Weaponizing history

How a small cadre of political radicals is hijacking the mission of the Minnesota Historical Society

A scandal is unfolding at one of Minnesota’s oldest, most venerable institutions — the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). It’s the untold story of how a small, committed cadre of activists have commandeered MNHS’s resources and prestige to make it the vehicle of a destructive, self-serving political agenda.

Why is MNHS in activists’ crosshairs? Because history has become a prime weapon in the American Left’s campaign to transform our institutions and self-understanding.

MNHS’s mission is to preserve our state’s history and pass it on to future generations: to tell us who we are and where we came from. By rewriting history, activists seek to convert that story to one of oppression and injustice, questioning the legitimacy of our very foundations.

Today, MNHS is promoting a simplistic, revisionist historical narrative that paints Native Americans as good/ victims and Minnesota settlers as evil/ oppressors. It is advancing a radical premise: Minnesota’s current residents are here illegally — unjustly exploiting land that rightfully belongs to the Dakota Indians. In line with this campaign, MNHS is “re-envisioning” Fort Snelling, our state’s most valuable historical asset.

Fort Snelling was built in 1820, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. It was the first permanent outpost of American sovereignty on the Upper Mississippi. Minnesota’s 24,000 Civil War soldiers mustered there, including the valiant First Minnesota Volunteers, who sustained an 82 percent casualty rate at Gettysburg — the highest of any unit in any one battle of the war. More than 275,000 Minnesotans were inducted at Fort Snelling to fight Hitler’s Germany in World War II. The fort was also home to our state’s first school, hospital, library and post office.

But today MNHS is reframing the fort as a site, first and foremost, of “genocide” and minority victimization. Its rich, 200-year military legacy is becoming a footnote — a source, not of pride, but of shame to present-day citizens. Museum codes of ethics require museum leaders always to act in a way that preserves public confidence and trust. Scholarly, balanced historical interpretation is at the heart of that responsibility.

But MNHS has broken trust with the people of Minnesota. Today, misleading “narratives” and double standards abound in its exhibits and publications.

For example, Ft. Snelling’s website now features the logo of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, connecting it in Minnesotans’ minds with sites of mass murders like Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps. To justify this, MNHS is grossly misrepresenting the complex history of a central event in Minnesota history: the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

In this war, Dakota warriors massacred more than 600 Southwest Minnesota settlers — the largest number of whites killed in a war with Indians in United States history. In relative terms, the death toll today would be 15,000 — fully five times the lives lost on September 11, 2001. But MNHS fails to convey either the nature and scale of the conflict or the brutal way many victims were slain.

Likewise, a typical MNHS interactive video for Minnesota schoolchildren — who are required to study Dakota history — romanticizes the Dakota as peace-loving, while depicting white settlers as swarming locusts and prominent settlers, like missionary Stephen Riggs, as malicious, robotic puppets. The video is “the definition of propaganda,” in the words of one dismayed Minnesota historian.

At MNHS, we hear constantly these days about “stories” and “voices,” but next to nothing about facts and evidence. The underlying premise is that the study of history is not an evidence-based search for truth, but a clash of opposing groups’ subjective “narratives.”

MNHS justifies its new orientation by claiming it is merely telling “all the stories.” In fact, it is primarily selecting stories that support an ideologically driven political agenda.

MNHS was founded in 1849, and enjoyed a sterling reputation for scholarly integrity for more than 150 years. Though legally a non-profit, it is largely publicly funded. MNHS’s new revisionist narrative is inconsistent with history as documented in its own extensive collections and publications. How did it take hold?

The ideology that now dominates MNHS’s Native American initiatives — called “decolonization” — is rapidly gaining influence on the Left. At its heart lies a Marxist concept: history is a relentless, zero-sum power struggle between oppressors and victim groups. White Europeans are the villains, cast as “colonizers” who ruthlessly exploit the land, labor and resources of non-white people.

