Bdote: Where Rivers Come Together and People Fall Apart

Mar 10, 2020

Fort Snelling at Bdote
Credit Joel Emmons Whitney (1822-1886) / Public domain / Minnesota Historical Society

There was a war in 1862, and it wasn't all that far away. As wars go, this one was short, over and done with in little more than a month. But it was very bloody. In no other war in U. S. history were as many civilians killed in such a short time.

And it was scary, very scary, because the region's white folks were mostly foreigners who knew very little about American history or much at all of what was happening all around them in what they thought of as a new land. Most were Irish or German or Scandinavian, men and women and children who’d come to land they thought of as theirs for the asking or taking. When they needed to, they judged themselves more worthy of that bountiful land--lakes and trees and prairies--than the original inhabitants, the indigenous, who didn't know how to use a plow and, furthermore, showed no desire to learn, the newcomers said.

What's more, those others were dark-skinned. Their dances were demonic, and they drank way too much. They were lazy and shiftless and an encumbrance to the swelling ranks of good, good people who wanted a new life. What those injuns needed to do was go somewhere west and to a place where they wouldn't get in the way of progress.

Some thought they should be stamped out. Some figured if we'd kill all the buffalo, they would simply die off themselves.

Those natives had names and words that had named all kinds of features of the landscape. Once upon a time, there was a city, 15,000 people strong, where Sioux Falls is today, a city bigger than Chicago at the time. All of its residents were First Nations. 

They weren't "Indians," per se. Columbus gave them that name, thinking the indigenous he encountered were living in India. His geography was as big a mess as his naming. 

But Native people were here, and they were a people--as church people like to say, they were "a fellowship," a community, and they were flourishing. But white folks, like my own Dutch great-grandparents, wanted their land and simply assumed they could take it.

All of that is an old story, but it bears repeating and remembering.

So the Minnesota Historical Society determined the state's crown jewel historical attraction, Ft. Snelling, right there at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, should carry the name its own first nations people gave it--"Bdote." Before white folks came, Bdote was what Minnesota's original citizens called the area.

Not long ago, some state reps determined the Historical Society's budget needed to be trimmed--by millions they said, because the Society was practicing "revisionist history,” trying to tell a new story about old events.

Which is true. After all, before the site was named Ft. Snelling, its name was Bdote. White folks have been doing revisionist history for a long time. By Native standards, most of us are illegals, undocumented. 

Two can play that game.

Hundreds of white immigrant pioneers were murdered and mutilated in the Dakota War of 1862. Nothing--absolutely nothing--about that war was sweet or nice or good. What the Dakota did to white folks is as great an abomination as what white folks did to the Dakota. 

When Ft. Snelling was full of captive Dakota families, preachers and missionaries who went to the fort to minister to them were beaten by other white men who believed bringing the faith to the murderin’ savages profaned the gospel. Look it up in St. Paul Pioneer Press

That's the history the State’s Budget Committee doesn't want remembered, and that's why they wamted to cut the Historical Society's budget. The whole story’s told in one word--Bdote, the Dakota word for the place where two rivers come together, a word that hundreds, even thousands of Minnesotans used, long before anyone ever thought of "Ft. Snelling.”

Just a bit to our north, the Dakota War of 1862 was fought more than 150 years ago. But open scars still exist. 

On both sides. 

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