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Dakota aim to reclaim Fort Snelling and its difficult history

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A sign at Fort Snelling on May 3, 2019.
A sign at Fort Snelling on Friday using the Dakota word bdote, meaning the place where two waters meet.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

For the Dakota people, May 4 marks a dark date in history. It's when, in 1863, Dakota people held at Fort Snelling were exiled from Minnesota.

It was a traumatic time for the community, said Kate Beane of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.

"A lot of our people haven't returned back here since that time," she said. "Or when they have returned, there hasn't been any acknowledgement of that return and how hard it is. ... In particular Fort Snelling is an incredibly hard space for our community to be at. And historically our people have not been represented here; we have not been welcome here."

The Minnesota Historical Society wants to change that by making sites like Fort Snelling reflect a more complete telling of history, said Beane, who works on Native American initiatives with the Historical Society.

A sign seen at Fort Snelling on May 3, 2019.
A sign seen at Fort Snelling on Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

"This military fort historically has been seen within the Dakota community as a place that divided, and we are trying to come back to this base to show the ways in which our people can unite here and the ways in which we are a part of this land," Beane said.

Among those efforts: an event Friday at Fort Snelling that taught and celebrated Dakota history, language and culture.

People played lacrosse — a sport created by Native Americans. Kids got to practice their Dakota language skills.

Beth Brown, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at the Bdote Learning Center, worked with students at Fort Snelling on Friday inside the old military fort along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.

She said all her Dakota language students took part in the event. The chance to practice in public with other speakers is crucial for their learning, Brown said.

"It's kind of a rare opportunity for them to meet other people around the community that are Dakota language speakers and for them to be outside of the school using the language and doing these different kind of things," she said. "It adds to their experience and their adds to their language."

Kids practice a Dakota language exercise at Fort Snelling.
Kids practice a Dakota language exercise at the Dakhota Gathering at Fort Snelling on Friday.
Cody Nelson | MPR News

The Historical Society's efforts also have included adding temporary signage at the site, reading "Fort Snelling at Bdote."

In Dakota, bdote means the place where two waters meet; the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet at Fort Snelling.

While those signs have been up for over two years — and they're temporary — they've recently caught some negative attention at the state Capitol.

Some state lawmakers threatened to slash the Historical Society's funding because of the signs. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, told KSTP-TV it was "revisionist" history.

Beane sees things differently. Adding "at Bdote" to the signs, she said, can help Dakota people feel more welcome on the land where their ancestors lived for thousands of years.

"In order to come home, we have to be able to have a voice — and we're speaking up and we're becoming educated and we're becoming more involved in the public spaces in which we live," she said. "And so there is going to be pushback on that, I imagine, from those who are afraid of change."

"But I think it's important for everyone to understand that change is a good thing, that change is being inclusive of multiple people, multiple perspectives, multiple histories."