REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Opinions differ on whether a new name is in order for the site where Fort Snelling is located, but those who attended public meetings seem to agree on one important issue: The Historic Fort Snelling site has a long, complicated and impactful history ranging from the experiences of the Dakota people and Dred Scott to the World War II language school and the fort's military past.
"The biggest surprise is, no matter their position on the name, almost everyone has said we need to tell all these stories," said Kevin Maijala, deputy director of learning initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. "People understand we are better when we tell all these stories."
The last of the public meetings on a potential name change was Oct. 17 at the Redwood Area Community Center in Redwood Falls. A Minnesota Historical Society survey on the topic remains open until Nov. 15. A report will be compiled for the society's governing board, which will consider whether to recommend a change, keep the name the same or seek more information. If a new name is recommended, it must go to the state Legislature for approval.
The potential name change is just one part of the larger, $34.5 million revitalization project the Historical Society is undertaking at the 23-acre historic site in St. Paul. This includes a new visitors center and natural landscaping including trails and gathering places. The project to be completed in 2022 will also expand the history that is taught at the site visited by thousands each year.
"We are doing these changes to add to the stories that we have been telling at this site," Maijala said.
The stories cover a wide range of American history, with impacts both nationally and internationally. Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom from slavery in a landmark case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1857, based his lawsuit on the time he spent at Fort Snelling as the slave of the fort's surgeon.
Almost a hundred years later, during the last months of World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans trained at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at the fort. There they learned to be interpreters, interrogators and intelligence workers. Many from the school served during the U.S. occupation of Japan after the war.
For the Dakota people, the site of Historic Fort Snelling is a sacred place and archaeological evidence has shown habitation in the area dating back thousands of years.
Fort Snelling is also a painful place due to its central role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It was Fort Snelling where more than 1,600 Dakota non-combatants — mostly women, children and the elderly — were held after they were forcibly removed from their homeland in the Minnesota River Valley. Between 130 and 300 Dakota died, most from disease and the conditions at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, according to the Historical Society.
The question now is whether the current name of the site, Historic Fort Snelling, adequately reflects the entire history or if a new name should be considered.
"All of these stories are part of the revitalization," Maijala said. "How do we talk about a place that has expanded its story so much beyond the walls of the 1820s fort?"
The actual military structure will remain Fort Snelling.
The Minnesota Historical Society conducted six public information meetings — in Rochester, Duluth, Brooklyn Park, St. Cloud, St. Paul and Redwood Falls. Maijala said it was important to get input on a potential name change from the entire state.
"The story of Fort Snelling connects with people all over," Maijala said.
While the meetings were light on attendance — only about 14 attended in Redwood Falls — good conversation took place, Maijala said.
At the Redwood Falls meeting, there were elected officials, representatives of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and others interested in Minnesota history. Many were happy the Minnesota Historical Society is expanding the history taught there. Others were concerned about the rush to rename old historic sites and wanted to make sure history was being told in an accurate, balanced and respectful way.
"Thank you for being committed to our Minnesota history," said Phyllis Goff, immediate past president of the Minnesota Historical Society Governing Board. "I could feel that."
Maijala hopes many more people will reach out through the online survey.
So far the Minnesota Historical Society has collected more than 5,600 responses. Anyone, including children and students, can fill out the online survey at http://www.mnhs.org/fortsnelling/naming.
All the public comments will help decide which direction to go, even if it means the name remains the same.
Maijala said the Minnesota Historical Society does not have any one specific name in mind for the site, and for him the process is more important than the final outcome.
"I don't care what the name is as much as having these conversations about what history means to us," said Maijala. "That we talk about this in a way that gets us to examine our past, our understanding of other stories, other people and what we think of as history."