Bde Maka Ska? Change the Name. Rewrite History. Redefine Politics.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Thinking Minnesota, now the second largest magazine in Minnesota. To receive a free trial issue send your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel, 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth in Oceania, a one-Party socialist state in what was once the British Isles and the Americas. The ministry does not promote truth, but rewrites history to conform to Party doctrine in what authorities portray as a never-ending war against shadowy enemies. To this end, pictures are torn down, statues destroyed, and inconvenient documents dropped down “memory holes” into huge incinerators.
Orwell, a socialist and man of the Left, understood the authoritarian threat that democracies face in a technological age, and saw how elites can manipulate history for propaganda purposes. He wrote 1984, which appeared in 1949, to alert the West to these dangers.
One of Orwell’s key insights was that to gain the power to restructure a society, those with authoritarian ambitions must delegitimize what came before, so as to reshape a people’s view of who they are and where they came from. “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” he wrote.
America in 2019 is not Oceania, of course. Yet in this 70th anniversary year of 1984’s publication, the book sheds light on the American Left’s on-going campaign to rewrite history, and to replace America’s traditional self-understanding as the land of freedom and opportunity with a vision of America as an illegitimate nation that advanced by trampling on victim groups. These ideologues’ aim is to discredit our political and social institutions as corrupt from the outset, and to assert that their own superior commitment to social justice qualifies them to lead the way to a brave new world.
The Left’s crusade to reshape Americans’ perception of their history to fit the “progressive” narrative is far advanced in higher education, and increasingly, in our K-12 public schools. In 2017, it exploded into the public square, as protesters tore down Old South statues and symbols across the country and iconic American figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington came under attack.
In Minnesota, public officials have eagerly jumped on this bandwagon.
Left-wing officials have launched campaigns to rename three high-profile landmarks on grounds their namesakes do not meet today’s progressive standards.
These include Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis; Fort Snelling; and four buildings at the University of Minnesota’s flagship Twin Cities campus, including Coffman Student Union. In each case, Orwell would have recognized the strategies employed—a rewriting of history and a disregard for democratic processes and the rule of law—along with the ideology that drives them.
Lake Calhoun is the jewel of the City of Lakes, and thousands flock there every summer to walk, bike, or sail. In 2015, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board launched a campaign to rename the lake “Bde Maka Ska,” allegedly the original Dakota Indian name. The board’s claim was that—because John C. Calhoun, after whom the lake was named before 1823, was an outspoken advocate of slavery—retaining the name involved the city in an endorsement of slavery.
Minnesota law provides that only the state legislature can change a lake name that has been in use for more than 40 years. But park board chair Brad Bourn chose to flout the law. The board petitioned the Hennepin County Board, which passed a resolution asking the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to change Lake Calhoun’s name. In 2018, after the DNR commissioner approved the renaming, the park board erected new signs around the lake, reading “Bde Maka Ska.”
Nearby residents sued, and in April 2019 the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the DNR commissioner lacked legal authority to rename the lake. In response, a defiant Bourn engaged in what Erick Kaardal, the plaintiffs’ attorney, described as “public official civil disobedience.” Bourn declared that— regardless of the court’s decision—the lake had been “called Bde Maka Ska for generations before white settlers stole it from the Dakota” and “will continue to be for generations to come.” The park board voted to rename the four elegant boulevards around the lake with the “Bde Maka Ska” name, and the DNR appealed the court ruling.
Throughout this crusade, the public officials involved have shown a scandalous disregard for historical truth. For starters, there’s the new name itself. Traditional Dakota names for the lake are Heyata Mde (Inland Lake) and Mde Medoza (Lake of the Loons), recorded by 19thcentury missionaries and historians who gathered the names from Dakota who lived in the area. “Bde Maka Ska”—the name pushed by Native American activists who share the park board’s agenda— is historically unsubstantiated, according to independent Minnesota historians who have studied the question.
Then there’s the issue at the center of the Calhoun dispute—slavery. Name-change proponents insist that retaining the Calhoun name amounts to an endorsement of slavery and so is immoral. But U.S. Army officers didn’t name the lake for Calhoun because he was an advocate for slavery. (He became known for his pro-slavery stance later.) They did so because, as President Monroe’s far-seeing Secretary of War, he had called for the foundation of the chain of garrisons—including Fort Snelling—that secured America’s northern frontier against British influence.
