OPINION | Dakota memory and Fort Snelling


On Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend, I biked from my home in Powderhorn Park to the concentration camp at Fort Snelling State Park. 

Most Twin Cities residents likely would draw a blank if asked about a concentration camp here; but the memorial exhibit at the Fort Snelling State Park visitor center refers to the “Dakota Conflict Concentration Camp,” the site by Pike Island in the Mississippi River where some 1,600 Dakota men, women and children were interned during the winter of 1862-63.

In a tragic chapter of this land’s history, in the aftermath of the United States-Dakota War, President Abraham Lincoln pared down a list of more than 300 Dakota men condemned to death by hanging after hasty trials, and wrote out the order of execution for 39 of them. On the morning of Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors singing their traditional songs were led to a scaffold in Mankato for the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Atop the fort’s iconic Round Tower, Autumn Cavender-Wilson (Wahpetonwan Dakota), a young activist with the Campaign to Take Down the Fort (takedownthefort.com), is talking with some tourists, an elderly couple and a younger man. She fills them in about the history, speaking in Dakota, then in English. The elderly man complements her as being a fine representative of her people, and presses a five-dollar bill into her hand. She responds that “Take Down the Fort” T-shirts are for sale outside of the fort.

Two officials of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS), which operates Historic Fort Snelling, and an imposing Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy had agreed to let a small group of Take Down the Fort protesters inside the tourist attraction for free. The previous day a much larger contingent of demonstrators forced their way into the fort, amid some shoving and rough stuff with sheriff’s deputies.

Standing by a historical marker noting the 1865 execution of Dakota patriots Shokpay (Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle) at the fort, Cavender-Wilson derides the efforts to interpret the conflict between the U.S. and the Dakota. “They have little snippets here and there,” she says, about the interpretive displays about the Dakota. “It doesn’t do justice to what happened here, by any means.”

Cavender-Wilson, who has visited the Mauthausen concentration camp, near Linz, Austria, adds that at the “major [Nazi] concentration camps, the narrative is very clear – here it is not.

Re-enactors portray soldiers and fort personnel in 1820s garb; such a display would be unthinkable at a Nazi concentration camp. There should be displays at the fort comparing the 19th century American historical figures – Pres. Lincoln, Gov. Sibley and Gov. Ramsey – to people like Stalin or Hitler,” she suggests.

A visitor to the Round Tower is informed that the site of the scaffold from which Shokpay and Wakanozhanzhan were hung on Nov. 11, 1865, is now a vehicle turn-around adjacent to the fort. Looking down at the former execution site, two Hennepin County sheriff’s squad cars are idling there, in case the anti-fort protesters try anything untoward.

Cavender-Wilson sees the fort as “very, very bizarre. It’s very disturbing on a political level, but on an emotional level it’s really trying,” she comments. “If I look down [from the Round Tower], I can see the concentration camp. This is where the cannons were; this is where the soldiers started from, when they descended into the camp to rape our women and children.”

I also talked on Sunday with John Crippen, the MHS official in charge of state historical sites, including Historic Fort Snelling. He told me that MHS worked with the Dakota to make sure their story was told throughout the fort complex. And he mentioned that “there’s a nice memorial” at the site of the internment camp, which was created in collaboration with the Dakota. And they’ve got some really nice exhibits in the visitors center that tell the history.”

Cavender-Wilson responds that an MHS representative coerced Dakota elders years ago to impart historical information. And she says that MHS officials consistently “refuse to have any sort of private dialogue” with her and other critics.

Perhaps a compromise can be reached between MHS and the activists, who urge, according to their Web site, that “Historic Fort Snelling be demolished, the land returned to a pristine condition, and finally returned to the care and jurisdiction of Dakota people.” However, the agency and the activists are talking across a vast divide.