Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

New exhibit aims to tell fuller history of Bdote and Fort Snelling

A smiling person with a bob, earrings and a black shirt.
As Director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society, Amber Annis helped develop the exhibit Many Voices, Many Stories, One Place at Historic Fort Snelling.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Historic Fort Snelling is an old military site perched between the intersections of two highways and two rivers, the Minnesota and the Mississippi. There’s a lot of history that converges there too.

That river confluence and the surrounding area is sacred to Dakota people and a reminder of a painful time period, as the site of a concentration camp where more than 1,600 Dakota people were held and hundreds died in the winter of 1862.

The fort was part of the backdrop of Dred Scott v. Sandford and the site of a Japanese language school during World War II.

For years, the Minnesota Historical Society has been working to revamp its museum at the Fort to better represent all of these stories.

MNHS Director of Native American Initiatives joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the culmination of that effort, a new exhibit that opened Saturday.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You all know that historic Fort Snelling is an old military site perched between the intersections of two highways and two rivers-- the Minnesota and the Mississippi. There's a lot of history that converges there, too. That river confluence and the surrounding area is sacred to Dakota people. It's also a reminder of a painful time period as the site of a concentration camp where more than 1,600 Dakota people were held. Hundreds died in the winter of 1862.

Fort Snelling led to the Supreme Court case Dred Scott versus Sandford, a landmark in the history of slavery. And it was also the site of a Japanese language school during World War II. Now, for years, the Minnesota Historical Society has been working to revamp its museum at the fort to better represent all of those stories. And that work has culminated in a new exhibit that opened over the weekend. Joining us now to talk about it is Amber Annis, Director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. Hello, Amber.

AMBER ANNIS: Hi there. Hello. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks for taking the time. This has been a long time in coming, hasn't it? I know you've reached out to various communities, public historians, to try to tell a complete picture. What's that process been like?

AMBER ANNIS: Thanks so much for that question. And it has been a long time, but I think something as powerful as the historic Fort Snelling and the landscape around it needs a long time. The process has been really important in terms of who we're engaging, making sure that we are having multiple conversations with not only the Dakota communities, but tribal leaders, historians, archaeologists, and also many representatives from the military so we can really try to share this high-level overview of the history of Bdote and Fort Snelling.

CATHY WURZER: Why is it important to broaden the storytelling for this site?

AMBER ANNIS: Well, I think with most things, that's how we really understand our true histories is if we are opening it up to many different lenses. We don't have just one narrative, one view. We're understanding the complications. And also, we're understanding the power of this site if we go beyond the importance of the military site. But if we go beyond that to help bring folks in-- to center them a little bit more IN understanding Dakota creation stories, Dakota histories, but also the importance of including histories and voices that were often omitted in some of these stories.

CATHY WURZER: And, to be clear for some folks who might not understand, it's not as if you are rewriting history. You're adding to it.

AMBER ANNIS: Oh, absolutely. Rewriting is, really, enhancing history. It's bringing out those stories that were often hidden in these margins. And we're creating a more powerful story. We're also creating stories-- when we're telling these stories, we're also bringing in all different communities. So they see themselves. They can hear themselves-- their stories, their family's stories, being told at the site.

CATHY WURZER: There's clearly a lot of stories at this site, as I mentioned and you just detailed. Was there a detail or a story or something that really just struck you as a historian that was the most surprising to you?

AMBER ANNIS: I think, for me, the military stories of various veterans of different folks that have served. What you're really seeing is this larger understanding of nationalism around American Indians, African Americans, Japanese Americans. I think their really powerful stories occurred during World War II, where we're really highlighting-- we're hearing from the people themselves. So we're hearing those experiences of Japanese Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans who, at the same time while they're enduring a lot of discrimination in this country, they also are really proud citizens of the United States. And you see that in their desire and their quest to serve.

CATHY WURZER: Give us a look behind the scenes as the choices that were made for this exhibit as it was being curated what might be brought-- what was left on the table? But what might be brought back for maybe other exhibits?

AMBER ANNIS: Oh, that's a great question. A little behind the scenes, there was a lot of conversations and emotions but also a lot of excitement about how we were bringing forth a lot of different stories. We knew right away that because there were so many stories, that's what we wanted to turn to. How can we tell a larger expanding story? And we have to do that through focusing on those individual stories.

One thing that we do focus on that we knew we wanted to include were descendancy videos. And those are really powerful. So you're hearing from the descendants of people such as Wabasha and Little Crow and Dred and Harriet Scott. You're hearing folks from that served during World War II. You're hearing the descendants of what the fort means to them, but also what their family's history means to them.

CATHY WURZER: So this is all part, of course, for folks who have not been to the fort in a long time, the Fort Snelling site has been really redone. You've got a brand new visitor center. And that all fits together, I'm assuming, right?

AMBER ANNIS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, the exhibit really ties together all the things that-- really ties together the whole revitalization effort. We opened last year, and what you're seeing is our approach to turning to the environment, to the landscape, to the water to help tell some of these stories. So you're seeing a lot of reinterpretation of what Indigenous plants would have looked like at that time. You're seeing a new inclusion of stories. We really opened up the space because when we enter into that space, it is about learning. But for a lot of communities, it's also about healing. And there's no better way to do that than to first step in through the environment.

CATHY WURZER: Because of so much work that's been done at this site and, again, the wide array of stories now being told, does that mean that some of the-- oh, in the past, you'd go to the fort and see recreators. You were met by soldiers-- folks masquerading as soldiers-- and they would walk you through the fort. Is that gone now?

AMBER ANNIS: It's not gone. We've stopped costuming a while ago in terms of the living histories, telling our stories. But you will still see some of that recreation because, again, that's an important part to military history. So you'll see that mostly in when we have our fife and drum group or when the military itself-- the Fort Snelling military-- is using the site for different exercises. But other than that, you're not going to see a lot of recreation of the earlier years.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Amber, thank you for your time.

AMBER ANNIS: Thank you so much. We appreciate you so much.

CATHY WURZER: Amber Annis is the Director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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