Blizzard tales from Minnesota

In honor of the recent snowstorm of December 11, 2010, the 12-11-10 Blizzard, which hit a good part of southern Minnesota, here’s an article I wrote in 1986, on the history of Minnesota’s blizzards and how they were viewed by the people who lived through them. The article makes the point that weather is one of the characteristics of Minnesota that has helped to create a regional culture in this place.

Blizzard Tales: When the weather outside is frightful, Minnesotans go for a walk
By Bruce White
Minnesota Monthly, December 1986.

My neighbor shovels snow like there is no tomorrow. This is the same guy who vacuums his lawn in the summer. When the first flakes begin to fall, he is out there with his broom and shovel, grooming the driveway. He continues his ministrations on an hourly basis throughout the storm. You have to hand it to him, though: When it stops snowing, he is finished shoveling, unlike the rest of us.

I first became aware of his snow-shoveling habits several years ago, during the famed pre-Thanksgiving Day storm of 1983. That was the day I went out—while the snow was still coming down thick and fast—to shovel the sidewalk and locked myself out of the house. My neighbor was happy to lend me the screwdriver with which I tried to pry open a storm window. I smashed the thing when it wouldn’t give.

I don’t know what it was that made me go outside that afternoon at the height of the first bad storm of the winter rather than waiting until it was over. Usually I let my wife shovel the walk. It may have been simple driveway envy. Most likely, though, it was for the same reason that my wife and I drove from Duluth to the Twin Cities during a blizzard a year later. I blame it on the Minnesota snow ethic. When a snowstorm is in full swing, you go outside. When faced with a blizzard, you drive into it.

Minnesota’s snow ethic is part of our cultural heritage. For more than 150 years, citizens of the state have been telling about the storms they survived. They carefully noted the bad-weather details in their county histories, right along with the first settler, the first white child, and what used to be called the “Sioux Uprising of 1862.”

Blizzard scene in front of State Theater, Hibbing, during the famed Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. Photographer: Al Heitman Photograph Collection, 11/11/1940, Minnesota Historical Society location no. QC2.61ca r1

These blizzard accounts all seem to describe the same storm because the worst storms, the ones that people remembered the longest, came suddenly on the heels of warm weather. One Waseca County resident gave this description of the January 7,1873, storm: “I was over at Morristown that morning. The forenoon was mild. As the day wore on, the increasing moisture made us think that the back bone of winter was broken. About 3 o’clock p.m., Sam Stevenson and I started for Waseca. Dark clouds began to gather in the west, and about the time we reached Blooming Grove, the wind was blowing a gale, producing a change in the atmosphere that chilled the marrow in one’s bones. The air was filled with blinding snow, so that you couldn’t see the horsewhip in your hand. The sun seemed to withdraw its light, and the earth seemed to tremble beneath the terrific, howling blast. I felt as though I were tied down and a thousand imps were shoveling snow into my ears and mouth.” The writer reached home “nearer dead than alive.”

The Lyon County storm of October 15, 1880, was similar. As one county history put it, the blizzard came “before the farmers had fairly started their fall work, while the grass was yet green and the insect world active.” The day began with a thunderstorm. In the evening the rain turned to snow. Two days later “the streets of Marshall, Tracy, and Minneota were packed full, the banks in many places on the north side rising almost level with the second story windows.”

The Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 is imprinted deeply on the memory of recent generations. In many ways it was the classic Minnesota blizzard. It began on the morning of November 11 as a rainstorm. Without warning, the rain turned to snow. The temperature was 40 degrees early in the morning, but it dropped steadily, and by midnight it was near zero. The abrupt change in the weather caught many people outside without proper clothing or supplies. Many were trapped in cars on the highways. Scores of people, including 20 duck hunters, died in the storm.

These blizzards claimed many unlucky victims who were taken by surprise and died because they were not prepared. But the most tragic blizzard stories are the ones about people who had a choice, who were in a safe place but decided to take their chances, ignoring all warnings. Samuel Kile died in the 1880 storm. “He was with a threshing crew at Tom Brown’s place north of Minneota,” according to the Lyon County history. “On the morning of the sixteenth he and others started for the barn to do the chores, and on the way to the barn Kile’s hat was blown off. Despite the protests of the other men, he started in pursuit of the hat in the raging blizzard. That was the last seen of the man alive. In the first part of November the body was found embedded in a snow drift, sixty rods northwest of the barn; his hat was found one and one-half miles southeast from the place.”

A history of the town of Clitherall recorded the story of a victim of an 1867 blizzard who set out from Alexandria for his home on a warm February morning. The first night he reached the town of Millerville. “The next morning the people he stayed with could see signs of a storm brewing and advised him to wait a day or two there, saying it would cost him nothing. But it was warm and he was so anxious to get home that not heeding their repeated warnings he left Millerville.” It was not until a thaw a few weeks later that his friends found his body in a snowdrift a few miles from his home.

A number of accounts in William H. Hull’s remarkable compendium of reminiscences of the Armistice Day blizzard, All Hell Broke Loose, told of the rashness of Minnesotans in that famous storm. Al Kuehl was safe and sound at his cabin on Leech Lake. “It was snowing hard on Shingabee Bay but among the pine trees, the cozy cabin and fireplace, I was so comfortable I found the intensity of the storm hard to accept. Something told me to head for home, which was at Inver Grove, 15 miles south of the Twin Cities.” He got as far as Rice, where he spent two days in a railroad section house.

Conrad Stai was teaching near Bemidji. School was let out because of the storm, and all the students were sent home around noon. Stai remembered: “After lunch I felt that a hike in a blizzard would be fun, something I hadn’t done in a long time. Blizzards were familiar to me since as a child I had walked or skied from school near Pinewood to our rural home. I had done this many times through adverse weather and had no fear.” After losing his way and staggering blindly along a country road, Stai found refuge at the home of some friends.

Reactions to the storm varied. Most people who felt the brunt of it believed themselves lucky to have survived. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, the danger involved, many Armistice Day survivors expressed the attitude of one man who laughed with pleasure as he drove through the drifted Minneapolis streets proclaiming, “This is a great adventure!” His view was probably not shared by many poultry farmers. There is little enjoyment in losing your entire investment in Thanksgiving turkeys.

Many people who lived through the storm did not realize the danger they faced until later—in some cases, not until they heard about all those who died. William B. Smartwood’s account of a trek through the storm concluded: “This had been the most adventurous, though exhausting trip of my life and it was some time afterwards before I fully realized our danger during that 1940 blizzard.”

One way or another, the Armistice Day blizzard left its mark on Minnesotans. Memories of the storm have remained a topic of conversation and reminiscence ever since. Henrietta Mortenson of St. Paul went back to her job the second day after the blizzard “to find a party-like atmosphere. Everyone was trading stories of where they had spent their time during the storm.” Many years later, my grandmother attended a quilting party where the women took turns telling where they were and what they did during the blizzard. Whenever anyone mentioned the Armistice Day blizzard to Georgia Enfield Schultz of Bloomington, she saw a vivid image of her father coming inside from the snow, completely covered with ice. “It has stayed with me all these years—Dad walking out of his overcoat. It stood there, all by itself, frozen in place.”

James P. Shannon spent the afternoon of the storm driving commuters home from the end of the South St. Paul streetcar line, receiving generous, unsolicited tips. Later he drove to his father’s cattle farm in St. Paul Park to get the stock fed and under cover, a job that took until late in the evening. In his family’s folklore the time was referred to as “the night Dad and Jim saved the cattle, worried Mother almost to death, and got Jim’s car paid for.”

What is it that makes people go out in a storm? And what makes blizzards the subject of such nostalgia? People don’t run after their hats in storms merely out of perversity. Often they set out in a storm because, as one Armistice Day survivor said, “Things didn’t seem too bad.” Or they have cattle to take care of or feel they just “have to get back home” if the weather is threatening. But I think people behave this way in blizzards and tell these stories simply because they share some beliefs about the weather.

