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Thinking Through the Dirt

August 16, 2016

Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Fort Snelling is one of Minnesota's foundational and most well-known sites. But its history is more complex than that of just a military fort. The fort's location is a sacred space for the Dakota people, and it was also used as a prison and concentration camp. It is these stories—and more—that anthropology professor Katherine Hayes is determined to tell.

Mapping helps the buildings speak

Professor Hayes and a small group of students began scanning historic maps of the fort in spring 2016, in advance of excavating a Civil War-era military prison site, looking for traces of day-to-day life people had left behind. Their goal, Hayes explains, was to recover the prison’s physical environment to learn more about “the conditions prisoners were subjected to.”

In addition to parts of personal items such as the stem from a tobacco pipe, they dug up “a chunk of plaster wall that someone had written on, perhaps a name.” Hayes finds this last item particularly intriguing because it could have been “an act of graffiti-style defiance, or simply idle doodling born of boredom.”

Hayes aims to “use the physicality of the space to think about what the experience might have been like for the people inside [and to see] how to make the buildings speak that history.” She calls this technique “thinking through the dirt."

It is important, she says, to be honest about the history of a land where settler and indigenous interests did not align—and where Dakota people were incarcerated in the 1860s, African-Americans were enslaved in the 19th century, and Japanese-American men enlisted at the Japanese language school were brought from incarceration camps and trained at an “intelligence school” during World War II.

In order to encourage and facilitate dialogue, we need to “acknowledge the painful histories of the place,” Hayes explains.

Bringing deep history to light

Hayes’ efforts are part of a larger movement, 40 years in the making. Since the 1960 acquisition of the fort by the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), there has been a multi-organizational and interdisciplinary effort not only to reimagine and reunderstand Fort Snelling, but also to revitalize and reconstruct it through new and better programming. Currently, there is an ongoing discussion between Governor Dayton’s office and Minnesota legislative leaders about allocating funds to revitalizing the fort and visitor center.

Hayes’ work is part of the MNHS’s efforts to include more voices and acknowledge the painful history of Fort Snelling in hopes of bringing awareness to the public and encourage conversations.

“Our collaboration with Dr. Hayes and her students has mutual benefits,” says Patricia Emerson, the archeology director of MNHS. “Students have opportunities to work with a substantial body of archaeological information, including extensive artifact collections. . . [and] the students' research projects give us a better understanding of the full history of the location we now know as Fort Snelling and provide the basis for broader and deeper interpretation of the site.”

The fort’s history is so deep that Hayes and those that follow will likely have years of research ahead of them, and Hayes hopes to continue to shed light on its unknown history.

A more thorough history of Fort Snelling will allow recent immigrants or members of minority groups to know that they are not the first to be discriminated against, she says, and would allow them to see themselves there—to see themselves as part of Minnesota’s history. “They’d be able to see how people before them navigated.”