Decolonization seeks to discredit our nation’s foundations, opening the way for transformation of our political and cultural institutions. At the national level, the New York Times’ 1619 Project is a paramount example. In Minnesota, MNHS holds that “most Minnesotans today are descendants of immigrants, living on conquered land,” and are here illegally and unethically, according to Fort Snelling at Bdote: A Brief History, by Peter De Carlo, published in 2017 by MNHS Press.

Decolonization began to take hold at MNHS around 2008, the 150th anniversary of Minnesota’s statehood. That year, Native American activists, skilled in political theater, mounted a “Take Down Fort Snelling” campaign, with protests that pressured MNHS to embrace their revisionist historical narrative.

This campaign was the brainchild of Angela Cavender Wilson (Waziyatawin), a college professor and Wahpetunwan Dakota from Minnesota. She denounced the fort as an “icon of imperialism” and called for “an end to settler domination of life, lands and peoples in Dakota territories.” She advocated “taking down Fort Snelling” along with “all monuments, institutions, place names and texts” that perpetuate the “institutions and systems of colonization.”

At the time, MNHS leaders were already flirting with the trendy new ideology. They “used the external pressure as a catalyst for action,” according to the De Carlo book. “The demonstrators’ criticisms…and the work of site staff members have brought changes in focus, in vocabulary, and in message to Historic Fort Snelling’s programing.”

The new era at MNHS begins: Mni Sota Makoce

In 2010-11, MNHS began a “big shift” in its “strategic priorities” and its historical interpretation of Ft. Snelling. In 2012, MNHS Press published a new book — Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota — which laid the ideological cornerstone for rewriting Minnesota history through the decolonization lens.

Mni Sota Makoce began as a project of the Two Rivers Community Development Corporation (TRCDC), a Native American non-profit. Syd Beane, the group’s co-founder, has described himself as the first Native American to train in a long-term program at political organizing guru Saul Alinsky’s Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation.

Beane is a community organizer, not a historian. In 2009, he told the Twin Cities Daily Planet that he was inspired by Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals. “Trust” and “transparency” weren’t in Alinsky’s vocabulary. His modus operandi was subterfuge and psychological manipulation. “The most effective way to achieve revolution is to work inside the system,” he wrote, employing strategies like the following:

  • “An organizer must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent.”
  • “Before men can act an issue must be polarized.”
  • “The ethics of means and ends is that in war, the end justifies almost any means.”
  • “The most effective way to acheive revolution is to work inside the system.”

The mission of Beane’s Mni Sota Makoce project was baldly political: “To research alternative approaches for the recovery of historic Dakota lands and stories” and to “advocate for Dakota involvement” at “the Fort Snelling area.” Its overarching goal was psychological manipulation to promote a self-serving narrative: “To make all Minnesotans aware that Minnesota was and is the homeland of the Dakota.”

Beane directed the book project, with his daughter Kate Beane as a researcher and Bruce White as research co-chair. White — the husband of MNHS Press director Ann Regan — has long-time decolonization sympathies. In 2009, he wrote a blog post entitled “Tearing Down Fort Snelling: Why It Makes Sense,” and approvingly quoted Waziyatawin’s description of the fort as a “moniker of imperialism.”

Despite the book project’s political advocacy agenda, MNHS took over and completed it in 2010 with a grant of $107,000 in taxpayer funds. Mni Sota Makoce’s co-authors were White and Native American activist Gwen Westerman (now an MNHS board member). MNHS put its stamp of approval on — and its reputation behind — the book’s controversial mission, and made it the roadmap for its plan to “re-envision” Fort Snelling.

Mni Sota Makoce’s decolonization claims

Mni Sota Makoce rewrites history in fundamental ways, all vigorously disputed by independent Minnesota historians. Like Waziyatawin, it emphasizes Native American “oral tradition” — contemporary, poorly vetted Indian stories — at the expense of the documented historical record.