In these latitudes, the ability to withstand weather is a cultural marker, if not a cherished moral value. Ojibwe people living here in the 19th century survived during winter as much because of their attitude as their clothing. Missionary Joseph A. Gilfillan told of a poorly clad Ojibwa child who woke in the middle of a cold winter night in his family’s bark-walled home. “My little son, are you cold?” his mother asked him. “Yes, I am almost cold,” the child answered.

Early white settlers of the region were often just as matter-of-fact about the weather. A fur trader named Charles Oakes was traveling on snowshoes to get supplies for his hungry, snowbound family. Before he got very far, his feet froze. Friends found him and carried him home. It was evident that he would lose his feet. “He asked for an awl, punctured his feet full of holes and had the men pour them full of brandy. This, while it was excruciatingly painful, both at the time and afterwards, saved him his feet.”

Despite such difficulties, early Minnesotans were proud of the awesome and dramatic qualities of their weather. They believed that their climate played a vital role in producing a great civilization. J. Wesley Bond, whose book Minnesota and Its Resources was published in 1852 to encourage immigration to Minnesota Territory, insisted that after living in Minnesota for two years, “I can safely say that the atmosphere is more pure, pleasant and healthful than that of any other i have ever breathed on the continent of North or South America. This is particularly the case in the winter, the most buoyant, elastic and vigorous portion of the year.” A few years later another Minnesota booster, J. A. Wheelock, announced that Minnesota’s cold, dry winters were invigorating and stimulated intellectual life and “moral growth” of the people here. He wrote that the “atmosphere of Minnesota, even in its coldest state, is a robe of Arctic furs, which holds in and stimulates the resilient fires of vital heat within the body, imparting a sense of elastic vigor and redundant animation.”

Attitudes of this kind persist. When you drive into a gas station in Isabella on a day when the temperature is in the single negative digits and the man pumping the gas is naked to the waist, you know that there are still a few Minnesotans who display redundant animation. Word seems to be finally getting out to the rest of the country. The 1985 Rand-McNally Places Rated Almanac ranked the Twin Cities 320th out of 329 contenders in the climate category but noted that the cities had “changeable weather that many find stimulating and invigorating.”

Nothing is more invigorating than a good blizzard. In an editorial printed shortly after the Armistice Day blizzard, the Minneapolis Star-Journal boasted, “It takes an old-fashioned blizzard to bring out the unbeatable spirit of Minnesotans. We’ve praised the spirit of Londoners (during the Blitz) but Minnesotans can ‘take it’ too. A fig for your balmy climate, conducive to the lassitude of which we of the Northwest are forever free!”

Going out in the worst weather imaginable is an elemental adventure. It tests your ability to deal with adversity, which explains why many otherwise sane Minnesotans are compelled to go outdoors at the height of the storm. Even if they have no pressing need to go somewhere, they start their cars using every possible means and head out onto the snow-clogged streets and highways. Armed with sand, kitty litter, chains, shovels, jumper cables, starter fluid, and other devices and concoctions that might come in handy, they rock and gun their way through the drifts.

Perhaps more important, they are psychologically prepared to deal with the immensity of winter, something that would cause acute depression and sheer panic in Californians. William E. Gladitsch decided to go duck hunting the morning of Armistice Day, 1940. The ducks were flying, and the weather was good. The storm came up while he was out on the lake, and he spent most of the day huddled in the bottom of his boat, waiting for the wind to die down so he could get back to shore. He attributed his survival to having the right gear stowed in his duck boat. But he also recalled that “when I realized I was in trouble, I remembered what my dad said to me once when I was about to do something dumb without considering the consequences. It was ‘Willie, I hope your ma didn’t raise any idiots.’ ”

In many ways, the experience of a blizzard is akin to what the pioneers went through when they settled in the wilderness, battling stumps, grasshoppers, drought, and nature in general. In other parts of the country, civilization may seem firmly established, but in Minnesota, the blizzards make you wonder if anything was ever really settled. It is up to those who decide to go for a spin when the wind is raging to re-establish civilization, as they escape from the mundane discontents of the very thing they are asserting.

At the same time, blizzards create a sense of community in the survivors. People help each other in ways that decorum might otherwise prevent. My mother, who was not married until January 1,1941, recently confessed to me that my father spent the night of November 11, 1940, on the floor of her apartment with his back to the radiator rather than driving through the storm to his place on the other side of St. Paul. Many other blizzard survivors tell of people sharing beds, cars, streetcars, and snow caves with complete strangers.

Even those who do not spend the blizzard together physically are united later by the memory of the storm. This weather-induced sense of community has helped transform Minnesota from a state marked off by an arbitrary set of political boundaries into a state of mind, a way of thinking and acting. Blizzards have contributed to turning Minnesotans, whatever their ancestral background, into a cohesive cultural group with shared values and interests.

In the last few years Minnesotans may have drifted from their hearty traditions. No longer content to thaw out the turf at Met Stadium with flame throwers for the opening of baseball season or to watch football games during blizzards, Minnesotans now lounge about inside the Metrodome. To further fuel their flight from weather, they build skyways and shopping malls to insulate themselves from all that is invigorating. Will Minnesotans lose their ability to take everything the northwest winds can dish out? Will moral degradation follow?

One promising sign is that no matter what Minnesotans do, the weather intrudes. Sure, they built the Dome. But then what happened? Along came a snowstorm to squash it. And what happened the night Walter Mondale was nominated for president? WCCO TV’s Dave Moore went on at 10 o’clock to say: “On a night when Minnesota’s native son is in San Francisco to be nominated for president, it is the weather which is the top story on the evening’s news.” That night it was tornadoes. The theater of seasons strikes again.

On the other hand, if TV stations don’t make weather their top story, they hear about it. Former Minneapolis Star and Tribune TV critic Nick Coleman took WCCO to task for not making the September 24,1985, snowfall the lead story on that night’s news broadcast. He said WCCO was not as in tune with Minnesotans as the other stations. Clearly this is the function of news in Minnesota: to remind people what they may have forgotten —that we have rigorous weather here.

This is why, almost every year during the first week of November, a small, faithful band of TV reporters and camera operators descends on the photograph collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. These newspeople are working on ritual stories on the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. They come to view and film some of the most precious icons of Minnesota weather mythology: pictures taken by Minneapolis Star-Journal photographers showing automobiles lying in deep drifts of snow and frozen hunters stretched out in the underbrush near Red Wing.

The stories might seem annoyingly repetitive to outsiders, but the Armistice Day blizzard may be the most important story TV stations do all year. No more telling reminder of what it really means to be a Minnesotan could be found. And it doesn’t hurt to warn people at the beginning of the winter that you never know what might happen. It may be warm today, but remember 1940? When you go out for a drive in the storm, be sure to put some extra blankets in the car. And canned goods, matches, flares, chocolate bars, jigs and line for ice fishing, and maybe some extra socks. And for God’s sake put a rope around your waist when you head out to the barn!

The Ten Worst Blizzards in Minnesota History [as of December 1986]

What is it that makes a snowstorm bad? Sheer volume of snow? Size of drifts? Wind speed? For scientists, measures may suffice, but these criteria do not take into account the effects of storms on people.

To determine the impact of a storm you must also consider when it arrives, what events it disrupts, and who it hits. Meteorologist Bruce Watson, for example, says the Great Blizzard of February 13 through 15,1866, “from the standpoint of combined cold, wind, and snow . . . can be considered the worst ever in the 19th and 20th centuries” until “the storm of the century” in 1975. But Watson also points out that the 1866 blizzard began at night when most people were in bed and hit hardest between Fort Ridgely and Big Stone Lake, a sparsely populated region.

The state’s worst blizzards can’t be defined by mere statistics. A more reliable gauge is Minnesota’s local and county histories: Written by people who lived through many snowstorms, these books; provide the ultimate criterion—the authority of memory. Which snowstorms are most frequently remembered and recorded in these products of Minnesota’s collective consciousness? The following list is based on a statewide sampling of Minnesota county histories.

