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Calm hearing finds little enthusiasm for Fort Snelling name change

Fort Snelling, a National Historic Landmark, is a former military fortification at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in Minnesota.

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By TOM WEBER | Post-Bulletin | Published: October 1, 2019

ROCHESTER, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — Minnesota Historical Society officials might have expected a contentious reception Monday during a Rochester hearing about a possible change of the name of Historic Fort Snelling.

But, as Kent Whitworth, MNHS director, indicated, they were pleasantly surprised.

"We're heartened by the depth of caring that people demonstrated by their thoughtful and respectful comments," he said. "We're very encouraged."

This was the first of five hearings to be held across the state to gather opinions on what changes, if any, should be made to the name of Historic Fort Snelling following a $34.5 million restoration project at the site.

Whitworth told the gathering of about two dozen people at Cascade Meadows that "We do not have a list of potential names. We're open." The name of the actual fort structure itself will remain Fort Snelling. But the greater site, which includes historic cavalry buildings and land sacred to the Dakota people, could undergo a change in name.

The nearby Veterans Administration Hospital, national cemetery, Minneapolis Park Board athletic fields and Minnesota DNR park are not part of the MNHS property and are not involved in the renovation project, which is scheduled for completion in 2022.

Valerie Guimaraes, a member of the Dakota people, said her ancestors were once interned at the fort and greater attention should be paid to their experiences. "The current name reflects one story," she said. Continued research about Native American life in the area, she said, should involve more than written history. "It's oral tradition that's important to us," she said.

Dave Rowlands, a Rochester veteran who drives other veterans to the VA hospital in Minneapolis, said the historical society should do more research on Dakota people creation stories before adjusting the Fort Snelling name.

In response, Guimaraes said, "I don't think this is Dakota-veterans. I'm getting a sense of that." Native American men who served in the U.S. military also trained and served at the fort, and are buried in the veterans cemetery, she said.

Other speakers questioned the advisability of changing a well-known name. "Look for what is more recognizable to the public and to visitors," said Dennis Gerhart, of Rochester. "Don't obscure it with a different name."

The impetus for considering a change to the name of the historic site comes in part from the expanded stories being told there. Japanese-American men were trained at the Army language school at the fort and moved their families to Minnesota with them, said Rachel Abbott of the historical society. Visitors to the site now also hear the stories of free and enslaved African Americans who lived at the fort.

Fort Snelling itself was not always known by that name. The fort structure was originally called Fort St. Anthony.

Information gathering will continue at public hearings and online through Nov. 15. A decision on whether or not to propose a name change will be made in December. Any change would have to be approved by the Legislature.

An online survey is available at mnhs.org/naming.

©2019 the Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
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