The Carceral Landscape of Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote: An Interview with Katherine Hayes

By Avigail Oren

The recent work of historical anthropologist Katherine Hayes has focused on decolonizing the narratives interpreted at public heritage sites, including St. Paul’s Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. The United States military constructed Fort Snelling in 1819-20 to protect the area’s fur trade, a role it served until Minnesota gained statehood in 1858 and the military decided to close and sell the post and surrounding lands. The fort reopened just three years later, to train Minnesota troops for service in the Union army; however, for many years officers and civilians brought enslaved African Americans to live with and work for them at Fort Snelling, including Dred and Harriet Scott. When the US-Dakota War of 1862 broke out a year later, the state’s military incarcerated Dakota non-combatants in a concentration camp at Fort Snelling. Between the Civil War and World War II, Fort Snelling served as an important hub in the wars against Native Americans in the West. In 1941, it once again became an induction site for the U.S. Army and also became the home of the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS), where Japanese American soldiers plucked from incarceration camps during World War II studied Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Between the late 1950s and 1970s, the Minnesota Historical Society excavated the site and restored the fort to its 1820s appearance, while ignoring or demolishing buildings and landscapes related to the US-Dakota War, enslaved African American fort residents, and the MISLS’s Japanese American soldiers.

As a historical archaeologist, Hayes asks historical questions, but the answers are not buried in archival boxes, they are buried submerged in the soil. Whereas “what is represented in an archive really has to have been deliberately selected or passively preserved,” the materials Hayes examines “were a part of people’s day-to-day life, but I’m finding it because at a certain point they decided it was garbage, or that they really wanted it hidden for some reason.” After excavation, however, decisions have to be made about what to preserve and what stories should be told. At public heritage sites, “in part we do that by representing the things that we’ve preserved and that we offer up as evidence of the past, and invariably there’s a whole list of stuff that the public isn’t seeing.”


Avigail Oren (AO): In your 2019 article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, “The Carceral Side of Freedom,” you begin with an anecdote; you were giving a lecture about some of the difficult and less-told histories of Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote and an attendee asked you “why you can’t just talk about nice things.” You describe this as the settler colonial shaping of public memory to fit the need to not know. So how is this need to not know reflected at Fort Snelling at Bdote?

Kat Hayes (KH): Well there’s a couple of ways of approaching that. I want to be clear that the Minnesota Historical Society and their approach to interpretation at this site is not what it was in 1975. It’s very easy to look back at what they constructed and the way that their interpretive programs ran—there’s a great book by public historian Amy Tyson, The Wages of History, that talks about the first-person interpretation work at Fort Snelling—and in the last 20 years they really have put in effort to make the stories that they interpret more inclusive. There’s lots now relating to Dred and Harriet Scott, for example, and there are interpretive areas that talk about treaty histories and, in that way, talk more about native Dakota history at Fort Snelling. They have even made the effort to change the name of the site to Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote, although that has not gone unchallenged by public response.

So on the one hand we could talk about the institutions framing this history. I’ve gone back and pulled the various different versions of the site’s National Register and National Historical Landmarks nominations, because there are multiple nominations and jurisdictions and they don’t actually line up very well. But they all rely very heavily on the settler origin narrative that my brilliant colleague Jean O’Brien has written about so extensively in New England: the firsting and lasting perspective, emphasizing the first settlements and the establishment of civilization in the wilderness.

And I think that the other side of this is that a lot of museums and inherited sites struggle because although they may see themselves as educational institutions, their visitors are taking away different things. There is a way in which heritage sites become a place for visitors to affirm something that they already know, and that is where they enact it. In doing so, they avoid the parts of the story that they are not interested in or that challenge their core understanding of themselves. I’ve seen this in-person in a couple of instances. I developed—with lots of technical support—a virtual reality museum that talks about the Japanese-American soldiers’ experience of the Military Intelligence Service Language School. I did on-site demos at the Fort on a couple of different occasions; I would go in with the VR rigs so that visitors could try it out and experience more interpretation of the World War II period. It was in a schoolhouse, but of-course everything that is built at Fort Snelling is set in the 1820s. So you get these people who walk into the schoolhouse and first they look really confused because we’re talking about World War II. But some people are willing to go, “okay, so this is a different period of history. Let’s hear it. What is it about?” Then you can see other people who walk in and they hear the discussion about Japanese-American soldiers who are being recruited from incarceration camps and they turn around a walk right back out again. They shut down, they don’t want to hear it.

