I hear a lot these days about how “they’re erasing our history.” Well, here’s an example of politicians doing their darnedest to accomplish that very thing. How many of the people who complain about erasing history will speak up about this?
Minnesota senators on Thursday passed a GOP-sponsored measure that would cut the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget for using a Dakota people’s name to identify the site of Historic Fort Snelling.
The fort is located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers; the Dakota people called the site “Bdote.” To identify the location, the Historical Society recently added the words “at Bdote” to temporary signs welcoming visitors to the fort.
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, called the addition “revisionist history” and moved legislation to cut the society’s state funding.
Kiffmeyer is chair of the Senate committee that oversees state agency budgets, and she tucked a provision into a larger budget bill that would reduce the Historical Society’s appropriation by $4 million a year.
That represents an 18-percent decrease that could mean 53 to 80 layoffs, cutting hours at historic sites and “severe reductions” in the organization’s educational and other programs, said Historical Society Director and CEO Kent Whitworth.
Eighty Minnesotans should lose their jobs, thousands of schoolchildren should lose access to historical programming, and tens of thousands of residents and visitors should lose access to the state’s historic sites…because a welcome sign now reads “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote” instead of “Historic Fort Snelling.”
There just might be some revisionist history going on here, you see.
Eventually, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, stepped in to explain.
“The controversy revolves around whether or not the Historical Society is involved in revisionist history,” Newman said. “I do not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing. I believe it to be revisionist history.”
Yessir. Once you start revising history, there’s no telling what calamities might ensue.
Everybody knows that you can’t do science without revision and correction. But people have this idea that history is a static body of knowledge. This knowledge isn’t the product of inquiry and interpretation. And it certainly isn’t the product of revising earlier interpretations (which were themselves the result of careful, deliberate inquiry).
This knowledge just exists. It always has, ever since the historical events in question took place—as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
The historian’s task thus becomes a simple, straightforward matter of custodianship. You can forget critical inquiry or investigation. In fact, you can forget even simple addition to this body of knowledge. It’s a zero-sum game. If you try to broaden it by taking new perspectives into account, it means you’ve got to delete something else.
You can’t, for example, add Indians without taking away military history:
On Thursday, Kiffmeyer engaged in some revising of her own. Now the controversy was about more than a single sign.
Fort Snelling, she said, should be an unbroken celebration of Minnesota’s military history.
“It is the history of Minnesota. It is military appreciation,” Kiffmeyer said. “Minnesota’s history all the way back to the Civil War and the very first regiments … is deep and strong and long.”
“Fort Snelling is about military history and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that,” she said. “It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans.”
If history has any usefulness, it’s all about “unifying” and a instilling a sense of “appreciation.” Again, critical inquiry and investigation aren’t part of the equation.
But the funny thing is, while Kiffmeyer wants the site to focus on “Minnesota’s military history,” she seems blissfully ignorant of how central Indians were to Fort Snelling’s existence as a military post in the first place.
She invokes Minnesota history “all the way back to the Civil War.” Does she realize that the most important event in Fort Snelling’s Civil War history was the 1862 Dakota uprising? Does she know that during the Civil War, the fort was an internment camp for more than 1600 of the very same people whose ancestors called the place Bdote?
Dakota internment camp at Fort Snelling, 1862. From the Minnesota Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, the state senate’s funding proposal isn’t the last word on this. The governor and representatives still have to weigh in. If you’d like to learn how to support the Minnesota Historical Society amid this brouhaha, click here.