A particularly inconvenient fact for the name-changers is this: The Dakota enslaved people themselves, including both Indians and whites they captured in warfare. Some were adopted, some killed, and some sold or traded.
Finally, name-change proponents charge that white settlers stole the lake from the Dakota, so its name should reflect their rightful ownership. In fact, the Dakota “stole” the land from the Iowa, Otoe and other tribes sometime after 1700, when the Ojibwe, their bitter enemies, drove them from their original Mille Lacs-area villages. The Dakota did not pay these tribes but killed them and seized their land. In contrast, the U.S. government peacefully purchased the land, negotiating treaties with Dakota leaders.
In their zeal to identify angels and demons, name-change proponents disregard the many good things the U.S. government did for the Indians. The Dakota often struggled to feed themselves in harsh Minnesota winters. For that reason, in 1830 the government provided strong support to a model village at Lake Calhoun where, using intensive agriculture, the Dakota raised so much food they were able to sell the surplus. But in 1839, they massacred more than 70 Ojibwe, mostly women and children, and abandoned the village, fearing Ojibwe retaliation.
The case for renaming Lake Calhoun relies on a false narrative that portrays the lake’s history as a simplistic morality play that pits good Indians against evil white settlers. But the factual record is seriously at odds with the good guy/bad guy spin.
Fort Snelling is Minnesota’s birthplace and the state’s most valuable historic asset. It was the first permanent outpost of American sovereignty on the Upper Mississippi River, long before white settlement. All of Minnesota’s 24,000 Civil War soldiers passed through it, as did officers and new regiments training for World War I and more than 275,000 GIs inducted for service in World War II. The fort was also home to the state’s first school, hospital and post office.
By law, only the Minnesota Legislature can change the fort’s name. But in 2017, Steve Elliott, then the Minnesota Historical Society’s (MNHS) executive director, unilaterally ordered erection of signs changing the name from “Historic Fort Snelling” to “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” (According to independent historians, the correct Mdewakanton Dakota name for the site is “Mdote,” meaning “confluence of rivers,” not “Bdote”—an undocumented name promoted recently by Native American activists.)
In response, the Minnesota Senate threatened to withhold $4 million in MNHS funding, citing “revisionist history.” The Senate restored the funding after the MNHS agreed to remove the signs. But MNHS failed to do so, alternately claiming the signs were temporary, or merely added historical context.
The context of the name-change campaign is the MNHS’s $35 million “revitalization” plan for the fort complex, whose 200th anniversary is in 2020. As at Lake Calhoun, this “new vision” features what one commentator has called a one-dimensional narrative of “villainous whites and victimized minorities.”
A central theme of the new vision is that whites stole the land around Fort Snelling from the Indians. The fort’s construction marked
“a seminal moment in the invasion of Dakota lands,” as the U.S. “fulfill[ed] its colonial aims,” according to the MNHS website.
In fact, Fort Snelling was built— shortly after the War of 1812—to prevent British intrusion from Canada into the frontier lands of America’s new Louisiana Purchase. Its mission included regulating the fur trade and promoting peace between the constantly feuding Indian tribes.
Indian agents at the fort regularly supplied the Dakota with traps, axes, guns and knives that helped them survive, and often gave them food and tobacco. Between 1820 and 1831, the U.S. sponsored more than 200 peace councils between the feuding Dakota and Ojibwe. Dakota Chief Little Crow recognized these advantages. In 1819, he told Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro “he had been looking every year since the sale [of land] for the troops to build a fort, and was now hoping to see [them.]”
The MNHS’s rewriting of history reaches egregious proportions regarding the Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath. The MNHS website charges that a camp where Dakota women and children were held after the war was part of “genocidal policies” the U.S. pursued “against indigenous peoples.”
The Dakota War was a tragic episode in Minnesota history. In the summer of 1862, the Indians faced a food shortage, their federal land payment was late, and tensions were running high among the Dakota, the traders and Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith. In response, in August, Dakota warriors massacred more than 600 Southwest Minnesota settlers— mostly defenseless women and children.
