History is always changing. If that seems contradictory, compare history books written about the same events over different periods in time. As a society evolves, it deals with its history differently, hopefully exploring new dimensions, bringing in a richer tapestry of voices that serve to enrich our understanding of past events.
The Minnesota Historical Society, an independent nonprofit, understands that task better than most. It has been part of this state's history since territorial days, tasked with observing, interpreting and reinterpreting that history. It oversees the state's significant historical sites, including forts and battlefields.
Now some state Senate Republicans want to put politicians in charge of state-owned historical sites. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who leads the committee in charge of state agency funding, has been pushing for the change, saying that "a historical society should not be embroiled in a huge amount of controversy." Rather, she said, it "should be keeping track of our history."
That is an overly limiting view of history, one that seeks to control rather than expand our knowledge, and not appropriate to a free democracy. History by its nature is "embroiled in a huge amount of controversy." And it should be. History is more than a tidy summation of dates, or a dry, anodyne recounting of events. Too often we have succumbed to a version of history more concerned with myth preservation than a fearless exploration that reflects all sides.
The Historical Society, to its credit, has been unafraid to take on controversy. In the last budget go-round in 2019, it triggered Kiffmeyer's wrath by adding "at Bdote" to Fort Snelling. Kiffmeyer sought to punish the society with a $4 million budget cut that passed the Senate and would have resulted in dozens of layoffs and reduced hours if it had become law.
All because it dared to use the Dakota people's original name for the site. Kiffmeyer at the time called the addition "revisionist history." No. The revision was in leaving it out. It is a historical fact that the fort, located where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet, was considered a spiritual site by the Dakota. "Bdote" literally means "where the two rivers come together." This is precisely the kind of inclusion that honors the thousands of years of history and civilization that predates white settlers. It diminishes nothing to add it.
Gov. Tim Walz, a retired educator who early in his career taught at South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said he firmly believes management of the state's historical sites should remain with the Historical Society.
"I'm not a trained historian," he said, "but this needs to be done by an independent entity. The Historical Society is older than the state itself, and they do incredible work. To acknowledge a fuller history is not revisionist." Under Kiffmeyer's proposal, the State Historic Preservation Office, in the Department of Administration, would oversee the 16 sites now run by the Historical Society, including Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.
In a recent Star Tribune story, Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis told legislators that the Preservation Office, with its 13-member staff, is not equipped to manage those sites. The Historical Society has about 300 full-time employees.
If Kiffmeyer also wants greater transparency, as she has claimed, then it is possible to make those requirements of the Historical Society, which gets a majority — though far from all — of its funding from the state.
Minnesota should not shy away from fully understanding its history, even if it makes some politicians uncomfortable.