Dakota quilled moccasins. The Minnesota Historical Society.
In the process of designing the new 1862 exhibit at the History Center in St. Paul, the Minnesota Historical Society stuck its neck out.
You know the old joke: What happens when you stick your neck out? You make it much easier for people to sock you in the chin.
Institutionally, MHS has been risk-averse for years. So much so that last summer, the mildest reaction was polite disbelief when many of us in the local research community received a list of objects under consideration for the 1862 exhibit, with an invitation to view them in person and comment.
“There must be a catch somewhere,” a colleague mused. “When is the last time MHS asked what we think?”
I was in the historians’ email loop. At the risk of oversimplifying, the consensus reduced to: “These museum objects have no context in this proposal. People need stories to make sense of what they see. Flesh out the stories.”
Independent historians were not the only ones invited in. The Historical Society also reached out into the Dakota community for help. I was not part of that group. But a friend to who received the invitation said it amounted to, “We want Dakota input. If you’re interested, please come in, look at the objects we’re considering, and tell us what you think.”
I wasn’t privy to the Dakota discussions. MHS reported the bottom line: their Dakota consultants said they did not want historical Dakota objects on display.
The Minnesota Historical Society listened. They pulled the Dakota objects from the potential exhibit list.
Then MHS did what they could with the objects they had left –mostly documents authored by non-Dakota people: MHS fleshed out the war’s stories.
The exhibit opens this Saturday, June 30, 2012. It has been weeks since I last saw the exhibit text. Like everybody else, I will be going over to the History Center to step into the gallery and see what’s there.
And what isn’t.
What’s missing has already come back to haunt MHS. That is, in fact, why it is missing.
The ghost of colonialism past will haunt the third floor gallery just as surely as accusations of colonialism present would have taunted the Historical Society if MHS had ignored the objections of their Dakota advisors: 150 years ago, the majority of “Dakota War” objects deemed worthy of collecting were Dakota objects.
White soldiers did not pick up a doll with a bisque head, arms and legs on the New Ulm battlefield and cart it home as a souvenir. Dakota people did not carve an American-manufactured rifle bullet out of the corpse of a Dakota warrior and transmit the trophy for preservation to their local historical society.
The common objects of frontier settlers’ material culture on August 18, 1862 were not as collectible. A soldier marching through the Upper Reservation found a copy of a book inscribed to Mary Butler in 1857, but only bothered to mention it because he assumed it belonged to a “massacred” woman. He did not keep the book.
But what if instead of the book, he had found a pair of baby moccasins beaded by one of Ella Renville’s Dakota aunties? (Ella was the daughter of John Baptiste and Mary Butler Renville.) Soldiers’ diaries confirm that moccasins and other Dakota-made objects were highly collectible in 1862-63.
If they had been collected, might Ella’s moccasins eventually have been donated to the Minnesota Historical Society? Perhaps –accessioned with a donation letter correctly identifying them as Dakota, but imagining provenance more “authentic” than the unromantic truth: that they belonged to the daughter of two eastern-educated school teachers, one Dakota and one white, who lived in a house and worshiped in a church building.
Yet had Ella’s moccasins been donated to MHS, they would have been deselected from the 1862 exhibit list as being Dakota objects. And with that deselection, the moccasins’ stories also would have been removed from the public dialogue.
That reduces the public dialogue –the 1862 exhibit –to what some may perceive as an oddly stilted representation of the past.
We cannot talk about what isn’t there. Can we?
To be clear: Dakota people showed courage in accepting MHS’s invitation and in voicing their opinion about the Dakota objects under consideration for the exhibit. They are not the enemy here. Our collective history is. Is it possible for an institution like MHS to escape the gravitational pull of its own past and tell a meaningfully balanced story?Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society Fort Snelling website via Google Images.