1871. January 7. The first blizzard experienced by large numbers of newly arrived Minnesota immigrants made a big impression. The three-day storm followed a period of above-freezing weather and many people were outdoors on their way to town when the storm hit- Many were trapped by its sudden arrival, and their bodies were not discovered until spring.

1880. October 15. This blizzard also ended a period of warm weather, dropping 15 inches of snow in some places and causing deep drifts all over. It arrived suddenly during pleasant fall weather, not in midwinter like the 1873 storm, and marked the beginning of one of the worst winters that Minnesota settlers had experienced. The 1912 history of Lyon County reports: “One of the dates from which to me is reckoned in Lyon County is the winter of 1880-81—the season of Siberian frigidity.”

1888. January 12. In southwestern Minnesota this blizzard was ushered in by a drop in temperature from 18 degrees above zero to 25 below in one hour. The so-called Great Blizzard of 1888 occurred a few months later on March 11 in the northeastern states. Weather, like other things, seems to travel slowly from the Midwest.

1892. March 9. Two storms one from the northwest and the other from the south, combined to produce winds up to 58 miles per hour. The blizzard hit northeastern Minnesota particularly hard. Residents of Duluth claimed it was the worst snowstorm they had ever seen. It stopped all activity for three days and left hard-packed drifts as high as 10 feet in the streets. People who were trapped in their offices in downtown Duluth escaped from second-story windows after the storm.

1922. February 22. In southern Minnesota there were heavy thunderstorms. Northeastern Minnesota got snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds. Residents of Clover Township, Pine County, remembered the blizzard for many years. It certainly made an impact on Dorothy Grace, who grew up to write a poem about it:

I’ve heard stories of many snowstorms,
Seen others during my years:
But, to me. this particular one,
Ranks higher than all of its peers.

1923. February 11 This storm produced 40-mile-per-hour winds and a temperature of 20 below zero. A St. Paul newspaper reported winds that plucked cigars from people’s mouths and sent loose car bumpers blowing down the middle of the empty streets. A history of Douglas County calls it one of Minnesota’s severest blizzards.

1940. November 11 and 12. Like the storm of 1873, the Armistice Day blizzard became a watchword for a generation of Minnesotans. At the time of this storm, few were alive who remembered the 1873 storm, which perhaps explains its notoriety.

1941. March 15 and 16. For northwestern Minnesota residents this storm was far worse than the famed Armistice Day blizzard. It arrived on a day when temperatures were in the 30’s. The storm traveled across Minnesota from the Red River Valley during daylight hours, stranding many people and killing more than 30. A Norman County farm woman wrote a long poem about the storm that began:

The day had been nice, also the day before.
It was March Fifteenth, 1941,
That awful nightmare for everyone.
The day had been nice, also the day before.
And no sign of what was in store.

1965. March 17. Throughout the state, from Marshall to Duluth, snow accumulated at the rate of an inch an hour All told, the St. Patrick’s Day blizzard brought 10 to 15 inches of snow and drifts up to 25 feet high. One innovation, the snowmobile, allowed food and fuel to be brought to stranded storm victims.

1975. January 10 through 12. This heavy rainstorm and subsequent blizzard with high winds and snow was immediately dubbed “the storm of the century.” It has already been recorded in many county histories published during the last 10 years, indicating that it will be remembered for a long time to come. A history of Pipestone County draws this lesson from the storm: “Winters had been mild for several years and many people became careless. As a result, many were stranded in cars, some suffering frostbite. There were deaths throughout the region.”

Because this article was written in 1986, an important storm, the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 is not included. And maybe now you should add the 12-11-10 Blizzard and a few other storms to this list.

“Walker doesn’t say Unktehi gave the medicine lodge to the Lakota”!–Park Service officials try to figure out Dakota culture

The quotation in the title concerning the powerful underwater beings known also to the Dakota Taku Wakan demonstrates the perils of government bureaucrats attempting to substitute their own judgments about Dakota places of cultural importance for the cultural interpretations of Native people. The statement makes clear the primacy that government officials place on written documents, even in discussing cultural matters about which oral tradition and the testimony of living people has been presented, and it is so full of errors of fact and interpretation that it is difficult to know where to begin in addressing them.

When public officials present themselves as arbiters of the meaning of Native beliefs and spiritual practices, the results are unfortunate if not embarrassing for all concerned. The statement about Unktehi is from a National Park Service evaluation of the Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) study (or Ethnographic Resources Study) on Coldwater Spring, located on the former Bureau of Mines-Twin Cities Campus property in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The evaluation was done by Michael J. Evans, a Park Service Senior Cultural Anthropologist, in January 2006. He sent the evaluation to Kim Berns of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) in St. Paul, in whose office historian John Anfinson was doing an evaluation of the TCP study. Anfinson, who also exchanged emails with Evans on the topic, is credited by the Park Service with having made the determination that Coldwater Spring was not, as far as the Park Service was concerned, a place of traditional cultural importance to the Dakota, contrary to the findings of the outside consultants who wrote the Ethnographic Study.

Dakota people have often described St. Anthony Falls–as well as the ice dams that formed there in winter and sometimes gave way in a massive rush of water–as manifesting the power of Unktehi. William H. Jacoby photograph, ca. 1875, Minnesota Historical Society.

The Evans evaluation was included with a series of emails from that time period released by the National Park Service in spring 2010 in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by To his credit Evans was forthcoming in providing these emails documenting his and others’ participation in evaluating the TCP study. Evans not only included his own and Kim Berns’ emails but some written by John Anfinson, who was then in the midst of responding to the TCP study.

Interestingly John Anfinson himself did not produce these same emails in response to the FOIA request. He produced no emails at all showing his communication about the TCP study, despite a FOIA reqeuest for just such documents. In a followup to the Park Service FOIA officer Nene McManus  in June 2010, I asked why Anfinson had failed to provide these emails. In response, McManus wrote that she would look into the matter: “I have contacted John Anfinson regarding his emails and will get back to you as soon as I can–he may or may not have kept these.” Six months later there has been no further response.

It should be noted that under the National Park Service’s Director’s Order #19, regarding records management, “NPS records in the possession of individual employees are not the personal property of those employees and are to remain accessible to other employees unless restricted by law.” John Anfinson’s records recording his deliberations in reaching the conclusion that Coldwater Spring was not a TCP are part of the record of the EIS process relating to the Coldwater Spring site and should be available to the public.

While Anfinson has resisted revealing much information about his evaluation process, Michael Evans did explain his thinking on the issue, as quoted in full at the end of this article. What is striking about the evaluation is how it reveals the problems with public officials evaluating Native culture and becoming arbiters about issues such as TCPs. Many of the issues raised are not only wrongly based but appear testy and querulous at the very least, as though Evans (like Anfinson, as reported elsewhere) was making clear how difficult it would be to convince him of the idea that Coldwater Spring could be a TCP for the Dakota. While the author questioned the factual basis for the spring as a TCP, he relied on erroneous statements to support his own arguments. The paragraph on Unktehi, in particular, is full of errors, revealing a profound lack of knowledge of Dakota culture. It should be noted that Unktehi is (or rather, are, since there are many) associated with the entire area of Bdote, which explains part of the connection to Coldwater Spring. It was that point, brought out by present-day Dakota people in the Ethnographic Study that Evans sought to dispute:

Unktehi – The discussion of this religious being in Dakota cosmology should probably also include the information presented by Walker for the Lakota. In brief, [James R.] Walker’s texts indicate that Unktehi was a malevolent being (but not a spirit being) that was perceived as being dangerous and to be avoided. There is no reference in Walker’s work that Unktehi gave the medicine lodge to the Lakota. While it is to be expected that some cultural differences will be identifiable between present-day Dakota and Lakota peoples due to different experiences each have gone through since the Lakota bands moved from Minnesota to the northern Plains, this difference in cosmology (the Dakota interviewees describing Unktehi as “good;” Walker’s interviewees describing Unktehi as “bad”) deserves some analysis to see whether the difference in beliefs affects the cultural significance of the spring and any proposed management regimes for the area.

Almost every word of this confused account about Unktehi requires commentary.

