Tag Archives: Native Americans

Lawmakers threaten to gut Minnesota Historical Society over an entrance sign

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.

Fort Snelling. Ben Franske [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

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Back to blogging with a look at some NMAI artifacts

Well, folks…it’s been a while.

Between running a museum that’s about to undergo a major renovation and trying to write a dissertation, the blog obviously fell by the wayside there for a few weeks.  I’m going to try to get back in the habit.

One of the reasons I slacked off was the fact that my job has me on the road quite a bit.  Luckily, however, it takes me to some really great places.  Every February, LMU sends a delegation to Washington, D.C. to participate in a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a great opportunity to hit some museums.

This year I visited the National Museum of the American Indian.  I particularly enjoyed the Nation to Nation exhibit, which examines the history of treaty-making between tribes and the U.S.

Let’s take a look at some artifacts.

Seventeenth-century Lenape wampum belts.  The lower one belonged to William Penn:

A Creek bandolier bag, reportedly captured at Horseshoe Bend:

A hide painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass:

Serape belonging to William T. Sherman.  He probably got it in 1868, around the time he was negotiating the Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the Navajo:

A relic of forced acculturation.  Uniform from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School:

Nineteenth-century reservation ration cards and beaded card holder:

Painted shields from the days of the Plains conflicts:

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Age of Revolutions is rolling out a series on Native Americans

If you don’t already follow the Age of Revolutions blog, keep an eye out for a series of posts they’re rolling out over the next seven weeks.  Each piece looks at a dimension of the Native American experience in the American Revolution.  The contributors include some of my favorite historians, so I was doubly honored and excited when AoR’s editors invited me to join in.

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Christina Snyder will discuss ‘Great Crossings’ at UTK

This year’s Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Tennessee looks to be pretty interesting.  Christina Snyder will deliver a talk based on her book Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson.

Snyder is McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State.  Her first book, Slavery in Indian Country, is well worth your time; I’d recommend it to anybody trying to sort out the history of captivity and race in early America.  Here’s some additional info on her talk:

Her lecture will examine how United States imperialism during the era of Indian Removal reshaped the geography of the freedom—or lack, thereof—of certain Americans and how it brought conflicting ideologies of race and slavery into contact with one another. The talk also will explore the strategies that people of color developed to navigate the shifting landscape.

Snyder’s book uses as a case study Great Crossings, an experimental community in Kentucky where America’s diverse peoples intersected and shared new visions of the continent’s future. The town got its name the previous century, when bison habitually crossed Elkhorn Creek at that shallow spot. By the 19th century, the bison had disappeared, but Great Crossings became a different kind of meeting ground, home to the first federal Indian school and a famous interracial family.

The lecture is at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23, in room 103 of the Howard Baker Center.  It’s free and open to the public.

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UTK profs are publishing agrarian history and talking Jackson

Here are a couple of updates on what faculty from UT’s Department of History are doing.

Dr. Tore Olsson has a new book that will appeal to those of you interested in agrarian, twentieth-century, and transnational history.  Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside reveals how rural reform movements in two countries influenced and reinforced one another.  Some of the ideas behind the New Deal were actually Mexican imports; in turn, New Deal programs like the TVA shaped Mexican development efforts.  I got to take Dr. Olsson’s seminar on the United States and the world when I started my doctoral studies, and I can tell you that once you start looking at American history from his border-busting perspective, it’s a real eye-opener.

Dr. Dan Feller, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, will lecture on the Indian Removal Act at the East Tennessee History Center at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 20.  The Hermitage will also have a traveling exhibit on hand.  The lecture is part of the East Tennessee Historical Society’s weekend-long History Fair, which is always well worth a visit.

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Tiya Miles will discuss Native American and black history at UT

Dr. Tiya Miles, Mary Henrietta Graham Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, is coming to the University of Tennessee to discuss the historical intersections between African Americans and Native Americans.  Her lecture, “Call of the Ancestors: Historical Imagination and the Black and Native American Past,” will be in the Hodges Library’s Lindsay Young Auditorium at 3:30 on March 20.

Miles is the author of Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, and The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts.  She received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2011.

The lecture is free and open to the public, so I hope those of you who are in the Knoxville area will come by.  Should be interesting!

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Communication and a cryptid on the Tennessee frontier

I’ve run across some strange stuff while poking around in Tennessee’s early history, but nothing as bizarre as a newspaper report J.L. Bell has uncovered.

In the 1790s, militiamen on patrol in the Cumberland Mountains stumbled across a creature that “had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red.”

When one of the men attacked the thing with his sword, “it jumped up, at least, eight feet” and then landed, spewing “a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.”

Yikes!  Soldiers on a wilderness mission come face-to-face with a grotesque, creepy-eyed beastie.  Seems like I’ve heard this one before…

Bell quotes the story as it appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 24, 1794, and notes that it also popped up in various other newspapers with attributions to the Knoxville Gazette, the first paper published in what’s now Tennessee.  Unfortunately, searchable copies of the Knoxville Gazette aren’t yet available online.  But here’s the same item from the Aug, 30, 1794 issue of the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer.  It’s identical to the one Bell found in the Hampshire Gazette.

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Since the opening is addressed to “the Printers of the Knoxville Gazette,” I assume this is the same text that appeared in that paper.  One wonders who submitted it to the Knoxville Gazette in the first place, but there doesn’t seem to be a name attached to any of the versions available online.

The reference to Indian lore is interesting.  Reptilian creatures do appear in Cherokee mythology.  The most well-known is probably the Uktena, a great horned serpent bearing a crystal in its forehead.  But I’m not aware of any creature from southeastern Native lore matching the description of the thing these militiamen encountered.  As Bell notes, William Blount referred to it as “Cheeklaceella” when he mentioned the article in a 1798 letter to John Rhea.  I couldn’t find that word in an electronic search of texts on Indian mythology.  In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere except in a printed version of Blount’s letter from Samuel Gordon Heiskell’s book on early Tennessee history.

What I find notable is the fact that newspapers across the country picked up this bizarre report from the Tennessee frontier.  Readers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Maryland would have read the story of the militiamen who encountered a mysterious creature in the Cumberland mountains, and editors in these cities seem to have been aware of what their colleagues on the frontier were printing.  Lately I’ve been going through letters written by settlers in southwestern Virginia during the Revolutionary era, and I’m surprised at how often they refer to events in Boston, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and even Europe.  Similarly, eastern newspapers picked up news from Kentucky and the Tennessee country and disseminated it all along the seaboard.  We tend to think of the eighteenth-century trans-Appalachian West as a remote, isolated region, but frontier folk were very much a part of early American communication networks.

Anyway, assuming the incident happened as the newspapers described, what did those militiamen see?  My money’s on some sort of crane with a skin disease, but you never know…

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