Screenshot from Virtual MISLS app. Courtesy of Kat Hayes.

I struggle with the question, “how do you actually make public heritage sites into a place where some unwilling education might happen in a way that we hope it will happen,” versus just giving up on the idea that any real education is going to happen because people go to sites to have their preconceived notions affirmed. But what we can do is attract a more diverse audience that see themselves in the interpretation and empower those communities instead.

AO: Carceral Studies is an area of focus on The Metropole. How has Fort Snelling served as a carceral institution throughout its history?

KH: I am not an expert in Carceral Studies, but it is a framework that felt like it fit very well at Fort Snelling because of all the stories that we know are there but are not being emphasized. In contrast to the way that it is predominantly viewed as this kind of portal to American freedom, we have to look at the flipside and think about, at whose expense? And how many people were unfree at this place? So my approach to carcerality is capacious and perhaps not as embedded in the literature of Carceral Studies as it ought to be. But, that said, to me it’s an easy thing to look at the initial instances of struggle over the land itself that’s represented by the military coming in and establishing this Fort; to many people, especially indigenous scholars, it is an open question as to the legality of that land’s removal.

Putting all of that to one side, we could also talk about reservations as being carceral space in the broader landscape, but the more that I looked into it, the more I felt like there was this disciplinary operation of the landscape that was happening in the way that the Fort was structured—and yet the only places that we could really point to that would classically look like carceral spaces were the military prison, which had been torn down because it didn’t interpretively fit the [1820s] narrative, and the guard house, another space where there is oblique reference to the concentration camp that the Dakota people were in held during the winter of 1862-63. That is under the purview of the state park system, so they do some interpretation of it, but not terribly much.

But then bringing it into the World War II era, the Japanese American soldiers there were put in a position where their citizenship was basically ignored or abused in the transfer from incarceration camps into the military. Citizenship was another way that the military space was disciplining people. It was determining who belonged and who didn’t, and of course that was also demonstrated by the Dred Scott decision.

“Fort Snelling from Across the River,” Detroit Publishing Co., ca. 1898, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

AO: How did Dred Scott end up at Fort Snelling, and how is his time there the basis for the case?

KH: Dred Scott was brought to Fort Snelling in the 1830s by surgeon John Emerson, who was serving at Fort Snelling, and while [Dred Scott] was there he met Harriet, who was “owned” by the Indian Agent Taliaferro, the biggest slave owner at Fort Snelling. He would lease their labor to officers as domestic servants. It’s another aspect of the history that is poorly understood, the extent to which there were enslaved African-Americans at the Fort throughout its early history. [Dred and Harriet Scott] married, they started a family, and then Emerson left Fort Snelling and ended up in Missouri. It was after he died and Dred Scott and his family had been left to Emerson’s wife, that he decided to sue for his and their freedom based on the idea that they had been taken into Minnesota Territory. That was supposed to be a free territory. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court and in 1857 it was decided not on the basis of whether entering into a free territory would make Scott a free person, but on the grounds that there was no basis for the lawsuit in the first place; as a non-citizen, Scott was not allowed to sue for his own freedom, and the basis for his non-citizenship was the fact that he was black. And that was extended by the decision to all African Americans regardless of their statuses, free or unfree. Obviously, this is all overturned in the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), but, to me, what made that tragic decision even worse is that refugees from slavery who arrived in Minnesota by steamboat in 1863 found themselves in a situation where they were effectively stateless because of the Dred Scott decision, which essentially started there at Fort Snelling. It’s an interesting and tragic full circle through this question of citizenship and freedom and belonging.

AO: Yes, and there’s another circle I noticed. Minnesota benefited from the exploitation of Black slaves, and I wondered if you see a through-line drawn from this original alienation and exploitation through to the conditions that motivated this summer’s uprising following George Floyd’s murder. Obviously that’s a long through-line with many contingencies.