A view of part of Bdote, the mouth of the Minnesota River, looking up the river, an engraving done in the 1880s, based on a water color by Seth Eastman from the 1840s.

1. Why would it be necessary for the Dakota of Minnesota to agree with an ethnographer’s report about the beliefs of the Lakota of South Dakota? Even if the ethnographer’s report is accurate, this is a bit like saying that the Swedes disagree with the Norwegians about something. It is not a surprising assertion, but it provides no evidence about the nature of the subject being discussed.

2. On the nature of Unktehi, there is, in fact, plenty of evidence in James R. Walker’s Lakota work about the multiple nature of Unktehi as a power for good and ill for the Lakota.  One remarkable account that is included in his book Lakota Myth (p. 130-33) was obtained from an Oglala man named Left Heron. It tells of “the Mysterious Lake,” the place known as Mde Wakan or Mille Lacs, around which many Dakota and Lakota communities were located for centuries. The account tells of the Unktehi who lived in the lake and wished to marry the daughter of the chief of the people who lived there.The Unktehi said: “I have nothing to give you but if you will put the seed of things that are good in the water and in the earth, they will grow and you can have plenty to eat.” The Lakota chief agreed and as a result the Unktehi taught the Lakotas about how to grow things on the shore of the lake:

When I push the ice from the waters, then I will appear to you. When I do [this], then the next moon, put the seed in the earth and I will put the seed into the water.

So when the ice was on the water, the chief watched it and he saw the Unktehi push it upon the lake and he watched for the Unketehi but he did not see him.

In the moon when the grass begins to grow, the Unktehi pushed the ice from the waters and the chief saw him.

Then the chief put the seed into the ground (the wamnu, pumpkin, wamnahaza, corn, omnica, beans) and they grew so that there was food in the camp.

Ever afterward, when the Unkehi was seen in the lake, the people planted and things grew well. But if the Unktehi was not seen, then the things planted did not grow.

So the people made sacrifices to the Unktehi to pleas him that he might appear in this lake. . .

The Unktehi planted the seed in the water, (psa, rush; psin wild rice) and he also planted some seed near the waters (psin ca, water turnip; psin cala ca or timpsila, turnip). And he taught that these were good to eat. . . .

According to the legend, it was for this reason that they called Mille Lacs “the Mysterious Lake.” Clearly, contrary to statements of Michael Evans, it is simplistic, if not completely erroneous to say that the Lakota thought of the Unktehi as “bad.”

3. Regardless of whether Walker records an account stating that Unktehi gave the medicine lodge to the Lakota it is important to state that there are many other written sources, which agree with the points made by present-day Dakota people, and which state that the Dakota who practiced the Wakan Wacipi or medicine ceremony attributed it’s teachings and practices to Unktehi. An article in the Dakota Friend, published by the missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond, and reprinted in the March 3, 1852 Minnesota Democrat, contained a detailed discussion about Oanktayhee, as the Pond’s spelled the name of that powerful being. The author of the article, probably  Gideon Pond, wrote that

The form of the Oantayhee, Onkteri, is like that of the ox, and he is covered with a similar coat of hair. His eyes are like the moon in size and his horns he can instantly extend at his pleasure, so that they will reach the sky. This is also true of his tail. Awful destructive powers–wakan powers, are in the horns and tail. There are many of them both male and female, and propagate their kind like animals. The earth is animated by the spirit of the female, while the dwelling place of the of the male is in the water. It is on this account that the Dakotas address their prayers to the earth as their Grandmother, and the water as their Grandfather.

As powerful and terrible might be the power of the Unktehi, as described here, they also had great creative power. The fact is that the Unktehi were key in one of the Dakota creation stories, involving a great flood, and how after that “he then proceeded to institute the much celebrated Medicine or Wakan Dance.” The role of the Unktehi in the Wahpeton Dakota medicine ceremony was also discussed at great length in the classic work of anthropologist Alanson Skinner, Medicine Ceremony of the Menomini, Iowa, Wahpeton Dakota, with Notes on the Ceremony among the Ponca, Bungi Ojibwa, and Potawatomi (available online in pdf form from Google Books). If Park Service experts want to debate Dakota culture with Dakota people, should they not be obligated to acknowledge the evidence of such obvious sources as the invaluable record left by the Ponds and Skinner? If Park Service experts put a premium on written records and respect the written records more than the testimony of Dakota people should they not have looked at such important written sources before drawing their conclusions? To overlook this information provides further evidence of the faulty and self-serving evaluation process carried on in the Park Service bureaucrats about Coldwater Spring.

4. Evans points out that Unktehi was a “being” rather than a “spirit.” It is unclear how this sheds light on whether Coldwater Spring was a TCP or not, but it raises interesting semantic issues. The first Europeans to visit the Dakota were sometimes called wasicun, a word sometimes translated inexactly as “esprits,” in French or “spirits” in English, not to indicate that they were ethereal beings but as a commentary on their amazing technology, which the Dakota viewed as beyond human capabilities. Perhaps “powerful beings with superhuman power” would be a better term. In this very sense the Unketehi were beings with amazing power, manifested through weather events such as floods, or land forms, such as places like Pilot Knob/ Oheyawahi, a hill said to have been produced with an Unketehi plowed into the bank at Bdote, the mouth of the Minnesota River.

5. Despite all the errors in this paragraph, Evans ends on a good note pointing out that the beliefs of the Dakota about Unktehi should be considered in relation to “any proposed management regimes for the area.” This excellent point was ignored by Anfinson or other officials in the Park Service who, having rejected Dakota beliefs about Coldwater Spring ignored its relevance for ownership or management of the site.

6. What happens when “experts” go beyond the areas of their “expertise”? No expert should ever put himself in a position of arguing with Native people about the meaning of their own beliefs. The fact that it happens in the National Park Service demonstrates a distorted and bureaucratically-based system for dealing with Native cultural resources that is in great need of change. When will the National Park Service acknowledge this problem and act to remedy it?

7. Oh, and by the way, apparently James R. Walker’s work does say that the medicine ceremony came from Unktehi. A fragment entitled “Addresses by Shamans at a Wacipi Wakan,” in Walker’s work Lakota Belief and Ritual (p. 118), stated, simply, “Unktehi gave the Wacipi Wakan.” Oh well, never mind.


Here is the full text of Michael J. Evans attempt to tell Dakota people what their own culture means. Many will have disagreements with almost every statement made below, especially the interpretation of the meaning of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act for Indian people. Those interested in evaluating the Ethographic Study on which these comments are based can find the study online in pdf form, though readers should keep in mind that the document is the final version so the page numbers cited will not be the same as those mentioned below by Michael Evans. The text below is based on a scanned version of a hard copy of the document and is subject to later correction of typos, if necessary:

[Michael J. Evans], Comments on draft ethnography manuscript.

The writing style is clear and readable. Maps and charts are clear.

The report lacks any description of research methods or a recognizable ethnography research methodology. This is not an example of systematic social science, as called for by the SOW and emphasized at the post-award meeting. “Informal” interviews (p. 5) are not an example of systematic social science. The authors state that the interview questions listed on p. 8-9 “were not asked in a systematic and standardized way. Rather, the questions were on hand to refer to as appropriate.” The questions were supposed to be part of the interviews, so when was it not appropriate to ask them during what was supposed to be an interview as part of the study? This is a major problem with the draft.

While the authors claim that the interview questions were used to gather ethnographic data, there is little text in the report that reflects or points to this data. After review of the interview transcripts and notes, many of the interview situations do not appear to have had any of the interview questions asked. This is a major problem with the draft.

The lack of a recognizable methodology or the use of a set of research methods commonly found in ethnography research projects, makes it difficult to see how the conclusions outlined in the document were developed.

Citing Mike Agar and Penn Handwerker are not sufficient for describing a research methodology or individual research methods. As explained in the post-award meeting, these two books are representative of two ends of a continuum of ethnographic research methods. A standard text is Bernard’s “Research Methods in Anthropology,” but the authors of the report do not appear to have used any of the information or principals discussed by Bernard.