The book’s revisionist narrative about Fort Snelling, for example, rests on three claims: that the fort’s site is Dakota “homeland” and has been for thousands of years; that the area is traditionally sacred to the Dakota; and that the Dakota are entitled to payback and control of the fort because it was a site of oppression, including a “concentration camp” and “genocide” after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

In fact, the Dakota arrived in the Twin Cities area around 1700 after the Ojibwe, their traditional enemies, drove them from their villages at Mille Lacs. The Dakota seized the land, which the Iowa and Otoe tribes were occupying, and killed or expelled their opponents, according to the historical record.

Mni Sota Makoce’s second claim, about sacred status, is largely based on contemporary, undocumented “oral tradition.” Stephen Osman, the fort’s former long-time director, cannot remember hearing or reading such accounts before about 2000. Significantly, no mention of such claims appears in a 1998 MNHS book, Fort Snelling in 1838: An Ethnographic and Historical Study, by historian Helen White and Bruce White — her son and Mni Sota Makoce’s co-author — although the book focused particularly on the Dakota “point of view” on Fort Snelling.

Mni Sota Makoce’s final claim, about the concentration camp and genocide, is based on an egregious rewriting of the history of the complex and tragic U.S.-Dakota War. This horrific event sent shock waves throughout Minnesota. Many victims were defenseless women and children, including about 100 children ages 10 and under, and some were murdered in extraordinarily cruel and vicious ways.

After the war, the U.S. Army built a transit camp outside the fort to feed 1,600 Dakota women and children throughout the winter and protect them from grieving, revenge-minded settlers before they were moved elsewhere. Activists now misrepresent its purpose and conditions to plug the decolonization narrative of oppression. Far from a “concentration camp” — loaded language first applied to Fort Snelling by Waziyatawin — the camp’s purpose was to protect Dakota dependents, not exterminate them.

Mni Sota Makoce not only tells misleading and politically driven “stories.” It omits facts that provide the vital context necessary to understand our state’s history accurately.

For example, decolonization ideology’s central claim is that Minnesota is stolen land — the “land of the Dakota” — and that justice requires “giving it back.” This false claim ignores the fact that, starting in 1946, the U.S. government meticulously addressed land-related and other grievances through a decades-long process involving an Indian Claims Commission established by Congress.

As a result of this process, the government paid the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota bands, including non-enrolled lineal descendants, millions of dollars in numerous payments. This was in addition to money the Dakota received pursuant to treaties prior to 1863, and other money they received after 1863.

In accepting the Commission’s final judgments, the bands agreed those judgments will “dispose of all rights, claims or demands, which the claimants have asserted, or could have asserted, with respect to the subject matter of the cases.” It is unconscionable that MNHS allows statements by its staff and publications that suggest this comprehensive process never happened.

Second, the attempt to depict Minnesota’s 19th-century immigrant farmers as greedy “imperialists” is inconsistent with the historical record. Vast expanses of the 35 million acres the Dakota sold in the 1851 Mendota and Traverse des Sioux treaties (basically the southern half of the state) were essentially uninhabited.

An estimated 7,000 Dakota lived there at the time, according to Making Minnesota Territory, 1849-58, edited by A.R. Kaplan and M. Ziebarth. However, the Dakota actually occupied only a small part of that land, living mostly by rivers or other water sources and generally ranging out to the woods and prairies only to hunt. This translates to a population density of 8.4 square miles per individual Dakota, or about 34 square miles per household of four. That is a lot of vacant territory for such a sparse population to claim and hold.

Finally, Mni Sota Makoce presents Minnesota history as a sordid, one-dimensional tale of Dakota suffering at the hands of grasping settlers. Some Minnesota settlers did reprehensible things, as did some Dakota. But the advent of America brought major benefits, as well as costs, to the Dakota.

At the time of settlement, for example, the Dakota were subsistence hunter-gatherers, and often faced famine in harsh Minnesota winters. A warrior society, they frequently clashed violently with the Ojibwe, their bitter enemies.

