John Hinderaker: It takes a vote of the Legislature to change the name at Fort Snelling

The Pioneer Press and other local media have covered a conflict between the Republican-majority state Senate and the DFL-majority state House of Representatives over funding of the Minnesota Historical Society (“‘Fort Snelling at Bdote’? Senate passes GOP measure cutting Historical Society funds over ‘revisionist history,’” Bill Salisbury, April 25). The Senate’s budget bill would cut the Historical Society’s funding by 18 percent. News coverage has uniformly been sympathetic to the Historical Society and has put GOP senators in a negative light.

But that coverage has failed to explain fully the context and origins of the conflict.

In 2017, the Historical Society’s then-executive director, without consulting the Society’s executive council, ordered the signs at Fort Snelling changed to read “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” Those signs, which greet visitors, certainly appear to set forth the name of the site they are visiting. To all appearances, the executive director had, in fact, directed a change in Fort Snelling’s name.

As many Minnesotans are now aware, following the controversy over the Department of Natural Resources’ renaming of Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska, the renaming of landmarks is governed by legal processes. In the case of Fort Snelling, the Society’s procedures require approval by the organization’s executive council, and Minnesota Statute §138.662, which fixes the site’s name as “Historic Fort Snelling,” can be amended only by the Legislature. Neither a recommendation by the Society’s executive council nor legislative action has taken place.

Despite having initially acknowledged that the Society’s executive director did not follow the required procedure in implementing the Fort Snelling name change, the Society has  persistently refused to take the new signs down. After the fact, the Society has taken the position on social media that “MNHS has not changed the name of Historic Fort Snelling, but in 2017, we added the words ‘at Bdote’ to signage to signify the location of the site….” Talk about revisionist history!

In effect, the Historical Society’s leadership has flouted the Legislature’s statutory role in deciding how historical sites should be named, while at the same time expecting full funding from that same Legislature. It is reasonable to suspect that if the Historical Society removes the “Bdote” signage and restores the original “Historic Fort Snelling” signs, the Legislature will likewise restore the Society’s funding. But the Historical Society’s leadership has adamantly refused to restore signage that reflects Fort Snelling’s actual, legal name.

Is this, as some no doubt would say, a tempest in a teapot? Perhaps. But the past is important, and Fort Snelling is a significant part of Minnesota’s history. Those who want to call the historical site “Fort Snelling at Bdote” are promoting a particular view of our past. Perhaps they are right to do so. But in a democracy, such decisions should should not be made by fiat, but rather should be accompanied by accountability. This is why Minnesota law provides that a vote of the Legislature is required to change the name of the Fort Snelling site.

On April 30, the Minnesota House voted to rename Lake Calhoun Bde Maka Ska. Perhaps one day the House and Senate will vote to adopt the name Fort Snelling at Bdote. If so, that is how the site will be known to posterity. But in the meantime, the Historical Society has overstepped its bounds, and it is not unreasonable for the Legislature to respond by exercising oversight through the power of the purse.

John Hinderaker is president of the Center of the American Experiment, a public policy organization based in Golden Valley.

 

 


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