The identification of Coldwater Spring as culturally important to Ojibwe people (in an ethnic group sense) is not sufficiently supported by the interview or ethnohistorical data, not withstanding the fundamental problems with the lack of any systematic ethnographic research. I recommend dropping the Ojibwe as an ethnic group from the report and title, and focusing the text on what is actually known about the cultural importance of the site to the Dakota interviewees.

The text of the report appears to try and generalize a cultural importance of the spring to all Dakota (and Ojibwe) people. The lack of systematic research does not allow the generalization of a few comments about the spring (many from non-tribal members or even non-Indian individuals) to either a specific tribe or a tribal ethnic group (for example, “all Dakota”). Ethnographic research is commonly structured so that any information and data gathered can be both specifically and generally applied to specific tribal groups or tribal ethnic groups. This study appears not to have done that, hence the validity of the generalizations are questionable.

Unktehi – The discussion of this religious being in Dakota cosmology should probably also include the information presented by Walker for the Lakota. In brief, Walker’s texts indicate that Unktehi was a malevolent being (but not a spirit being) that was perceived as being dangerous and to be avoided. There is no reference in Walker’s work that Unktehi gave the medicine lodge to the Lakota. While it is to be expected that some cultural differences will be identifiable between present-day Dakota and Lakota peoples due to different experiences each have gone through since the Lakota bands moved from Minnesota to the northern Plains, this difference in cosmology (the Dakota interviewees describing Unktehi as “good;” Walker’s interviewees describing Unktehi as “bad”) deserves some analysis to see whether the difference in beliefs affects the cultural significance of the spring and any proposed management regimes for the area.

Inipi – The discussion of the Inipi or Sweat Lodge does not appear to be relevant, since there is no information presented regarding the Coldwater spring area as being associated with sweat lodge activity or ceremonies. Presumably the authors are trying to draw the implication that sweat lodges may have sometimes used spring water (if available), and since Coldwater Spring is a spring, that people may have used the water for sweat lodges, if they used sweat lodges in the area. There is nothing in this discussion, or the presumed implications, that distinguishes Coldwater Spring from any other spring, or distinguishes presumed activities at Coldwater Spring from similar activities that have occurred in other places.

P. 7 – “official and unofficial representatives” – There is no such category as an “unofficial representative.” Official tribal representatives speak on behalf of their tribe, which is why the tribal governments are asked to identify tribal members to serve as tribal representatives. Tribal members who are not official tribal representatives are often interviewed when they are identified by their tribal government or other tribal members as knowledgeable on the subject being discussed. In research methods terms, these individuals would be “key cultural experts.” An article in American Anthropologist by Romney discussed one way of identifying key cultural experts (and how many people would be needed in order to have confidence that a subject would be adequately covered) through consensus modeling.

p.35 — I question whether a state of overgeneralization, or a stretching of statements beyond what the data will support is occurring. For example: on page 35, the statement is made “Pike’s 1805 treaty was cited frequently during interviews with both Dakota and Ojibwe tribal members.. .”.Because of the lack of any systematic interviewing, it would be meaningless to quantify what “frequently” refers to. However, given that only about 11 interviews were conducted, what does “frequently” mean? Of the interviews provided for subsequent perusal, only a couple were with Ojibwe interviewee’s, so how many times did Pike’s treaty actually arise during the course of an interview? Treaty rights were not deemed important enough to include as a topic in the original set of interview questions, so was the topic mentioned often enough in casual conversation to warrant making it an interview topic, and if so, was everyone asked about it? Is this why Ojibwe interviewees were cited as having “frequently” discussed a Sioux (i.e. Dakota) treaty?

p. 36 – Another example of what appears to be overgeneralization occurs on page 36. The sentence reads “… American Indian responses to this undertaking were received from Dakota and Ojibwe representatives, …”. My perusal of the interview data, and statements elsewhere in the report, indicate that only one Ojibwe tribe, and two Ojibwe individuals were included in the study. Who did the individuals represent, the Ojibwe people (a Native American ethnic group), an American Indian tribe, or just themselves? Again, the lack of systematic research, and a tendency to generalize beyond a supportable point with the data that is available, weakens the argument being presented, that Coldwater Spring, specifically, is a culturally important place.

p. 53-54 – The discussion of ethnographic resource identification should include some pertinent information: the concept and definitions of ethnographic resources are specific to the National Park Service, found in NPS Management Policies and cultural resource management guidelines used for park management. This discussion should cite the source, the full definition, and indicate that the definition as presented in the management policies of the NPS only applies to NPS-owned land.

On page 54, the definition of traditionally associated groups is incomplete. The full definition from Management Policies 2001 is:

“traditionally associated peoples—may include park neighbors, traditional residents, and former residents who remain attached to a park area despite having relocated. For purposes of these Management Policies,  social/cultural entities such as tribes, communities, and kinship units are “traditionally associated” with a particular park when (1) the entity regards park resources as essential to its development and continued identity as a culturally distinct people; (2) the association has endured for at least two generations (40 years); and (3) the association began prior to establishment of the park.

p. 61 -1 believe the statement that American Indian religions were outlawed prior to 1978, and that American Indians were prohibited from practicing their traditional religions prior to the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, is incorrect. The text of AIRFA is ( [actually the correct current link to this document is]:

Section 1

On and after August 11,1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional) religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

Section 2

The President shall direct the various Federal departments, agencies, and other instrumentalities responsible for administering relevant laws to evaluate their policies and procedures in consultation with native traditional religious leaders in order to determine appropriate changes necessary to protect and preserve Native American religious cultural rights and practices. Twelve months after August 11,1978, the President shall report back to Congress the results of his evaluation, including any changes* which were made in administrative policies and procedures, and any recommendations he may have for legislative action.

In summary, I think that the authors of the draft report have overstretched their available data, in part due to the lack of a coherent and consistent research methodology and research design. The present report does not reflect a study that is an example of systematic social science. I will be interested to see if the authors have other information that allows them to address the concerns outlined above. Unfortunately, I do not know of any easy way of fixing the problems regarding the lack of systematic research methods or a coherent research methodology, short of redoing the work.

Without information there is no accountability

Without the free flow of information there is no accountability. Public servants, agencies, organizations, and businesses which can conceal the details of their operations from public scrutiny are free of accountability.  This applies to many institutions in the United States and in Minnesota, including history organizations like the Minnesota Historical Society.


At the Minnesota Historical Society building entrance, looking along John Ireland Boulevard toward the State Capitol in St. Paul, December 4, 2010. Bruce White photo.

In 2005, in the case of Lille Ledbetter, involving discriminatory pay, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she should have sued her employer within 180 days of being paid less than male employees in the same firm. Unfortunately Lille Ledbetter had no way of knowing that she was being paid less. After all, how many people are able to get their employers to tell them how much other people in their firms are being paid for comparable work? You might get this information eventually, but doing so within 180 days of beginning to work at the firm would be difficult. Effectively the Supreme Court gave Lillie Ledbetter’s employer a free pass from accountability, based on its ability to prevent the flow of information (something that Congress reversed through the passage of the  Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009).

Here’s another example. Recently the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case  struck down a provision of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” The decision opened the door to non-candidate and non-party funding of election ads. Groups can effectively conceal the source of their own funding for broadcasting in favor of and against candidates unless there are specific laws passed to require them to disclose the source of that funding. Where’s the accountability for businesses or other entities that fund such ads if they can conceal their participation?

And then, there is the Minnesota Historical Society, a non-profit entity that, at the mandate of the Minnesota State Legislature, performs many public functions including operating a public state-funded library,  a State Archives, and a network of state-owned historic sites, being a conduit for state funding of historical grants, and many other activities. The Minnesota Historical Society receives up to two-thirds of its operating budget from the State of Minnesota. Yet the Minnesota Historical Society is not subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

If, as in the past, the state network of historic sites were operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that agency would be required to release to the public information classified as public under the Data Practices Act. But since the Minnesota Historical Society–a 501(c)(3), the oldest such institution in the state–operates those historic sites, there is no requirement that information about those historic sites be made public, even though the sites are funded publicly. Though the State funds many of the Minnesota Historical Society’s activities, details about those activities are not required to be made public.

