Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee

I wake up most mornings thrilled to go to work. I relish the rare opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with the public about critical themes in Minnesota and United States history. On a daily basis I participate in open conversations about class, slavery, and American Indian history. I feel continually supported by a remarkably amicable staff and refreshingly thoughtful and efficient supervisors. Considering the many museums and historic sites still reveling in nostalgia and Great Man history, I truly value the opportunity to practice public history at Historic Fort Snelling. Not to mention my sheer enjoyment of hearth cooking or playing nineteenth century games with children.

All the fantastic aspects of employment at Historic Fort Snelling tend to overshadow the occasional discomforts: the offhanded racist comment of a guest; the low traffic in Dred Scott Space or Indian Agency compared to the overwhelming popularity of the infantry and artillery drills; enthusiastic youth marching and shooting imaginary guns. Perhaps these are just the unfortunate realities of interacting with the public.

A recent experience, however, put my discomforts into sharp relief. While stationed in the Indian Agency I observed a visitor who appeared to me to be American Indian. As he exited the space he turned to his companion and stated matter-of-factly, “there is a lot of evil in this room.”

His statement left me thunderstruck. His tone did not suggest malice or disgust with my interpretation; he was simply conveying reality. As I looked around the room, I began to see objects of evil: maps of colonized land, paintings of Indian Agents, symbols of broken kinship ties, farming implements designed to subjugate land and people… and finally me, with my white skin, buoyant interpretive style, and nineteenth century Euro-American clothing. I symbolized imperialism, genocide, and evil.

My initial dismay (and perhaps foolish indulgence in white guilt) eventually yielded to a provocative realization: I work at a historic site that caters to a dominant culture. In many ways Historic Fort Snelling provides an enjoyable opportunity for white middle-class families to be entertained by symbols of the military, racial slavery, and cultural genocide. In the midst of a fun visit to the Fort, the public may encounter an occasional opportunity to discuss the presence of enslaved people at the Fort or the implications of European American colonization of Minnesota. I gladly admit that these opportunities allow Historic Fort Snelling to serve the critical function of educating the dominant culture about the complicated, uncomfortable, and downright dark aspects of its history.

But does the Fort address the needs of those who do not identify with dominant culture? How should the site engage with groups who have been historically oppressed, either directly or indirectly, by the Fort?

Imagine a space branded as the “Dred Scott Historic Site” that discusses the life of the famous African American within a political and legal context of the years leading up to the Civil War. It could be run by a largely African American staff who may be affiliated with organizations in the local black community. The site could host anti-racism seminars or community organizing workshops on contemporary political and legal struggles in the Twin Cities community. Or envision a portion of the land at the intersection the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers legally returned to the Dakota nation to meet community-defined social, cultural, or educational purposes. These two scenarios exemplify how a historic site like Fort Snelling could empower the oppressed through shared authority and a radical definition of authenticity.

Dakota activist Waziyatawin writes that “it has only been through the systematic and faithful efforts of White Minnesotans that the fort continues to be resuscitated.” Thankfully, in recent years the Minnesota Historical Society has taken systematic and faithful efforts to begin openly and honestly addressing narratives of slavery and American Indian history at Fort Snelling. I am quite honestly inspired by the rapid institutional change and professional progressiveness exhibited by the Fort. I only hope that future preservation and interpretation at Historic Fort Snelling will conscientiously embrace a more radical practice of public history that both empowers and educates a broadly defined public.

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8 thoughts on “Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee

  1. Is there any non-white culture that has a tradition of museums? That is to say, is the reason that they aren’t popular with diverse audiences inherently associated with the museums origin as a white institution?

    • That is quite likely, Dan. However, every culture has a history and many attribute special meaning to places because of its history. (A historic site, after all, is a sort of sacred space.) And so with a site like Fort Snelling that has historic and cultural meaning for multiple groups, I believe shared authority could go a long way in making the site relevant to all potential stakeholders.

  2. I’m an ex-Fort Snelling employee and enjoyed your insight. Luckily in Minnesota there are MHS sites for Native Americans to go and find educational and spiritual spaces to explore their history. Jeffers Petroglyphs and Mille Lacs Indian Museum come to mind. Fort Snelling is the only site in Minnesota that offers military interpretation, and I don’t find anything wrong with keeping that the focus. Good interpreters like yourself will make sure non-white visitors will have meaningful experiences and discussions that satisfy issues and explore feelings important to them.

    • I’m not sure those histories should be separated. Territorial history certainly through 1862 (at least) is the story of Anglo-American relationships with American Indians through “negotiation” of resources. Certainly Fort Snelling’s military history NEEDS to include that story, because of who the Americans were militarizing against. But it should also be heavily included at the Fur Post (which I admit, I have not visited) as well as the Kelley Farm (which I used to work at and does literally nothing) and the both Forestville and Forest History Center.

      Separation ghettoizes American Indian History and does further injustices. I agree that Mille Lacs and Jeffers should have historic sites that focus on American Indian culture and history, but on their own, they are tokenism. Moreover, I don’t believe that either of those locations have particularly strong attendance and I would be interested to know how they are regarded by the Chippewa community.

  3. I’ve always wondered if the public would know of some of the really sad parts of Minnesota (e.g., the Dakota internment camp, slaves at the Fort) if it wasn’t for the existence of Fort Snelling as a historical site and the interpretive program there? As an employee there from 2000-2008, We were encouraged to talk openly about those painful parts of Minnesota history with the public.

    • Absolutely. I think the Fort is fulfilling the critical role of educating a certain part of the public about those topics. It has a strong interpretive program that provides a solid foundation for further, more comprehensive outreach.

  4. When I was interpreting there in the early ’90as I felt it shameful that the fort had so little coverage of American Indian history and culture, especially in the museum displays. I felt that a visitor should leave with *at least* a basic understanding of the cultural and linguistic differences between the Anishanabe and the Dakota, and how the spread of the European fur trade, and their resulting migrations had affected their interactions with each other and Euro-Americans. (i.e., they should have learned enough to get past the main stereotypes and realize that this was a very complicated interaction).

    I felt that the interpretation at the fort should be at least 25% military, 25% fur trade, 25% Dakota and 25% Ojibwe, as they all were equally involved in the reason the fort was established.

  5. Well written article Ms. Boyle. Very intriguing as I sit here studying Harriett Scott. By the way Dan, there are West African Museums that hold a tradition of preserving memories…in their own unique and legitimate way. The issue with American institutions is that they tend to center on telling a Eurocentric perspective as if that is the important story…that leaves all other cultures to appear irrelevant.

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