristic of 1950s elementary school textbooks and construction-paper social studies projects.  More importantly, the historical interpretations the institution continues to promote are ones laden with imperialistic manifest destiny ideology and racist assumptions. 

Perhaps you believe that in persisting with such anti-Indigenous projects you will convince the critical thinkers among us that Indigenous Peoples were indeed savages who did not know how to properly exploit the land and that the processes of invasion, conquest, and colonization and the policies of extermination and ethnic cleansing were necessary, inevitable, and righteous because the proud civilization that has replaced us in our homeland represents the pinnacle of progress and enlightened consciousness.  In fact, you would have to believe these myths to promote the level of historical education evident in the absurd event at the capitol on President’s Day.  But, you could not be more wrong. 

Just as there have always been Dakota people who have contested the theft or our homelands and the killing of our people, as long as some of us continue to breathe we will continue to use our voices and our bodies to contest those who would justify the violence against our people, lands, and ways of life.  We will continue to be present to attest to the tremendous losses we have suffered so that the invading population could occupy, exploit, and desecrate our beloved lands and to call attention to the ongoing injustices we suffer.  Your belligerence in perpetuating colonialist ideology does not serve to silence those of us with the critical eyes who see what you are doing, it only serves to radicalize increasing numbers of our youth and rally support from non-Dakota allies who want to distance themselves from your brand of racism. 

Under your leadership, the MHS has only entrenched itself as a colonialist institution and guardian of the master narrative in American history.  Rather than launching an era of reparative justice with Minnesota’s Original People, your administration has continued the anti-Dakota sentiment and antagonistic relationship with which it began.  From the time it first displayed Little Crow’s bounty scalp to its most recent celebration of the Great Executioner, it seems the institution does not miss a chance to attack our people.  On your watch, you have only served to alienate and anger each new generation.

Before I left the event at the capitol, I congratulated you on once again assaulting the humanity of Dakota people and upholding the racist and colonial legacy of your institution.  You said, “Thank you,” and I told you I knew you would take that as a compliment.  Your anti-Dakota positioning and colonialist sentiments could not have been more clearly expressed.

Sincerely, Waziyatawin

Welcome to the new MinnesotaHistory.net

As my grandmother used to say “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” She also said: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” and “That’s a horse of a different color.” (She loved horses and had ridden in Texas as young woman.) And if she encountered a precocious child or a pompous PhD, she said: “O I am Sir Oracle and when I ope my lips let no dog bark.” I’ve often thought of my grandmother over the last few years. She lived to 103, a bright, well-read, good humored woman who understood about vanity, pretension, the occasional failure of good intentions, and the difficulty of achieving everything you wanted to do with the available means. (She was also a great cook.)

elizabeth mccann edited copy 298x300 Welcome to the new MinnesotaHistory.net

My grandmother, Elizabeth McCann, in 1954

The last time I wrote anything on this site was more than two years ago. Since then I’ve had lots of good intentions but life has intervened more than once. In 2004 I started this website as a way of discussing some burning issues of the time in which Minnesota’s history played an important role. Over the next few years the site focused on documenting the the destruction of Dakota burial sites and the preservation of Bdote or Mdote, the area around the mouth of the Minnesota River, a sacred place for Dakota people. Several friends helped me with the website, writing articles and editing what appeared here. My role in all this was to do research and write about the topics that came up. You can still see what I and others wrote about these issues on the About page.

What I want to do now is make MinnesotaHistory.net into a WordPress blog, where issues in which history really does matter to people today can be discussed in the kind of detail often missing from newspaper articles and other media. I’m really sorry I missed out on the rich issues of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary. Now I hope to make up for lost time. But my purpose is not to listen to the sound of my own voice. After all, what would my grandmother have to say about that? I want to continue to provide an opportunity for people who have opinions about Minnesota’s history not only to comment on what I write, by registering and commenting, but also to write their own stories about historical topics. If you have an idea for an online article or have written one, write to me at bruce.white@minnesotahistory.net.

Finally, for those of you who don’t know much about me, I am a historian and anthropologist. I live in St. Paul. I make my living doing free-lance history and historical ethnography. Over the years I’ve labored in the vineyards of history, from my start as a page in the Minnesota Historical Society reading room getting boxes of manuscripts for researchers, to writing all kinds of historical work: scholarly and popular articles and books, historical reports for lawsuits, online web articles, and even historical publications for children. In my life I have had a lot of interests besides history including: photography, postcards, cooking, house renovation, gardening, fishing, baseball, French novels, and fountain pens. My philosophy of life is that there is too much to do but not enough time. And to paraphrase my grandfather, Edward McCann, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing over and over until you get it right,” which is an important thing to remember when trying to manage a website.