Many people are surprised to hear that the Minnesota Historical Society is not a public agency and therefore not subject to the state’s law about public information. It is nothing new, though the first public occasion on which Minnesota’s public officials ruled that the Minnesota Historical Society was not subject to this law was in 2006 when the matter came before the State Commissioner of Administration through the Information Policy and Analysis Division. The matter came before the Commissioner because of my own request for information from the Historical Society, which the director Nina Archabal had refused to supply.

The advisory opinion of the commissioner was simply that “The Minnesota Historical Society is not subject to the requirements of Chapter 13. Therefore, the Society was not required to comply with Chapter 13 in responding to a March 14, 2005, request for access to data.” The commissioner, or rather the lawyer for the Minnesota Historical Society, on whose brief the commissioner’s opinion was largely based, argued that the Minnesota Historical Society despite its funding, would have had to be mentioned specifically in Chapter 13 of state law–like University of Minnesota, which is mentioned in the law–to be subject to its requirements. If state agencies contracted with the Minnesota Historical Society to do all the state functions that it does, the society would be subject to the Data Practices Act. But because it carries out its state functions through the State Legislature, it is exempt from any requirement for public disclosure.

There are many issues involved with whether or not the Minnesota Historical Society should be subject to Minnesota’s Data Practices Act. There is some question about whether the State Legislature could make the Historical Society subject to the Data Practices law, given its 501(c)(3) status. However that issue appears to have been settled over one hundred years ago in a legal case which established that the legislature could apply conditions for its funding. If the legislature decided that being subject to the Data Practices law was a condition of receiving state money then the Historical Society could refuse both the money and the condition attached to it, but could not escape that condition if it chose to keep the money.

Others have suggested that the being subject the the Data Practices law would have a devastating effect on the Historical Society, making it more fearful and more political.  In fact, it is not likely that being required to be more open about its activities or decisions would have a profound effect on most of the society’s activities. The most profound effect might be on those areas about which there is the most public desire for information: how the Historical Society makes its decisions.  The Historical Board and the director it appoints are highly political already but also highly secretive in the way they make decisions.  The combination of political maneuvering and secrecy often make for an unfortunate mix. Opening the doors to the board’s decision-making processes might make the institution less political, forcing the institution to reveal the reasons for its choices and the fact-based justifications for them.

My own own position in 2006 was that the Historical Society was or at least should be subject to this law only for those activities it carries out with state funding. But the Historical Society’s lawyer rejected the idea that the society was subject to the Data Practices law in any way, shape, or form, and the Commissioner of Administration adopted the society’s position. And it should be noted that it is likely that if the State Legislature determined to apply my suggested rationale to information regarding the society that the society’s lawyers might argue that the deliberations of the Historical Society’s board could not be subject to the Data Practices law because the board was a volunteer board and not funded by the state. The only way to achieve openness in the Historical Society’s board’s decision-making would be for the State Legislature to apply a blanket Data Practices requirement to all the activities of the society, as a condition of receiving state funding.

View from the steps of the old Minnesota Historical Society building, around 1959, looking toward the State Capitol, from which the Historical Society has long gotten the bulk of its funding. Eugene D. Becker photo, MHS, neg. no. 2247.

Currently the Historical Society is choosing a new director to replace Nina Archabal. Whatever the public wishes to know about this job search will consist of only the information the society feels that it is in its best interest to release. This is what the Historical Society’s last known information policy, which is very different in spirit from Minnesota’s  Data Practices Act, says about the release of information:

The Society may deny or limit access to information if providing access would unreasonably harm the interests of the Society, whether because of the burdensomeness of the request, the practical difficulties of compliance, or the negative impact on ongoing operations of providing access to the requested information. . . .

There are many changes in store at the Minnesota Historical Society, but what the board of that organization has planned remains to be seen and will be revealed in such manner as the board believes is most beneficial to itself. Don’t bother asking. When it comes to the Minnesota Historical Society we are all on a “need to know basis.”

Chocolate and circuses at the Minnesota Historical Society

Chocolate and circuses are the legacy of the retired director of the Minnesota Historical Society, Nina Archabal. It is at best, a mixed legacy, one that present and future generations may regret. Past generations, the ones who founded the Minnesota Historical Society would regret it too, because it is so different from the purposes they expressed in founding the institution.

Earlier this year in the summer I did my best to try to convince people that the Minnesota Historical Society was capable of dealing with serious historical topics, that it was changing because its director of many years was retiring, and that the agency could handle a tragic subject like the indelible mark left on the state by the events of 1862. A few days later I received in the mail the announcement of the new “blockbuster” exhibit, on the subject of chocolate. I am a big fan of chocolate, but what bothers me about the exhibit is how little it has to do with the important mission of the Historical Society to preserve and interpret the history of this place, of Minnesota. There may be “chocolate stories” to tell about Minnesota, but this eight-year-old exhibit from the Field Museum in Chicago does not tell them.

The Minnesota Historical Society is not a history organization that happens to be located in Minnesota, it is an organization founded and dedicated to tell the history of Minnesota. The Minnesota Historical Society is not the equivalent of the Minnesota Orchestra,  an orchestra that just happens to be located in Minnesota but does not focus on Minnesota music. For years Nina Archabal led the Minnesota Historical Society to embrace the mission that history was not as boring as it seemed–at least to people who were bored by history, or to people who did not consider the history of Minnesota to be important enough to bother about. For Nina Archabal history was entertainment, and the subject of the entertainment did not matter much as long as it was vaguely related to history and drew some crowds. What was missing was a sense of the importance of the history of this place and the social role that preserving and interpreting Minnesota’s history could serve in Minnesota. This became a particular problem at times when there were budget deficits.

There is nothing wrong with using the tools of entertainment to draw people into rich Minnesota stories. But when entertainment is used for its own sake or to tell Minnesotans about the Mayans and their chocolate, it does nothing more than convince people that rich stories can be found anywhere but in Minnesota. If the Minnesota Historical Society was merely an institution geared to provide  entertainment why would it matter if its budget were cut in times economic woes, when entertainment could be dispensed with for awhile? The answer is that the historical society can have a much larger and much more important role to play in Minnesota, as the keeper of historical records, the site of Minnesota’s state-mandated historical library, the interpreter of and educator about Minnesota’s rich history as a state. What does chocolate do to further that role? The essential  social role of the Minnesota Historical Society is one that the founders of the institution had in mind when they created it in 1849, before Minnesota was a state. It is a role that that the many talented and dedicated members of the staff of the historical society continue to carry out to the best of their ability, but it is that role that Nina Archabal shortchanged and frequently disrespected.  I hope that the new director of the society, to be selected soon, will have a different point of view.

Here’s  a more detailed description of the chocolate exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society, from the institution’s own website. Oddly enough the page where this appears is numbered “1862” but it is very distant from any attempt to grapple with Minnesota’s own complex history:

Chocolate is a $16 billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States with Americans eating about 12 pounds per person annually, according to the National Confectioners Association. But chocolate is much more than a sweet treat associated with luxury and romance. Its story begins in the rainforest of Central and South America where the ancient Maya harvested the precious cacao seed to use as money and made a drink out of the grounds. Explore the relationship between human culture and this rainforest treasure in “Chocolate,” at the Minnesota History Center from Oct. 2, 2010, to Jan. 2, 2011.

The exhibit introduces visitors to the plant, products, history and culture of chocolate. Learn about the cacao tree and its rainforest environment; chocolate in the Maya and Aztec cultures; how chocolate came to Europe, its history there, and how technology changed it from a luxury to a mass-produced snack food; and how chocolate is grown, processed, advertised, consumed, and traded on the world market today.

Artifacts include pre-Columbian ceramics and ritual objects; European silver and porcelain chocolate services; nineteenth- and twentieth-century cocoa tins, advertising and packaging; antique and contemporary candy molds; and botanical specimens and agricultural tools.

