Our nation has created museums to deeply traumatic events. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington D.C. in 1980, 36 years after the liberation of the concentration camps. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened in Greenwich Village in 2011, a decade after the attack.
Yet where in this country do we have a museum focused on the trauma of slavery and its legacy? And where in Minnesota do we have a museum dedicated to remember and acknowledge the trauma suffered by the Dakota and Ojibwe nations, their dispossession of lands, languages and cultures, and their legacies?
It was not until late 2014 that a museum opened that was solely dedicated to telling the trauma and horrors of slavery: the Whitney Plantation just outside New Orleans.
The trauma suffered by African Americans and Native Americans differs from events like 911. They are not born of a single event, but span centuries and many, many events. In the case of Native Americans, they include: broken treaties, epidemics, language loss, suppression of Native religions, boarding schools, and more.
How do we tell those stories in a way that gets beyond a retelling of historical facts and really gets to the horror of what happened and how that pain continues today?
For slavery, consider the photograph of Peter (above). He was brutally whipped by slave masters. The photo is disturbing, and abolitionists used it as a visceral way to educate people about the truth of slavery. More recently, the images of the open casket funeral of Emmett Till, a young black boy brutally killed in 1955 in Mississippi. His crime was looking at white woman and the image of his mutilated body shocked the nation.
The brutality suffered by Native Americans can be a difficult story to show. There are some images that might stick in peoples’ minds, such as photos from the 1891 Wounded Knee Massacre. But Native Americans were generally pushed off their land, their suffering hidden from sight. Images of a treaty signing or a boarding school don’t evoke the true devastation that occurred.
The Whitney Plantation offers a few ideas.
The New York Times wrote about the opening of the Whitney Plantation, headlined: Building the First Slavery Museum in America. The Whitney Plantation stands in stark contrast to other restored southern plantations which highlight antebellum Southern grandeur, such as tours of the “Big House” and its magnificent gardens.
According to the Times, the Whitney Plantation layout assures that visitors’ most memorable view of the “Big House” is through the bars of the slave jail. It continues:
A number of memorials also dot the grounds, a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820. Inspired by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the memorial lists the names nonalphabetically to mirror the confusion and chaos that defined a slave’s life.
Consider how this approach might apply locally. Historic Fort Snelling will celebrate its bicentennial in 2020, and the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) is trying to raise funds for a major interpretive upgrade. MHS has expressed interest in engaging the community in a discussion of how to tell the Fort’s history. That should include narratives on the Dakota people’s presence in this area prior to white settlement and the abuse and dispossession that Native nations suffered under westward migration. How MHS chooses to tell those stories, and add monuments, will emerge from important and likely contentious community discussions.
One question will be how MHS will chose to interpret the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 at the Fort, and how much prominence that story will receive. People need to know that the U.S. government failed to live up to treaty terms, provoking the war. But here is the tricky part. How do people connect at a gut level with the starvation, humiliation, and lies that drove the Dakota to war?
The Whitney Plantation wrestled with similar questions. According to the Times, the Whitney Plantation planned a memorial to the victims of the little known “German Coast Uprising.” (Note: Both the German Coast Uprising and the Dakota War were responses by a desperate people to incredibly oppressive conditions.)
The Times story summarized the German Coast Uprising as follows:
In January 1811, at least 125 slaves walked off their plantations and, dressed in makeshift military garb, began marching in revolt along River Road toward New Orleans. (The area was then called the German Coast for the high number of German immigrants …) The slaves were suppressed by militias after two days, with about 95 killed, some during fighting and some after the show trials that followed. As a warning to other slaves, dozens were decapitated, their heads placed on spikes along River Road and in what is now Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
On the Whitney Plantation tour, the last thing visitors see as they leave are 60 ceramic heads of slaves mounted on top of stainless-steel rods, a memorial to the uprising.
In the Minnesota context, can we find similarly visceral ways to help people understand the deep trauma experienced here, particularly by the Dakota?
Fort Snelling will struggle to do the story justice. It has many competing stories to tell. In addition to the Dakota-U.S. War, it will interpret the fur trade, Dred Scott, the role of Japanese interpreters at the fort during World War II, and a broad palette of other stories.
The Times story observes that many museums address the issue of slavery, but they tend to lump it in with other parts of African-American history. For instance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture includes information on slavery along with exhibits on Louie Armstrong.
The Times quotes historian Paul Finkelman reflecting on how museums currently tell the slavery story in a narrative where “civil rights triumphs and America is wonderful.” Finkelman continues:
We are a nation that has always readily embraced the good of the past and discarded the bad. This does not always lead to the most productive of dialogues on matters that deserve and require them.”
In the Minnesota context, how do we demonstrate the enduring trauma Native peoples suffered without diluting it with other stories or pretending it is ancient history that is somehow over?
It could require a separate museum.
Touring such a museum would be challenging for many. It would show how this country’s treatment of Native Americans stands in contrast to our self image as a free and fair nation.
It would be one thing to travel 1,200 miles from Minneapolis to visit the Whitney Plantation and come back and tell our friends what a profound experience it was. It would be another, much more challenging thing, to create such a museum right here dedicated to understanding Native American trauma and face our local history.
It is worth noting that neither the state of Louisiana nor the federal government helped fund the Whitney Plantation. It was privately funded by one man. Given the difficulty in Minnesota of simply removing racist art from the Capitol, such a museum would likely face stiff political resistance. Yet these are stories we need to tell.
For more on the Whitney Plantation:
- A video from The Atlantic magazine.
- New Museum Depicts ‘The Life Of A Slave From Cradle To The Tomb’ from NPR.
- And, yes, from the American Conservative: Remembering Slavery at Whitney.