“There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginning of all governments,” wrote 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. Conquests and cruelties of the distant past are often “sanctified by obscurity,” he explained, helping later generations to focus on their forebears’ virtues. It is “necessary,” he added “to throw something of the same drapery over more recent foundations.”
Instead, today’s generation of Americans is busy ripping aside “sacred veils” predecessors used to soften our view of painful parts of the nation’s history. The most prominent example is a renewed indictment of the Civil War Confederacy — the pulling down of Old South statues and symbols across the country.
The new censorious spirit represents a kind of abrogation of the cultural “treaty” by which America (at least, white America) healed deep Civil War wounds. That reconciliation was at its best in concentrating America’s national memory on the bravery and self-sacrifice of both sides in the war — and at its worst in contributing to prolonging racial injustice.
The latter-day score-settling over slavery reached Minnesota in the high-profile controversy over renaming the former Lake Calhoun with the Dakota Indian name Bde Maka Ska.
But Minnesota also still struggles to make peace over its own internal bloodletting a century and a half ago — the 1862 Dakota War.
A quiet but impassioned controversy surrounds the Minnesota Historical Society’s request to the Legislature for $30 million in bonding to complete an ambitious physical and interpretive “revitalization” of the Fort Snelling historic site.
MHS’ “new vision” for the iconic military outpost, birthplace of the Twin Cities and modern-day Minnesota, strikes some as too fully embracing the new reproachful view of the past — as shredding some historic veils too carelessly, while maybe concealing other historic truths too well.
A recent commentary on these pages, from retired National Guard Gen. Richard C. Nash (“Let’s tell all its stories — military but others, too,” March 30), responded to one of the concerns. It’s a sense, notably among veterans, that the old fort’s legacy as a military establishment, where troops were trained and mustered from the Civil War to World War II, is being pushed into the background, replaced by a “front and center” focus on the painful Minnesota history of the Dakota people, and of African-American slaves held by Southern soldiers stationed at Snelling in its early decades — including Dred Scott, whose later unsuccessful Supreme Court bid for emancipation based on his residence in free territories added powerfully to pre-Civil War tensions.
“These stories matter greatly,” Gen. Nash wrote, and the “history of all who have lived here needs to be documented ... .”
Few would disagree. But some critics fear that it seems the way the various stories are going to be told in the new vision of Fort Snelling could portray Minnesota’s history as little more than a simplistic tale of villainous whites and victimized minorities. Such concerns come from independent historians, supporters of historic preservation and other well-placed observers, some of whom wish not to be identified, so sensitive are these issues.
One problem for any person of goodwill is that Minnesota history, like all history, does abound with villainy and cruelty and error. The intrinsic tragedy and many injustices brought to native peoples by Euro-American settlement is clear and needs to be remembered.
But surely, if misleading veils are to be removed, what should be retained is a sense of balance, proportion and context, of appreciation for the hardships and accomplishments of all our forebears. And all the hard truths should be told.
What kind of balance does it seem the “new vision” at Fort Snelling will present to visitors? If you make a quick visit to the MHS website promoting the new vision, you will immediately learn that “This National Historic Landmark resides on Dakota homeland, at the sacred confluence of rivers known as Bdote” and that many peoples “crossed paths here over the centuries — from the Dakota, Ojibwe, and enslaved people, to immigrants, soldiers, and fur traders.”
It does seem the emphasis has shifted some. If you look deeper, at a website section on Fort Snelling’s early frontier role, you learn that the confluence of rivers “was also the perfect strategic location for the U.S. to fulfill its colonial aims” and that “construction of the fort marked a seminal moment in the invasion of Dakota lands.”
That’s one way to look at it, of course. But the way earlier interpretations might have put it — say, that Fort Snelling represented a vital step in bringing settlement to the west and the American way of life to the frontier — reflected a different perspective on the same facts.
No doubt both points of view should be understood. But too complete a shift in the interpretive balance might reduce the fulfillment of America’s “colonial aims” to a mixture of tragedy and crime.
Consider the new vision’s emphasis on what MHS calls “The Fort Snelling Concentration Camp.” It was the stockaded compound below the fort where some 1,600 Dakota, largely women and children, were confined in the winter of 1862-63 in the aftermath of the Dakota War. Conditions were harsh, and diseases killed several hundred.
Critics including independent historian Curtis Dahlin complain that the “concentration camp” language improperly evokes images of Nazi extermination camps and reflects an overall “bias” in the new vision.
The MHS website allows that “The concentration camp at Fort Snelling was not a death camp, and Dakota people were not systematically exterminated there. The camp was, however, a part of the genocidal policies pursued against Indigenous people throughout the US ... .”
Melanie Adams, senior director for guest experience and education at MHS, defends the “concentration camp” terminology as technically correct and adds: “People have a tendency to want to look outside of this country to find acts of evil” and some “are not willing to hear the truth about certain things.”
In that spirit, I asked whether visitors to the new Fort Snelling would receive a candid context for the difficult story of the “concentration camp” and white Minnesotans’ hard feelings toward the Dakota that long-ago winter. Would they hear at the fort the grim story included in the Star Tribune’s “In the Footsteps of Little Crow” series in 2002, the story of the hundreds of southwestern Minnesota settlers, many unarmed women and children, who had been killed in Dakota attacks the previous summer — after which “mutilated bodies stabbed with hay scythes festered in the prairie sun for 140 miles,” as reporter Curt Brown put it?
The Dakota — hungry, their land taken from them, deprived even of payments they had been promised — had lashed out. And a backlash had followed.
Will truths of all those kinds be fully presented? Adams replied: “That I cannot say,” while adding that a “complete story” is important and the presentation remains a work in progress.
When I pressed this point, Adams countered: “It sounds like you’re trying to justify.”
One might wish for an approach to history in which the very purpose is to try — not so much to condemn or to justify — but to understand the passions and motives of all peoples of the past. Yet maybe a truly balanced view of history has always been too much to expect.
It is, though, what Minnesota should strive for.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.