Originated by The Field Museum in Chicago, this blockbuster exhibit has been seen by more than 1.6 million people in museums across the United States.

“Chocolate” is a bilingual exhibit; all text is in Spanish and English.

A closed mind on Coldwater Spring

The recent statement by John Anfinson, historian with the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), that Coldwater Spring was “latched onto” by various groups including American Indians as a sacred place is merely one more example of the Anfinson’s closed mind and biased point of view. He and the agency for which he works, made up their minds a long time ago. Here’s more evidence of that. In 2008 a vehement, non-Indian Coldwater Spring supporter  sent me an email saying:

I am getting quite concerned about the lies being spread about Camp Coldwater in the papers by [name deleted]. Sacred waters, now healing waters. Sacred trees. Its that old saying, when a lie is said often enough, people start to believe it. I know for a fact that [name deleted] asked [name deleted] to lie about 4 sacred trees to stop MNDOT in MHHA park. [Name deleted] keeps making things up as he and his merry little band want the land for a Casino down the road.

I responded noting that the oak trees were a moot point, since they had been cut down eight years before, and that there were no Dakota people who wanted a casino at Coldwater Spring. I said:

What is important is that the spring be preserved and respected . . . . . I am not in a position to tell anyone about the particular power of the water in the spring, but I believe there is plenty of evidence about the importance of the water there for Dakota people, in relation to Mdote, Taku Wakan Tipi, and the wakan wacipi [medicine ceremony]. I am ready to argue that point with anyone who denies it, based on historical and cultural evidence.

The Coldwater Spring supporter forwarded these emails to John Anfinson at MNRRA, who wrote of Park Service plans for the protection of the spring. He added:

I am not going to get into any extended discussion of the sacred character of the spring. I have said what I believe about that already. The bottom line is that it is tremendously important to many people. It will require the best effort to define its restoration, protection and access protocol.

Anfinson was unwilling to discuss the issue of “the sacred character of the spring.” He had made up his mind. And that mind, as indicated in the statement made in September 2010, to the Pioneer Press reporter, was inclined to agree with the non-Indian who objected to Dakota beliefs about the importance of the spring, suggesting that they were manufactured.  Yet MNRRA has pretended to have a open mind about the issue. In recent  “White Paper” written in January 2010 by the staff of MNRRA, the agency stated:

For the Draft EIS, MNRRA’s Cultural Resources Specialist, Dr. John Anfinson, evaluated Coldwater Spring’s eligibility for the National Register as a TCP under 36 CFR part 63 and under National Register Bulletin 38, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional! Cultural Properties. He found that Coldwater Spring did not meet the National Register criteria or the guidelines of Bulletin 38. MNRRA presented this initial finding in the Draft EIS. The TCP review process under Section 800.4, however, was just beginning. MNRRA’s position stated in the Draft EIS was simply an initial finding and open for discussion.

The final determination on the TCP status was open until MNRRA sent out the final MOA for signature on January 20, 2010. And, MNRRA is still willing to consider the designation.

Despite these last claims, neither the MNRRA nor John Anfinson were willing to consider or discuss the designation of Coldwater as a TCP or as a sacred place after August 2006. Anfinson had made up his mind. Mind, and case, closed.

Is the National Park Service racist?

When a National Park Service spokesperson in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in St. Paul compared the interest of Dakota people in the historic and culturally important Coldwater Spring, located in Hennepin County, Minnesota, to that of “Wiccans, New Agers, more-traditional religious people,” and said that Native people like all these other groups had “latched onto” Coldwater Spring as a sacred place, was that racist?

The question of whether the statement was racist and whether that reflects any overt racism on the part of the National Park Service, is perhaps less important than the fact that it was biased and that the bias was entirely representative of the position taken by the National Park Service about the cultural and historical connection of Dakota people to this spring and to other springs in the region of the Dakota homelands in Minnesota.

The historic marker, which commemorated white settlement and the military history at Coldwater Spring, in 2009. Since this photograph was taken, the marker has been removed.

In an article published in St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, concerning efforts by the Park Service to obtain federal funding to remove structures near Coldwater Spring, John Anfinson, a “Park Service historian” with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was quoted as follows:

“It will be available to everyone,” Anfinson said of the spring and the spring setting. “It will be protected. A number of people latched onto it as a sacred place. Wiccans, New Agers, more-traditional religious people, American Indians. It is a magnet for all kinds of people looking for spiritual meaning. It is the oldest feature of Fort Snelling and one of the longest used.”

This statement is consistent with the approach taken by the Park Service about Coldwater Spring. The Park Service has stated on many occasions that the statements of Dakota people that the spring had an important place in Dakota history and culture are suspect and must be supported by documentation produced by European-American historical documents in order to be accepted by the Park Service. The Park Service has often expressed the opinion that Dakota people “latched onto” Coldwater for political purposes, and that the spring has no cultural or historical importance to the Dakota. The agency has also asserted that the main importance of Coldwater Spring was as a part of the military history of Fort Snelling. The Park Service has refused to acknowledge any connection of Dakota people to Coldwater Spring, which is located on federal land, which was first built upon by the U.S. military following a treaty with Dakota people in 1805.

All of this has been subject to discussion on for several years now. What remains to be seen is at what point the Park Service will disavow the biased statements made by John Anfinson on this question. At some point the Park Service will have to do that, because the importance of the spring to  Dakota people is one of the most significant aspects of the property, one that the Park Service has already announced that it will feature in the interpretation it plans to give to the property.

Furthermore, under law, the Park Service is not allowed to equate the beliefs of Dakota and other Native people with those of Wiccans. According to the statement attributed to John Anfinson, the Park Service also would like it to be known that it will protect Coldwater Spring for all American citizens, not just for Dakota people. No special consideration will be given for Dakota or other Native people. What is not mentioned is that federal law does require that special consideration be given to Native people in relation to cultural and historic properties such as Coldwater Spring. In particular, regardless of its refusal to accept what Dakota people say about Coldwater Spring, the Park Service must make special provision for any Dakota group that finds the spring to be sacred. There is no requirement that the agency to do anything similar for Wiccans, New Agers, and more-traditional religious people. So Anfinson’s statement including Native people along with these other groups does appear to be an intentional slight.

Racist,  simply biased, or innocent of any biased intention? I’m interested in other opinions. Let me know what you think.

Take 1862, please

The Minnesota Historical Society is looking for someone to take on the problem of 1862 and its 150th anniversary. The job will remain open until filled, that is until someone is found who is willing to plunge into this  thorny topic. For anyone who is not familiar with 1862, it may be hard to imagine how difficult it will be to find someone who is willing to do this, and even more,  someone capable of taking on the job and making it successful.

First of all 1862 refers to the events known by various names relating to conflicts between Dakota people and white people starting in Minnesota in August 1862, and all that flowed from those events. In the job announcement the Historical Society has chosen to call these events the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, though they did not start or end in 1862. The year 2012 happens to be the 150th anniversary of 1862.

A monument in Mankato, MN, one of many remnants and reminders of the events of 1862 and that attitudes that survived in the years after. Minnesota Historical Society photo, probably taken with a camera belonging to the photographer Monroe Killy, who is pictured in the photo, around 1930.

Remembering 1862 and what happened then, before or after, would be difficult enough, but it is made more difficult by the role that the Minnesota Historical Society–in an overall,  institutional way–has chosen to play in the Minnesota of the last twenty years. The Historical Society has tried to be a bringer of good news, an institution that puts on entertainment, rather than one that deals with serious historical issues. Unfortunately there is little in the way of good news about 1862. There was no good news in 1862 and there has been no good news about 1862 in the years since then. There is a great deal about 1862 that was tragic for all concerned. To deal with 1862 requires a sense of the tragedy involved.  Can the Minnesota Historical Society handle tragedy?

It is clear that the Historical Society would like to hire a Dakota person to do this job. And while the Historical Society is on the verge of the possibility of change, now that its director Nina Archabal has retired, it is not clear that the Historical Society is willing to deal with 1862 in a serious way. Is there a Dakota person who is ready to be a mediator between an institution designed to entertain a large public and a Dakota community in which there are many points of view about 1862, but in which there are few that view 1862 as a source of entertainment? It would be a difficult, thankless job.