Indian agents at Fort Snelling regularly supplied the Dakota with goods they craved — traps, axes, guns and knives that helped them survive — and gave them food and tobacco. Missionaries created a written language for them, and the U.S. government helped keep the peace, sponsoring more than 200 peace councils between the feuding tribes from 1820 to 1831. The government also provided strong support for a model village at Lake Calhoun where, using intensive agriculture, the Dakota were able to feed themselves and sell the surplus.

In recent times, the Dakota have profited greatly from modern advantages. These range from electricity and indoor plumbing to higher education and modern medicine. But MNHS’s victimization narrative raises serious obstacles to a balanced consideration of complex costs and benefits like this.

Decolonization is now entrenched

Today, revisionist influence dominates MNHS’s Native American-related exhibits, programs, school curricula and publications. But activists now rewrite history from inside, not outside, MNHS.

Kate Beane, Syd Beane’s daughter and Mni Sota Makoce researcher, has become the director of MNHS’s Native American Initiatives department. A new permanent exhibit — “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” which opened in 2019 — was co-curated by Beane and reflects her decolonization agenda.

Today, MNHS is abandoning its obligation for balanced, rigorous scholarship, and is forthrightly advancing Native American activists’ strategic priorities. These include re-envisioning Fort Snelling; renaming historic sites and public buildings; promoting “land acknowledgments” and “land back” crusades; and expanding activist influence in our state’s K-12 classrooms.

Fort Snelling transformation

MNHS has described Fort Snelling’s ongoing $34.5-million makeover as a “sweeping transformation.” When the fort fully reopens, this rebranding will push to the background the pivotal military history that led the National Park Service to designate it as Minnesota’s first National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Here’s how Kate Beane described MNHS’s new plan for the fort to Minnesota Public Radio in 2017: “The way we view this history,” she said, “is that this fort was put here to pave the way for European settlement. It is a symbol of colonization, of imperialism, of years of unjust negotiations and dealings with our community.

According to Minnesota Monthly, Fort Snelling’s makeover is an “indigenous-inspired revitalization” led by a group called the Dakota Community Council(DCC). MNHS created the DCC in 2016, as one of its first acts. The group’s broad mandate included “ensur[ing] that Dakota people, history, perspectives and homelands are honored and sustained at MNHS properties,” and “collaborating” on a “new interpretative plan” for the fort.

MNHS leaders rejected calls to make DCC members’ names public until 2020, when they did so after pressure from Center of the American Experiment. Syd Beane and Carly Bad Heart Bull, Kate Beane’s father and sister, topped the list of those forging plans for Fort Snelling’s future.

As part of this process, MNHS moved to change the fort’s name to reflect the proprietary claims of Dakota activists. By law, only the Minnesota Legislature can change the fort’s name. But in 2017, MNHS unilaterally erected signs at the fort, describing it as “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote.” (“Bdote” is a historically undocumented name, favored by activists, for an area the Mdewakanton Dakota — who lived there in the 1800s — called “Mdote,” meaning “confluence of waters.”)

MNHS’s apparent, unauthorized attempt to circumvent the law with these signs led the legislature to threaten to withhold funding, and brought MNHS into public disrepute. Legislative and public pressure finally compelled the signs’ removal.

MNHS also planned to rebrand the fort as a “site of conscience.” “Where the Waters Meet,” an introductory video on the fort, claims it was recently “named the state’s first Site of Conscience,” and the logo of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (IOSC) is displayed on the fort’s website. This creates the impression that a prominent international organization that demarks sites of atrocities — including a “concentration camp in Europe,” a “gulag museum in Russia” and a “slave house in Africa” — has formally designated Fort Snelling as such a site.

In fact, recent correspondence with MNHS Director and CEO Kent Whitworth suggests no such review ever took place. Instead, after MNHS paid for a standard IOSC membership, its leaders apparently decided unilaterally to tarnish the fort with this damning label. So much for “transparency.”

