Political Matters – May 2019


By Mordecai Specktor

Mnisota Makoce
Minnesotans of a certain age remember the Hamm’s beer jingle from TV commercials. The catchy ditty was introduced by the Hamm’s bear rolling a log and thumping out a faux Indian drum rhythm: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters / From the land of pines, lofty balsams / Comes the beer refreshing / Hamm’s the beer refreshing.”

Apart from the TV spot’s objectionable cultural appropriation, the “Land of Sky Blue Waters” lyric reflected a Dakota interpretation of “Mnisota,” – Minnesota in an English language transliteration.

In an online video (bdotememorymap.org/mnisota), Chris MatoNunpa, a Dakota historian, says that he grew up in a Dakota-speaking home and was familiar with the phrase Mnisota Makoce, which means “land where the waters reflect the skies or the heavens.”

MatoNunpa mentions that Dr. Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa), a renowned member of the Santee Dakota band, who lived from 1858-1939, translated the Dakota phrase as “land of sky-blue waters” (and MatoNunpa obliquely refers to the Hamm’s beer jingle). As MatoNunpa points out, sometimes lakes reflect the blue of the sky, and at other times the waters would reflect cloudy skies.

I’m not a Dakota language speaker or a scholar of Dakota culture and history, but I have some thoughts about a controversy that arose in late April over signage at Historic Fort Snelling that riled up a couple of Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, say that a sign reading “Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote” represents “revisionist history.”

“Adding things to history as you find new information can be a very helpful constructive thing but rewriting the history? That is greatly objected to by many people,” said Kiffmeyer, the former Minnesota Secretary of State who chairs the State Government Finance Committee, according to a report on KARE-11 TV news.

During an April committee hearing, Newman told his fellow lawmakers: “Historic Fort Snelling is probably the number one historical asset in the state of Minnesota. I do not agree with what the Historical Society is engaged in doing, and I believe it to be revisionist history.”

Kiffmeyer proposed that $4 million in state funding be cut from the appropriation for the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), which operates Fort Snelling, for each of the next two years.

Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks wrote that the proposed cut to the MNHS operating budget “could cost as many as 80 Minnesotans their jobs, slash school programs and force museums and historical sites to scale back their hours or close entirely. Kiffmeyer, author of the cuts, refused to explain to her confused colleagues why she wanted to eviscerate the Minnesota Historical Society.”

The Minnesota House is under DFL control, and legislators in that body support the full appropriation for MNHS.

It seems that “Bdote,” the Dakota term for the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, which lies below the fort buildings, is the problem. Like the controversy over renaming Bde Maka Ska, the Minneapolis body of water formerly known as Lake Calhoun, there’s a segment of the populace that wants to preserve the status quo – and not acknowledge the Native history of this land.

In Feb. 2018, I wrote about the group Save Lake Calhoun, led by Tom Austin, the CEO of a venture capital firm called F2 Group. In a nakedly racist opinion article published in the Star Tribune, Austin wrote: “What exactly have the Dakota Indians done that is a positive contribution to all Minnesotans? What is the heroism or accomplishment that we are recognizing in order to justify renaming the lake to Bde Maka Ska?”

It seems like the same racist sentiment – the benighted view that history in this land began with European colonization – is behind the effort by Sens. Kiffmeyer and Newman to punish MNHS.

The KARE-11 report noted that Kiffmeyer said the focus of Historic Fort Snelling should be military history. The fort, which dates to 1820, was used to muster and train soldiers going back to the Civil War. It also was the scene of an internment camp for Dakota men, women and children, after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. When I last visited the Fort Snelling State Park visitor center, which is located below the fort, there was a section devoted to the “Dakota Conflict Concentration Camp.” Also, Minnesota Dakota bands have erected a nearby memorial to the victims of the 19th century concentration camp.

Kent Whitworth, MNHS director and CEO, told KARE reporter John Croman that MNHS isn’t abandoning the fort’s recent military history, but a Bdote interpretive display has been added.

The kerfuffle over MNHS state funding will be resolved soon in a House-Senate conference committee.