In 2019, the Minnesota Historical Society put up a temporary sign reading” “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote” at the historic site. Some people just lost it.
Defenders of 19th Century sensibilities reacted in horror at the “B” word. One elected official threatened to cut the Minnesota Historical Society’s state funding over “at Bdote.”
Fast forward three years. I had forgotten all about this controversy. On Thursday, I learned the Minnesota Historical Society’s governing board voted to stick with the traditional “Historic Fort Snelling” name, offering a fuzzy explanation why.
Bdote is the Dakota word for confluence or meeting of the waters. The Bdote of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is a sacred place to the Dakota, central to their origin story, their Garden of Eden.
The Historical Society held public meetings in 2019 to explore the name change. On Thursday, the Minnesota Historical Society’s announced it didn’t get “conclusive” feedback to justify a name change, according to a media release.
- The Historical Society tried to do a good thing. Let’s start with the obvious: The Historical Society proposed the name change to “Historical Fort Snelling at Bdote” to acknowledge the Dakota’s people’s historical and ongoing presence here. It probably didn’t expect the backlash to come.
- The reaction was out of proportion to the name change. Think Chicken Little. Some people seem to think the sky would fall if the site’s name were changed to “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” It would mean a lot to many Dakota people. What’s the big deal?
- The Historical Society gave a dodgy explanation for its decision. Saying it rejected the name change because it didn’t get “conclusive” feedback seems intentionally obscure. We aren’t told why some people felt so strongly the name change would be catastrophic. The Historical Society should be transparent, articulate the reasons people gave for opposing “at Bdote,” and whether it found those arguments persuasive.
- Racism is present but not named. Lacking any analysis to the contrary, it seems: 1) racism is the likely explanation for the controversy, and 2) once again we aren’t going to talk about it. What other reason would explain some people’s strong visceral reaction to what seems like a minor name change?
- History is very political, containing values statements about who does and does not matter. History is about whose stories get told and who does the telling. Adding the words “at Bdote” to Historic Fort Snelling acknowledges that the Dakota people were here before Fort Snelling, and their stories matter, too. In June, 2021, Minnesota Senate Republicans — typically of a small-government bent — wanted “to put government in charge of state-owned historical sites,” the Star Tribune reported. To me, that reflects a desire to have politicians, not historians, control the state’s historical narrative. (The measure didn’t pass, but no doubt sent a message to the Historical Society.)
- The Historical Society has struggled dealing with issues of racism before: This reminds of the Minnesota Historical Society’s uninspiring leadership role in the debate over removing racist art during the State Capitol renovation. The Senate still prominently displays racist art. (See below.)
7. It took the Historical Society nearly three years to announce a decision. The name-change debate happened in 2019. Now it’s June, 2022. Why so long? It feels like the Historical Society was hoping the issue would fade away, unnoticed. Perhaps the announcement happened now because the Historical Society reopened Historic Fort Snelling and its new visitor center on May 28, and felt it couldn’t put off the announcement any longer.
8. The naming decision isn’t completely in the Historical Society’s hands: Minnesota statutes define the names of historic sites. The Historical Society can propose changes, but the state legislature is the final authority, the Historical Society said.