Visitors who approach Fort Snelling today are greeted by a sign that says “THIS SITE IS ON DAKOTA HOMELAND.” After its makeover, the fort will be dominated by Dakota historical and cultural interpretation, Dakota-inspired landscape plantings, and “public artwork” memorializing Shakopee and Medicine Bottle, two Dakota hanged for murders they committed during the Dakota War. Kate Beane told the Star Tribune that the planned artwork represents the “ultimate sacrifice” of “two leaders” who were hanged “because of their participation in helping other leaders bring hundreds of Dakota elders, women and children to safety.”

But the claim that these convicted murderers were executed for safeguarding Dakota dependents is a flat-out falsehood. Beane extols Shakopee and Medicine Bottle as heroes who selflessly gave their lives for others. But she, and MNHS, are virtually silent about the brutal murders of helpless settler women and children these men and others carried out.

Renaming of sites and buildings

MNHS is also aiding and abetting Native American activists’ campaign to rename historic sites and public buildings in line with decolonization ideology. In Spring 2021, for example, it livestreamed four forums on “Renaming and Reclaiming Public Spaces.” The series’ focus included Lake Calhoun, Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, and Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights — the latter two named for prominent settler leaders.

The first episode featured Kate Beane and Carly Bad Heart Bull. The sisters led the recent high-profile campaign to replace Lake Calhoun’s name with “Bde Maka Ska” — like “Bdote” a historically undocumented name favored by activists.

The Beane sisters used classic community organizing techniques. For example, they “show[ed] up at countless public meetings” where they “led emotional crowds through slow readings of ‘Bde Maka Ska,’” according to City Pages. In 2015, African-American civic leader Peter Bell resigned as chair of a Minneapolis Park Board advisory panel on Lakes Harriet and Calhoun charged with lake renovations. He cited renaming activists’ overbearing conduct, which he told the Star Tribune had “sucked the air out of the room.”

Kate Beane’s tactics in this activist campaign fell far short of museum expectations for professional conduct. She disparaged critics on her Facebook page, calling them “racist settler descendant trolls” and asserting that their words “just prov[e] what poor ‘researchers’ you are.”

She used similar language on Facebook in response to a Pioneer Press op-ed by Garrison Keillor:

I’ll tell you what’s absurd: Garrison Keillor. Well, duh, dude…. That’s the news from our Minnesota. Where our children will learn better, our women are heard, and men like you can stop talking.

MNHS’s March 2021 MNHS webinar on the Beane sisters’ political advocacy at Lake Calhoun was a publicly funded cheerleading session for the decolonization agenda. It lacked any dissenting perspective, and Beane dismissed her critics’ objections as “White supremacy… rearing its ugly head.”

Land acknowledgments and “Land Back”

When MNHS’s “Our Home: Native Minnesota” exhibit opened in 2019, Minnesota Monthly described its land acknowledgment — “We are on Dakota land” — as “integral” to its mission. Today, organizations from the Guthrie Theater to the City of Eden Prairie are adopting these trendy public statements. Are they just empty gestures?

Not according to the Native Governance Center (NGC), a non-profit whose board members include Kate Beane. The NGC’s “land acknowledgment guide” features a variety of ways to monetize this otherwise toothless virtue-signaling.

The guide recommends compensating Native Americans who provide advice on land acknowledgments for their “emotional labor.” It also advocates paying “reparations” to Indian tribes, perhaps in the form “voluntary land taxes.” (In the guide’s words, “You’re already on stolen land. You might as well pay rent.”) For details about “returning land,” it directs readers to an organization called “Resource Generation,” which promotes resources with titles like “For our Nations to Live, Capitalism Must Die.”

Transfers of land are already taking place in Minnesota. In February 2021, MNHS transferred 114 acres of the site where the U.S.-Dakota War began to the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Morton. “This isn’t the end,” Lower Sioux president Robert Larsen told the Star Tribune. “We hope this is just a kick-start to showing people that it can be done.”

