The Fort Snelling Redesign: Will the Project Live Up to Promise?; Vizenor Speaks Out

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The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) is seeking $34 million in state bonding money during the upcoming legislative session for what is expected to be its largest building project in the past quarter century: The Fort Snelling Redesign.

Fort Snelling 1844 (Photo from Wikipedia)
Fort Snelling 1844 (From Wikipedia)

It’s still early in the porcess. If MHS gets state funding, and if it raises another $12 million privately, the revamped Fort Snelling experience will be done by 2020, the Fort’s bicentennial.

The Historical Society is taking its design plans on the road to get public input. It wants to tear down the current visitors center, add an outdoor amphitheater, and rehab one of the old cavalry barracks to make an expanded visitor center and event space. It wants to add walking paths along the bluff so people can see the river better. It wants to improve signage and paths so it is easier for people to find their way around.

I attended one of MHS’s open houses Thursday at Bracket Park in Minneapolis. I found the presentation promising.

Quick Takeways

  1. For my money, the most critical decisions will be how MHS upgrades the Fort’s historical interpretation. At this point, there are not a lot of specifics. The Historical Society said it going to take its time to get public input, including meetings with the state’s Native American communities. There is still plenty of time to make comments.
  2. If you want to follow the process, get updates and offer comments, go to this link: The site has a two-minute video on the redesign. There also is a blue “Share your stories and ideas” button where you can make suggestions to staff. (One possible suggestion: Create space to represent pre-colonial times, perhaps a sweat lodge or other place for traditional Dakota ceremonies. Another suggestion: Create a truly inclusive process, where Native American not only give their opinions about the redesign, but actually co-create it with the Historical Society.)
  3. The Historical Society staff is available to make presentations about the Redesign to community groups. If interested, contact Rachel Abbott at Healing Minnesota Stories and the St. Paul Interfaith Network are particularly interested in engaging faith communities in this conversation. The Fort represents the history of colonization — and the continued need for indigenous communities to heal from historic trauma. These are critical moral and religious matters. If you would like our support in setting up a presentation/dialogue, email:

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

Historic Fort Snelling is a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a group, (according to its website) dedicated to using significant historic places “to engage the public in connecting past and present in order to envision and shape a more just and humane future.”

Other Coalition sites include Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Gettysburg Seminary Ridge, and Carcel de Carabanchel in Spain, a notorious prison under Generalismo Fransisco Franco’s rule. That is significant company to keep, and a strong indication of a commitment that we need to learn from the huge mistakes of our past.

Daniel Spock, Director of the History Center Museum, is leading the team looking at revisioning the Fort. He said there is a lot the Historical Society could do to expand on its membership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. The Fort, “is a microcosm for some of the most important issues and conflicts in American history,” he said.

According to the promotional materials, the new vision includes exploring many more stories, including the following:

  • Dakota Homeland: The Fort sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers — what the Dakota call Bdote. It is the site of the Dakota people’s origin story and their traditional homeland. The site has been occupied for 8,000 years. The Fort also is the site of the Dakota internment camp of 1862-63, holding 1,600 women, children and elders during the bitter winter following the Dakota-U.S. War. Many died there.
  • Westward expansion: The Fort represents westward expansion, a place soldiers mustered for national and global conflicts.
  • Slavery: Dred and Harriet Scott were among the slaves who lived at the Fort, and the place from which they fought for their freedom.
  • Trade: Looking at the Mississippi as a key trade artery, from prehistoric times to today.
  • Military Intelligence: During World War II, Japanese Americans (many who had spent time in internment camps) worked at the Fort to gather intelligence to end the war.

Frozen in Time, Now Thawing

Until recently, many of these important Fort Snelling stories went untold. The Historical Society had focused on recreating the Fort Snelling of 1827, using historic reenactors to engage visitors. Tom Pfannenstiel, the Fort’s site manager, used to be one of those reenactors. People wouldn’t find out about things like the fact that Dred Scott lived at the Fort from 1836-1840. “I would not break [my 1827] character,” he said. “But that has changed.”

I have not been to the Fort in many years, but Pfannenstiel said they have added exhibits, from Dred and Harriet Scott to information on treaties. Those kind of stories “will be a huge part of our future programming,” he said.

So Far, So Good

The poster boards displayed at the community event laid out several major themes for the re-envisioned Fort. They were: Place, Healing, Community, Remembrance, and Confluence. Things needing healing included: “historic trauma” and “the wounds of war.” Things that needed to be remembered included: “struggle, sacrifice, slavery, genocide and survival.”

The direction seems positive. Now comes the challenging work for MHS to engage in an inclusive process that gives life to those words.

Vizenor Speaks Out About Resignation

MPR ran a story yesterday headlined: White Earth tribal chair Vizenor explains why she resigned. In short, Vizenor said: “It was inevitable. … The board was going to vote me out. I wanted to resign on my own terms.” MRP said Vizenor plans to run for secretary-treasurer of White Earth in two years. In the meantime, she plans to write a book on tribal government.

Click on the link for the full story.

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