The massacre sent shock waves through the state. It represented the largest number of whites killed in a war with the Indians in United States history. If the war occurred today and the same proportion of the state’s population was killed, the dead would number 15,000, according to Minnesota historian Stephen Osman. That’s five times the death toll of September 11, 2001. The victims included almost 100 children aged 10 or under, of whom 40 were babies of two or under. Twenty thousand refugees fled their homes and hundreds of children were orphaned.
Minnesotans were particularly outraged by the appallingly cruel and brutal way many were slain. Eyewitnesses across 140 miles described babies nailed to trees and left to die in agony; children whose hands or legs were hacked off with tomahawks before their parents’ eyes; victims whose hearts and other organs had been ripped out and scattered; and bodies mangled “to such a degree as to be almost deprived of human form”—including a woman whose head was left on a table with a knife and fork stuck in it.
Despite outraged cries for revenge, the U.S. government— after capturing some of the perpetrators—moved to protect Dakota women and children. As winter came on, the Army built a camp to house more than 1,600 of them. The camp’s purposes were to shield these Indian dependents from grieving, revenge-minded whites, and to feed them through the winter. The Dakota received the same rations as the fort’s soldiers, and many would probably have starved without this aid, according to Osman. They were free to come and go and were given medical care.
Fewer than 150 Indians died, mostly of measles—a constant danger before modern medicine. But at least as many dislocated settlers also died of disease while refugees crowded into Minnesota cities following the conflict, according to Osman.
The MNHS website describes the Army camp for Dakota women and children as a “concentration camp,” an act of “genocide.” The opposite is true: The camp’s purpose was to protect Dakota dependents, not to exterminate them. Though the MNHS acknowledges the camp’s inhabitants were not “systematically exterminated,” its imagery clearly evokes Nazi death camps. At the same time, the MNHS website fails to convey either the extent of the death toll the Dakota inflicted or the barbaric nature of their atrocities.
The MNHS is the publicly funded steward of Minnesota history. Yet where Fort Snelling is concerned, it is effectively erasing that history. In August 2019, the MNHS announced it would seek public input about whether to recommend that the legislature change the fort’s name. However, although it has now covered the new signs, its announcement left little doubt that it remains strongly committed to “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.”
University of Minnesota
At the University of Minnesota, name-change activists have focused on more recent history. In 2017, U of M faculty staged an exhibit, “A Campus Divided,” which alleged that four campus administrators from the 1930s and ‘40s had engaged in anti-Semitism, enforced racial segregation in dormitories, or taken other problematic positions. Eric Kaler, then the U’s president, appointed a faculty task force to recommend whether their names should be stripped from four prominent campus buildings.
The U of M has never changed a building’s name for historic reasons, and no legal process exists to do so. The April 2019 meeting at which the regents considered the task force’s 125-page report was described by the Minnesota Daily as a “raucous affair.” Audience members smuggled in prohibited signs and catcalled, “shouted, groaned and hissed.” Professor Riv-Ellen Prell, a curator of the 2017 exhibit, attempted to drown out a regent as he expressed concerns about the report. Another faculty member denounced the regents as “defensive and dismissive”—a “typical pattern of white supremacy.”
Despite this, the regents voted 10-1 to reject the faculty’s recommendation that the buildings be renamed. They cited the report’s numerous errors—from mistakes of identity and timing to objective falsehoods—and its omission of key pieces of evidence. For example, though the task force possessed a document proving that the 1935 board of regents had unanimously opposed the racial integration of dorms, it omitted the board’s statement; tried to attribute its position to Lotus Coffman, then the U of M president; and ignored Coffman’s own unsuccessful efforts to create integrated campus housing.
Professor Ian Maitland of the Carlson School of Business dissected the task force report in a series of articles in the Minnesota Daily. In many cases, he wrote, the evidence it cited did not support its accusations but pointed to the opposite conclusion.
For example, Maitland wrote, the report “heaped astonishing invective” on Edward Nicholson, dean of student affairs from 1917 to 1941. It made the “sensational claim” that he was an anti-Semite, and during the 1930s had surveilled student activists and shared information about them with “open allies of Nazi Germany.”