The land in question is not just a historic site. It is both the place where Dakota warriors murdered approximately 25 unsuspecting people on August 18, 1862, and “a cemetery with the unmarked graves of murder victims spread throughout,” according to historian Curt Dahlin. Nevertheless, MNHS lobbied for the transfer and the Minnesota Legislature approved it.

Significantly, the transfer ceremony took place under the large red banner of “Land Back,” a militant Native American group dedicated to the “closure of Mt. Rushmore” and “return of all public lands in the Black Hills.” Land Back describes its crusade as the “cornerstone battle from which to build out the campaign to dismantle white supremacy and colonization.” Minnesota activists now have their sights set on additional public lands.

K-12 education

MNHS is already using its privileged access to our state’s schoolchildren to instruct the next generation in revisionist history. We can expect its influence to grow if the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) proposed K-12 social studies standards are adopted in Fall 2021. MDE listed MNHS as a collaborator on standards implementation and resources when it released the first draft in late 2020.

The new draft standards would essentially erase the legacy of Minnesota’s 19th-century settlers, and rewrite state history as the grievance-ridden tale of the oppression of Dakota and Anishinaabe Indians. The standards are awash in decolonization buzzwords like “settler colonialism” and “U.S. Imperial expansion.” Terms like “indigenous,” “tribal” and “native” are used more than 200 times, while “Norwegian,” “Swedish,” “German” and “Irish” do not appear.

If adopted, the standards will groom the next generation of Minnesota citizens to fall in line behind a radical activist political agenda. A major goal appears to be convincing students that the state they live in rightfully belongs to indigenous people.

For example, when elementary schoolchildren study American states and capitals, they will be required to recognize the “Indigenous land these places were built on.” Some benchmarks refer to our state as “the land that is now Minnesota.” Students will have to learn the locations of Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations, but not the names or locations of neighboring countries, major cities, oceans or continents. They will also be instructed that place names “may be changed,” and that Europeans committed “genocide” and “theft of indigenous lands.”

Double standards are pervasive. For example, students will be exhorted to “center indigenous voices,” but will remain ignorant of the Dakota warrior culture’s practice of routinely killing or enslaving opponents. White students will be encouraged to feel guilt about the conduct of whites 150 years ago, but Native American students will not be held responsible for their forbears’ actions.

If the past is any indication, we can expect MNHS to create curricular materials that support indoctrination of this kind.

In July 2021, MNHS Director Kent Whitworth responded to a critical op-ed in the Star Tribune with a counterpoint illustrating the mindset that now pervades MNHS. He acknowledged that MNHS can “do better,” but repeated the threadbare claim that it is merely expanding “the stories” told. He added that his great-great-grandmother had been “captured” and “released” by the Dakota during the 1862 war, but offered no details.

Perhaps Whitworth doesn’t know what really happened that horrific day. After his counterpoint appeared, Minnesota historian Curt Dahlin sent him a published account of the ordeal of a group of fleeing settlers that included Whitworth’s great-great-grandmother, Sophia Lammers, but says he never received a response.

One of the settlers, Justina Kruger, recounted the terror she and her neighbors endured near Morton on the war’s first day. Wounded herself, Krueger says she witnessed a Dakota warrior “seize Wilhelmina Kitzman [Kietzmann], my niece, yet alive [aged four], hold her up by the foot, her head downward, her clothes falling over her head; while holding her there by one hand, in the other he grasped a knife, with which he hastily cut the flesh around one of the legs, close to the body, and then, by twisting and wrenching, broke the ligaments and bone, until the limb was entirely severed from the body, the child screaming frantically, ‘O God! O God!’”

“When the limb was off, the child, thus mutilated, was thrown down on the ground, stripped of her clothing, and left to die!”

Minnesotans are not likely to find this story, or others resembling it, among the stories MNHS now chooses to tell.

MNHS, the steward of our state’s history, is today effectively erasing important components of that history. Unless our elected officials, civic leaders and citizens demand that it fulfill its obligations for historical accuracy, transparency and accountability, the false and dangerous narrative it is promoting will — over time — become accepted as truth.