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From Memory to Action by Aidan Breen

February 1, 2013Joanne RichardsonGuest PostsComments Off on From Memory to Action by Aidan Breen

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Imagining the former Fort Snelling Interment Camp as a Site of Conscience

I began writing this post with my laptop, tea, and ego sitting in a row on the desk in front of me, and began by spouting a witty quip from a classic novel and segueing casually into a laundry list of lamentations regarding the National Park Service’s funding woes and how they are manifested here in the Twin Cities. From there, I would have continued to speak cynically about the Historic Fort Snelling and its limited hours, all the while making the case that it should be improved, and how the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC) could provide fame, funding, and forums to discuss how to best manage the site and tell its story in a way that would draw in the most visitors and, ultimately, be a bustling hub of Minnesotan history consumption.

Shame on me.

I am disappointed in myself for not only attempting to boost my pride through this blog post, but also belittling and insulting the efforts of the Sites of Conscience, the National Park Service, the Fort Snelling staff, the Department of Natural Resources, and all else involved in creating locations and programs of historical significance. Even though it is obvious that my personal thoughts don’t reach their ears (I should hope they stay in my head!), I would like to apologize to all of these entities for my sardonic tendencies.

One I was able to set these obstacles aside, I started to see that my original proposal (I am using the word “my” quite liberally, since the idea of seeking ICSC accreditation for the former internment camp at Fort Snelling was originally suggested by Professor Nunnally) had strong merits in many other ways. The ICSC’s vision, succinctly stated in an inspiring video on their website, is to transform “places of memory” into “places of action.” When implemented at a site, Sites of Conscience seek to investigate and discuss the struggles of the past. The efforts are based in finding meaning for and within specific cultures, yes, but these lessons can be generalized and found recognizable and applicable throughout all of human existence. I admit it was difficult to fend off my recalcitrant cynicism in light of this “save the world” mentality, but any true cynic must also tacitly accept that the world does indeed need saving, rendering his doubts invalid.

Semantics and philosophies aside, I believe that the central focus made by the ICSC is incredibly important, especially; cultural memory, while very valuable, must be applied to be of any true value. Sites of Conscience place this consideration at the forefront of their development and engagement planning, utilizing the resources of the ICSC to better accomplish these tasks. Membership puts sites in contact with a worldwide network of forward-looking of partners who offer their insight as to how best create a “place of action”. Many of these member sites also participate in “learning exchanges” with other historic sites, human rights organizations, scholars and students, and other interested parties (their website keeps an updated list of relevant events here). Funding benefits indeed constitute a large part of the membership benefits, but these are directly allocated to civic engagement programs to ensure that they are in line with ICSC’s principles.

Yet why is membership as a Site of Conscience appropriate for the former internment camp at Fort Snelling? To start, the Historic Fort Snelling is already one of almost 300 “institutional members” that exist worldwide the support of the ICSC’s mission and its relevance at the fort. Yet I argue that Fort Snelling, while it appears to support the future-oriented goals of the organization, lacks the appropriate amount of information and attention to the internment camp that existed at the site during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. According to the Historic Fort Snelling’s website, around 1600 Dakota women, children, and elderly men were detained within a wooden palisade throughout the winter of that year. From 130 to 300 of the prisoners died within the camp due to malnutrition and disease. On a more practical level, many of the themes that the internment camp invokes align directly with the ICSC’s list of prominent issues: displacement, racism and xenophobia and the wrongful detention of immigrants, although in the last two cases we see the irony that the Dakota, as well as many other tribes, such as the Ojibwe, inhabited Minnesotan territory long before the settlers arrived. Furthermore, Fort Snelling already partially meets some of the criteria for Accredited Members, such as using the features of the physical site “to help visitors ‘read’ the issue the site represents”. If coupled with an expansion of programs and the physical construction of some sort of memorial or similar structure, the site of the internment camp could be a center for discussion about relations with different American Indian groups.

Making the prison camp an accredited Site of Conscience would recognize its significance in the history of U.S.-Dakota relations, but more importantly invite serious discussion about how the lessons learned in the past can be applied today. That is potentially the most important, yet one of the most commonly forgotten aspects of Minnesotan history in regards to relations with different American Indian tribes and associations: they are as much a contemporary issue and consideration as they have been in the past. As such, they deserve the amount of attention given to the military installations at Fort Snelling, if not more, and would be greatly enhanced by engagement programs and increased recognition of the internment camp site at the fort. In this sense, the site would truly “unpack the past, shape the future, and move from memory to action.”

Guest post by Aidan Breen.

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