Aviator Charles Lindbergh was long considered an American hero whom Minnesota was proud to claim. Then word spread that he was anti-Semitic.
Costumed guides at Fort Snelling, one of the state’s most-visited historic sites, showed what it was like for white settlers and soldiers to live in Minnesota in the 1840s. Little was said about the Indians interned there in the 1860s, or the slave who based his claim to freedom on the time he lived there.
Now Minnesota is in the midst of a historical reckoning, untucking some of the neat and tidy — and mostly white — history that generations of Minnesotans have learned and using programs and exhibits to tell the fuller and sometimes unsettling stories of sites such as Fort Snelling and figures such as Lindbergh.
Leading that effort is the Minnesota Historical Society, which is attempting to tell the state’s story through the eyes of its diverse mix of people and to share the unvarnished truth behind some of Minnesota’s long-accepted tales.
Other public agencies also are seeing a need to rethink historical assessments. Despite significant opposition, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last month approved changing the name of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the lake’s original Dakota name, because the lake’s namesake, 19th-century statesman John Calhoun, was a rabid proponent of slavery.
There’s less reluctance to confront complicated figures like Lindbergh, whose reputation has been tarnished by statements he made in the 1930s and ’40s, that Jews as a race were suspect and Nazi Germany was an admirable society, while leading a campaign to keep the United States out of World War II.
“When I started here in 2007, we wouldn’t touch those topics with a 10-foot pole,” said Melissa Peterson, site manager for the Charles Lindbergh House and Museum in Little Falls. “We as a staff are now ready to get into the muck.”
It’s also about broadening historical perspective and telling familiar stories from other vantage points. The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, headquarters for the Historical Society, will open its first permanent Native American gallery in the fall of 2019.
The new take on history is being driven both by popular demand and an acknowledgment that the stories of marginalized people have not been told well, if at all.
“People want more. They want more diverse stories,” said Historical Society spokeswoman Jessica Kohen.
Looking for diversity
Minnesota is not alone in its efforts. Southern cities and states are reevaluating, and in some cases removing, monuments raised to Confederate leaders. No historical sites are being closed or statues toppled in Minnesota, but there remain past figures and events to reckon with.
“We have settler-colonial history here. The impacts of that are still affecting us today, just as slavery has its legacy and impacts in the South,” said Katherine Hayes, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Minnesota.
Perhaps the best local example is Historic Fort Snelling, where the Historical Society has undertaken a $46.5 million renovation that will add more exhibit space and programming to address the site’s diverse threads.
The fort, built by the United States in the 1820s to promote the fur trade and establish ties with the Dakota, has been traditionally portrayed as a frontier military outpost. The Historical Society plans to focus more attention on the Dakota, who inhabited the area for centuries before white settlers and were held there as prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The renovation also will devote more space to the nearly 30 African-American slaves who lived at the fort with their Southern masters, including Dred Scott, whose legal petition for freedom was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, serving as a catalyst for the Civil War.
“We are looking for absent narratives; that has accelerated for us in the past six or seven years,” said Kevin Maijala, the Historical Society’s manager of K-12 programs and services.
Some history buffs are wary. Al Zdon, a longtime Iron Range journalist and local spokesman for the American Legion, said he supports more diverse stories at Fort Snelling so long as they don’t swallow up or demonize its role in the state’s development.
“We realize the story of Native Americans has not been well told … [but] after all, it’s a military fort. It was a crucial player in the settlement of Minnesota,” he said.
Independent historian Curtis Dahlin, who has written numerous books about the U.S.-Dakota War, said diversity is good but the Historical Society is going too far. “They are trying to rewrite history to make it sound as if everything the white man did was wrong and everything the Indians did was right,” he said.
Joe Horse Capture, the Historical Society’s director of American Indian Initiatives, is overseeing the planned 4,000-square-foot gallery dedicated to Indian history.
“Minnesota has one of the highest populations of Native Americans in the country,” he said. “It’s natural we would pay attention to this.”
Horse Capture developed new interpretive signs at the State Capitol for two historical paintings that portrayed Indians in submissive roles and were recently moved upstairs to a meeting room. One depicts Father Louis Hennepin discovering St. Anthony Falls as bare-breasted Indian women look on, and the other shows the triumphal signing by white men of the 1851 treaty in which Dakota tribal leaders ceded large areas of what would become Minnesota.
The interpretive signs, based on interviews with scholars, Indians and descendants of white settlers, are displayed with the paintings. “There is room to tell multiple narratives,” he said.
Grappling with history
The Historical Society also is reexamining how it interprets historic sites for visitors. In the southern Minnesota ghost town of Forestville, costumed guides telling the story of white immigration in the late 19th century will be replaced this spring by guides in polo shirts who will touch on economic tensions in a town bypassed by the railroad and undergoing socioeconomic change.
The first-person immersion experience limited the perspective of visitors, who saw Forestville only through settlers’ eyes, Maijala said.
“Rather than looking at history just as nostalgia, we really want to make sure we connect it to themes today,” he said.
Lindbergh remains famous around the world for his pioneering 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic and his scientific work. The state made his boyhood home in Little Falls a historic site, named the main terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after him and erected a dual statue of him as young aviator and Minnesota boy on the Capitol grounds in 1985.
But the public perception of his legacy has evolved. His signature accomplishments have taken a back seat in recent years to his isolationist campaign before World War II and revelations that he led a double life with three mistresses in Germany with whom he fathered several children.
“What do you do with a person who has done something so spectacular and someone so flawed?” Peterson said. “I don’t have an answer, but let’s go on a journey together.”
The U’s Haynes praised the efforts to broaden ways to look at the state’s history.
“I think those uncomfortable parts of history are really important to grapple with,” she said. “It’s totally admirable what they are doing.”
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804