Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley realized she would bring a unique and personal perspective to the board after her election last November, when she and Irene Fernando became the first commissioners of color in the board's 166-year existence.
Now Conley is protesting a legislative attempt to slash $4 million from the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) budget, after several Republican senators objected to the Dakota word "Bdote" being added to a sign welcoming visitors to Historic Fort Snelling.
The money was restored earlier this week as legislators continued to work out the state's final budget bill. Two Republican senators, Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake and Scott Newman of Hutchinson, had called the sign change controversial and revisionist history.
But Conley, whose district includes Fort Snelling, said the sign was "an important reflection of the land's location for thousands of years."
The Dakota long have referred to the area they considered sacred at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers as "Bdote."
"Ideology shouldn't be involved in a funding decision," Conley said. "Changing signs to reflect history should be done way more often."
Since learning about the potential budget cuts, Conley has posted several messages on Facebook and expressed her concerns at a recent Minneapolis Park Board discussion on changing street signs around Lake Calhoun to include "Bde Maka Ska," the lake's Dakota name.
Her Minneapolis district includes the Little Earth housing project, which has the largest urban indigenous population in the state.
"I'm a self-proclaimed history nerd," she said. "And that one word doesn't revise history. It speaks volumes for some of us by telling where we've come from."
'Valuable lessons' in past
Minnesota needs to have a conversation about how we deal with historically named places, Kiffmeyer said Friday, and the Historical Society should join in those talks with the public and the Legislature. She said people have an obligation to remember history so we can learn from it.
"The saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it," she said. "We're seeing too often that history is erased because it doesn't fit in today's context. But the past is how we got to today. And there are valuable lessons to learn from our past. That's what we need to remember."
MNHS is a nonprofit which, while independent of the state, relies on it for nearly 60 percent of its $60 million-plus annual budget. If the cuts made to the Historical Society's budget had remained in the bill, it would have represented about 20% of the $23 million portion funded by the Legislature.
That would cost 80 jobs, reduce school programs and force museums and historical sites to trim their hours or close entirely.
"The governor, House and Senate came to an agreement on funding for the Minnesota Historical Society, and we are very thankful for the state's continued support," said Kent Whitworth, MNHS director and CEO. "The proposed cut to our budget would have put in jeopardy our service to the people of Minnesota. Our mission is to serve all Minnesotans and that is more important now than ever."
Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said Republicans had unrealistic budget targets and that the proposed MNHS cuts were disproportionate to those proposed for other state agencies.
Cohen and Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, were surprised to hear about Kiffmeyer's attempt to reduce MNHS funding during a Finance Committee hearing. When she spoke of her concerns about the fort signage, Cohen said it was the first time he had heard an ideological issue raised with regard to the Historical Society.
"There is nothing wrong with trying to take a more nuanced look at Minnesota history," he said.
When Marty and other legislators at the hearing pushed Kiffmeyer for further explanation, Newman said the controversy revolved around whether MNHS was dealing in revisionist history.
"It is troubling to me that somebody appeared to be pushing an agenda," said Marty. "Bdote is not an offensive word to anybody. Recognizing other parts of Fort Snelling doesn't downplay its military history. I'm thrilled the funding cut didn't happen."
Historical Society officials haven't yet decided whether to permanently make the signs read "Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote." Whitworth said "Bdote" was added to signify the site's location and "add broader historical context to the multiple complex stories shared there."
Conley said she hopes the Historical Society will permanently add "Bdote" to all the signs at Fort Snelling. She also would like to see the Park Board change the name of Cedar Avenue Field Park at Little Earth.
"Adding history and context shouldn't threaten funding," she said. "It should have never been on the table at the Legislature."