The task force’s whole case, explained Maitland, hangs on one piece of evidence—an anonymous document known as “Notes on Radicalism.” But the “case is overwhelming” that Nicholson was not its author, he wrote. Nevertheless, the task force attributed it to Nicholson “unhesitatingly and without offering any justification,” in Maitland’s words. “Without stronger evidence—or really any evidence at all,” he concluded, the task force’s “outlandish accusations” about Nicholson’s anti-Semitism—“and, by extension, the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s”—is “just a conspiracy theory conjured out of thin air.”
Maitland concluded that the task force has “blackened Nicholson’s reputation” with its “grotesque charges,” and “tarnished” the “University’s reputation” with these unfair accusations. He called on its members to “give Nicholson his good name back.”
The task force also trained its guns on Lotus Coffman, U of M president from 1920 to 1938. Its charges of racism are ironic, given that Coffman was the visionary creator of the U’s General College, which granted access to the campus to countless minority students from 1932 to 2006. After examining the report’s evidence, Maitland concluded that every one of its claims about Coffman “is wild and unsubstantiated or seriously misleading.”
At the April 2019 regents’ meeting, Regent Michael Hsu summed up the situation concisely. Task force members “were not doing this as an exercise in looking for the truth,” he said. “They presumed these people were guilty.”
It’s possible that the “Rename/Reclaim Campaign” at the U of M is just getting ramped up. Though for now it has foundered at the Twin Cities campus, going forward, a permanent “Advisory Committee on University History” will “consider renaming, removing names, or more diverse naming opportunities for University buildings and other significant assets,” according to a letter signed by former president Kaler in November 2018. For now, however, the board of regents has put a hold on the creation of new committees.
One thing seems certain: The issue will return. In the future, activists may launch renaming campaigns at the U’s campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester.
The Left’s ongoing campaign to discredit Minnesota history
Some claim renaming Minnesota landmarks is no big deal. But it’s clearly an urgent priority for the leaders of these campaigns, who have poured time, energy and public funds into them. Why?
Not because ordinary Minnesotans are demanding it. And not because name changes tangibly improve the lives of the minority groups in whose name they are being done. On the contrary, these campaigns are, at base, about the proponents themselves. They provide opportunities for a self-righteous, self-dramatizing elite to pose as the vanguard of progress and “social justice.”
The modus operandi of the crusades described here bears out the anti-democratic impulse that animates them. Their leaders are willing to flout democratic processes to impose their will, including shouting down, labeling or intimidating opponents. They approach history, in all its messy complexity, not as a search for truth but as a vehicle for advancing a political agenda—even when that requires grossly distorting the factual record.
In crafting their narrative, name-changers generally portray America’s founding principles as hypocritical, its political institutions as corrupt, and its former leaders as scoundrels. By inducing guilt and shame in others, name-changers seek to establish their own superior right to dictate historical standards, to define what “justice” and “equality” demand.
Today, the strategy of invoking social justice and equality offers ideological crusaders the path of least resistance in achieving their ambitions. Our history includes real injustices, and many Americans are tongue-tied in the face of them. Their fear of being labeled a “racist” or “bigot” leads them to stand back as the Left advances its agenda of transforming the political and social “systems” which they allege lead to these inequities.
The Left’s campaign to rewrite history threatens to create an intellectual vacuum that activists will fill with their own contemporary version of Orwell’s “Newspeak.” This is a language designed not to articulate truth accurately, but to make independent thought increasingly difficult. Today’s Newspeak lingo turns on words like “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion.” Increasingly, these mean “conformity,” “inequity,” and “persecution of dissenters”—in other words, the opposite of their real meanings.
An open-minded study of history teaches that all human beings are flawed, and all societies commit injustices. It also teaches, through the 20th century’s tragic lessons, that concentrating power in the hands of self-righteous elites can lead to tyranny.
Orwell described the end game— the erasing of truth, the prevention of independent thought—if campaigns like those underway in Minnesota are allowed to gather strength: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
How does this happen? Orwell tells us: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.”
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She was a founding director of the Center and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998. Katherine has written on cultural and policy issues for a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Policy Review, and First Things. For two years, she served as a regular commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” She earned a B.A. from Notre Dame, an M.A. from Yale, and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School.