Renaming Places, Revising History

The Left is out to rewrite American history, as part of its plan to control America’s future. That is what the New York Times’s infamous 1619 Project, to take just one example, is all about. Skirmishes in the Left’s war are often fought over names of places and buildings. Here in Minnesota, we have had a series of naming/history controversies, about which Katherine Kersten writes in the current issue of Thinking Minnesota. You also can read it here.

Lake Calhoun

Kathy focuses on three controversies. The first is Lake Calhoun, a heavily used recreational lake in the heart of Minneapolis, which the Left wants to rename the unpronounceable “Bde Maka Ska.” Why? Because the lake was named after John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, by soldiers who discovered the lake in 1823. And because we wouldn’t want people to think that Minnesota, which joined the Union just in time for its young men to fight and die heroically in the Civil War, is pro-slavery. Kersten points out a few inconvenient facts:

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 19th century 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.

The second controversy surrounds Fort Snelling, the original U.S. government outpost in this part of the world, which leftists want to rename and condemn as a monument to genocide. Once again, Kersten reminds them of inconvenient facts:

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 [Minnesota Historical Society] 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.

Fort Snelling

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.
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.”

Scott and I have written about the 1862 war, in which more than 600 white settlers, mostly women and children, were slaughtered by Indians. The history of that war has been successfully rewritten by the Left.

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 [historian Stephen] 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.

But liberals never let facts stand in the way of narrative.

Kersten’s third subject is the proposed renaming of multiple buildings at the main campus of the University of Minnesota, on the ground that the men after whom they were named, many years ago, were racists or anti-Semites. Here the problem is that those slanderous claims were essentially made up out of whole cloth. A faculty committee wrote a report recommending the building name changes, but it was rejected by the University’s Board of Regents:

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:

[Professor Ian Maitland of the Carlson School of Business] wrote [that] 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.”

Nicholson Hall

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.”

Battles over historical monuments and place names may seem insignificant, but in fact they are vitally important. Because our children’s understanding of who we, as a people, have been will greatly influence their decisions about who we become.

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