Perhaps it is a job that can be done. But it requires a lot of soul-searching in the halls of the Historical Society before one can imagine it being successful. There is of course a lot more to say, and there are two more years in which to say it. And maybe there is someone who can make a difference. If so, that person, would be making a great contribution not only to the Minnesota Historical Society, but to the state and the people of Minnesota. And that person would probably deserve a lot more than the money offered in this job announcement.

Minnesota Historical Society

Job Announcement

The Minnesota Historical Society’s External Relations division seeks applicants for a Program Specialist, 1862 position to assist the Deputy Director in planning, funding, coordination, and promotion throughout Minnesota related to the observance of the Sesquicentennial of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.  This is a full-time, project position (2088 annual hours) located at the History Center in St. Paul, MN working through June 30, 2011.  Renewal dependent upon available funding and program need.

Summary of Work: Responsibilities include: 1) oversee the work of the managers of U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 projects and partnerships; 2) monitor U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 budgets; 3) monitor and facilitate the work of other managers with external partners; 4) coordinate the work of project managers, the Marketing & Communications Department, and the Director of Public Policy & Community Relations; 5) work with the Deputy Directors and U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 project managers ; and 6) provide work direction to assigned staff.

Minimum Qualifications:

  • B.A. plus five years program experience or equivalent OR an advanced degree plus three years program experience or equivalent.
  • Experience supervising a major project with demonstrated ability to plan, organize and monitor a project with many disparate elements.
  • Strong interpersonal skills.
  • Ability to lead a diverse group of people and facilitate cooperation.
  • Knowledge of, and sensitivity to, institutional and program concerns, procedures, and techniques.
  • Ability to write clearly and concisely.
  • Ability to develop and track budgets.
  • Detail oriented with strong planning, monitoring and follow up skills.

Desirable Qualifications:

  • Experience working with Dakota people.
  • Knowledge of Minnesota and/or Dakota history.
  • Ability to speak effectively in public and relate easily and positively to many different audiences.

Salary: $3,484.00 monthly minimum.

Application Deadline:  This position will remain open until filled.

To Apply: Send an MHS application, cover letter, and resume to:  Minnesota Historical Society, Human Resources Department, Program Specialist, 1862 position, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, MN 55102.  To be considered an applicant, you must submit all requested materials.  If not complete, your application materials will not be accepted and your materials will be returned.  For an application, see our website at or call MHS Job Line 651-296-0542.  EEO

Wanted: Historian to study development of Twin Cities suburbia

Todd Mahon, Executive director of the Anoka County  Historical Society, writes that he is looking for a historian to do a study of suburbanization in Anoka and Hennepin Counties in Minnesota. The work is to be funded by a a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, through the Minnesota Historical Society. Here’s how the grant application explained the topic of study and below that is the job announcement:

The phenomenon of suburbanization has had a huge impact on the lives of Minnesotans.  The populations shifts away from the urban centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul and from rural areas to suburban communities of the Twin Cities metro area has changed the state’s political makeup, its natural environment, its infrastructure, its education system, and much more.  Anoka and Hennepin Counties share a unique history that lends itself to telling the local and national story of nineteenth and twentieth century suburbanization in the United States.  Columbia Heights was among Minneapolis’s first streetcar suburbs when Thomas Lowery brought his streetcar line up Central Avenue into Columbia Heights, where he owned and developed real estate.  The two counties share one of the largest school districts in the state, and the transportation corridor of the Mississippi River—a transportation corridor that has been reemphasized with the opening of the Northstar Commuter Railroad in 2009.

"Interior view of the living room in one of the new homes in the Thompson Park housing development near Northdale Boulevard and Foley Road in Coon Rapids"5/23/1955; Minnesota Historical Society Photo, Photographer: Norton & Peel Photograph Collection, Location no. Norton & Peel 230772 Negative no. NP230772

The 21st century finds both counties at a crossroads in their suburban development.  Each has only one township remaining (Linwood and Hassan), and Anoka County has seen two other townships incorporate in just the last four years.  Hassan has recently started its own historical society over the threat of annexation by Rogers.  Hennepin County is seeing its first ring suburbs, like Richfield, Bloomington, and St. Louis Park, face redevelopment issues, while up in Anoka County, Ramsey and Nowthen (Anoka County’s newest incorporated city), are facing land use decisions and other pains of suburban growth like the extension of city municipal services and law enforcement.  Policy makers across the two counties are in need of resources to inform their decisions that will impact the planned growth of these communities.

In addition to their shared histories, the impact of suburbanization has been felt, and continues to be felt, but it has only recently been the focus of a serious academic study.  The suburbanization has occurred and it is now time to examine it through an historians lens.  Both counties have nationally recognized historical societies, but neither have tackled this subject in depth.  A report on their shared history will be a benefit for policy makers, academics, and more.  The final product will also include tangible programming ideas with realistic road maps to produce these programs and bring the history of suburbanization to the greater public and encourage them to think about and discuss their community, what it is, how it became that, and what they want it to be in the future.

Contract Historian Position

The Anoka County Historical Society (ACHS) and Hennepin History Museum (HHM) seek applicants for a part-time, independent contract position to complete a history of the suburban development of Anoka and Hennepin Counties.  This position exists through a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.  The Contract Historian will compile an extensive, written history using primary and secondary sources, administer an oral history program, and create a resource guide for others interested in researching the suburban development of the two counties.  Other duties will include working with ACHS and HHM staff to hire two interns that will assist with the project, and work with high school students from the Breck School on a phase to be determined by the contract historian and the students’ advisors (possibilities include researching community incorporation dates and changing municipal boundaries, etc.).  The final draft must be completed by May 15, 2011.  Funding for the grant provides for 973 hours for the contract historian at an hourly rate of $20.00.  The successful candidate must have a Bachelors Degree in History or a related field and demonstrate skills commensurate with this type of project.

The project is contingent upon a request from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Applicant Instructions

Candidates for this position are required to deliver:

1)      Letter of Application

2)      Resume

3)      Two Letters of Reference

4)      Two writing samples (excerpts from larger works will be accepted.)

Please provide copies as materials will not be returned.

Suburban Development Contract Historian Position
Anoka County Historical Society
2135 Third Avenue North
Anoka, MN 55303

Call Todd Mahon, ACHS Executive Director, for more information.
Phone # (763) 421-0600 x104, or via e-mail at [email protected].

The application deadline is July 23, 2010.

The selection of applicants for interviews will be based on the above materials.

Anoka Shopping Center, Anoka. Photograph Collection ca. 1955; Minnesota Historical Society photo, Location no. MA6.9 AN3.1 r5 Negative no. 6046-A

Russell Fridley, Historian

Former director of the Minnesota Historical Society Russell W. Fridley died on June 17, 2010. He was director of the Historical Society for thirty years, during a dynamic and formative period of the institution’s history. He had a true commitment to history in all its forms. He believed that popular and scholarly history were compatible and that neither would diminish the other. For Russell Fridley history was a big tent and all kinds of history could exist there. No history of any kind diminished any other kind of history. But he was a supporter of detailed, well-researched, and well-documented history. He supported new ideas when they came along. When someone came to him with a new idea, he was always encouraging. “Why don’t you work on that?” he would ask. That did not always mean that he could find money to support your particular project, uncertainties being what they were. But he was unfailingly curious about what you were doing, what you were researching. When you told him, probably in too much detail, he would respond with a pleasant, humorous, or encouraging comment. He was good with the legislature, in getting money for the historical society, and good with his staff, in getting productive work out of them. He did not believe that Vikings carved the Kensington Runestone, but even supporters of the Runestone liked Russell Fridley. They would invite him to come debate with them. The worst that anyone would say about him was that he was too affable, a fact which would make suspicious people more suspicious. Russell Fridley’s commitment to the work of history in all its forms is greatly missed.

Russell Fridley in 1982, photo by Stan Waldhauser, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

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