Minnesota senators on Thursday, April 25, passed a GOP-sponsored measure that would cut the Minnesota Historical Society’s budget for using a Dakota people’s name to identify the site of Historic Fort Snelling.
The fort is located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers; the Dakota people called the site “Bdote.”
To identify the location, the Historical Society recently added the words “at Bdote” to temporary signs welcoming visitors to the fort.
State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, called the addition “revisionist history” and moved legislation to cut the society’s state funding.
Kiffmeyer is chair of the Senate committee that oversees state agency budgets, and she tucked a provision into a larger budget bill that would reduce the Historical Society’s appropriation by $4 million a year.
That represents an 18% decrease that could mean 53 to 80 layoffs, cutting hours at historic sites and “severe reductions” in the organization’s educational and other programs, said Historical Society Director and CEO Kent Whitworth.
The bill passed the Republican-led Senate — on a 37-28 vote — with some Democratic support.
Before the vote, Kiffmeyer said at a news conference that adding “Bdote” to the sign “is greatly objected to by many people, and the historical society has been quite resistant to listen and to make changes. We want them to be accountable and to be more transparent, and this is one way of getting their attention, that this is serious, and they need to pay attention.”
Asked what’s wrong with calling the location “Bdote,” Kiffmeyer replied, “Yes, we can add some of those additional pieces of information, but Fort Snelling is about military history, and we should be very careful to make sure that we keep that. It’s the only real military history in a very unifying way amongst all Minnesotans. It is our premiere entity for military history.”
Whitworth said the addition of Bdote — a sacred place for the Dakota people going back 10,000 years — to the signs does not diminish the military history of the fort. “We take that core part of the story very seriously,” he said.
The society has long planned to revitalize the fort by expanding its history by, for example, telling the stories of the Japanese-American language camp located there during World War II, the buffalo soldiers based there in the late 19th century and the roles women played at the site.
“This is not about addition and subtraction. This is really about addition” to the fort’s story, Whitworth said.
The society has no plans to change the fort’s name, he said. That could only be done by the organization’s governing board and a vote by the Legislature.
During the Senate floor debate, Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, called the Historical Society a “state gem” and said the proposed budget cut would “absolutely decimate” the organization. But his motion to restore the funding failed on a close vote.
The vote by the Senate is far from the final word, however. The DFL-controlled House and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz still must weigh in on the historical society’s funding.
St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Dave Orrick contributed to this report