KH: Fort Snelling ends up being treated as a space of exception, because it’s not quite a territory or state or federal or what-have-you, it’s operating on its own as a kind of sovereign space, and people were not paying attention to what was going on there. But what happened after the Dred Scott decision is that a lot of folks started coming up from southern states via the Mississippi into Minnesota, which was viewed as a nice vacation area, and bringing their enslaved domestic servants with them. So, you not only have a flow of tourism from southern states, their dollars also come into the cities of the state. It’s partly because of the popularity of Minnesota as a destination that a gentleman [William Aitken] visited, and he actually bailed out the University of Minnesota. (Christopher Lehman has done excellent work documenting all of that.) Southern slave owners would come up into Minnesota because they no longer felt they had to fear that their enslaved laborers would run away and declare themselves to be free because they’re in a free territory. This influenced the way the Black population in the Twin Cities after the Civil War were made into second class citizens.

By the way, there’s also this really interesting thread of political rhetoric about Minnesota’s participation in the Civil War. Of course they did send soldiers, but the 1862 US-Dakota War was happening at the same time as the Civil War. If you look at the newspapers from the time, you start to see a lot of really angry voices in the news media talking about how it isn’t right that we are sending our soldiers to be killed in defense of black populations when we need protection from these rapacious and murderous native people. So that’s another place where Native and African American histories get entangled in the discourse and rhetoric in Minnesota around that time. It remains a through-line all the way into the twentieth century in terms of the progressive values of the state—allowing African Americans to go to the University of Minnesota, for example—overshadowing the fact that African Americans were being denied housing. They were very much being treated as second class citizens, being excluded from any number of things. The same thing was happening to Native students at the university at that time as well.

So feed that into redlining which is very clearly evident in the Twin Cities. All you have to do is look at the really brilliant Mapping Prejudice project that shows the long-term effects of legacies of redlining in the Twin Cities. So while the rest of the world may have been surprised at what happened here over Memorial Day Weekend, it resulted from a long-term problem of police brutality that follows on this history.

“Watch Tower, Fort Snelling, Minneapolis, 11 Soldiers in Front,” ca. 1886, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

AO: That’s a really insightful through-line. The contradiction between the purported values of Minnesotans and their actual behavior and treatment of Native and Black peoples is also the underlying challenge of interpretive decolonization at Fort Snelling, right? You can’t carry those values as idealism but be unwilling to come face to face with the violent history in and surrounding the Fort.

But we already talked a little bit about the challenges of interpretation at Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. What are some of the opportunities you see for augmenting or bringing to life these carceral stories of discipline?

KH: First there’s just the sheer volume of material that really is there for the examination and for drawing interest. For example, what I really want to dive into is the question or experience of the companies of the 25th Infantry [one of the first segregated regiments of Black soldiers in the United States military] who were stationed at the Fort, because I think that’s a really fascinating perspective and a very challenging history. Even though the time that they spent at Fort Snelling was probably calm and boring for them, other than some forays into the Twin Cities for their band, I wish that we could pull more out of their experience than what have from the military records.

However, we do know that at least two of the barracks that they were occupying while they were stationed there were excavated as part of the work that was done in the 1960s and ‘70s, and that the material culture within those assemblages in part relates to their time spent there. There are some really evocative materials that could be brought out to help people think about the experience of these soldiers and the reality that, if their time at Fort Snelling was relatively calm, it was calm in comparison that what their primary role in the military was at that time, which was to fight the Indian wars. What does it mean to think about a group of soldiers who are being deployed in the pursuit of completing the settler colonial project by extending white settlements across the country, opening up these territories for settlements, but not actually being able to partake of this inclusive vision? That’s the story being put out there for a largely white population. But how do the descendant communities of these [Black and Native] folks actually think about this? That has been one of the biggest areas that I’ve seen lately in activism, the relationality and alliance-building between African American and Native American communities.

There are a lot of institutional constraints that we need to work through first, and that’s one of the reasons why, as I was trying to get out in the article, there’s a little bit of an uneasiness. But at the same time there’s a chance for me, working as an academic who is outside of that particular institution, collaborating but not within the institution, to be able to push that space a little bit more than otherwise might be possible.


Katherine Hayes is an associate professor of anthropology, affiliate faculty in American Indian Studies, co-founder of the Heritage Studies and Public History graduate program, and current director of the Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In her research, she attempts to trace the role and uses of archaeology in both reproducing and challenging settler colonial public memory. 

Featured Image (at top): “Old Round Tower and New Barracks, Ft. Snelling, Minn.,” Detroit Publishing Co., [between 1900 and 1910], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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