Thursday, November 24, 2011

Forever Free: The Dakota People's Civil War

Who marched atop these walls?  Who built them?
Who marched inside?  Who sat inside as captive?
As I mentioned last week, I left Fort Snelling after our tour as part of the National Association for Interpretation annual conference unfulfilled. The potential for high-drama and deeply meaningful connections was palpable on that landscape. The audience, a crowd of interpreters, were begging for meanings. One African American woman in the group, after the site administrator mentioned in passing Dred and Harriet Scott being held at the site, asked about the nature of the labor used to build the fort. I was sitting in the row behind her. I could not see her face. But from the inflection in her voice, I could tell exactly what the unstated question behind her spoken one was: "Were slaves used to build Fort Snelling?"

She was desperately trying to imagine her personal story within the context of that historical landscape. She wanted to know how people with her color skin might have figured into the sweeping narrative that is the fort. She wanted to know what this place meant to her today, the impact and implications it has had on who she is, where she stands in American society and how American society sees her.

The administrator did come around to the answer she wanted: "The first soldiers stationed at the fort built it." She did coax out of him the fact that no slave labor built the original walls of Fort Snelling. But only after goading. And with that cold answer, the site lost much of its potential meaning for her. She was not given the opportunity to care. She was not given a moment to see herself in that place.

My blood boiled; it always does when things like this happen. It's why people don't like visiting historic sites along with me anymore. I start stewing with every missed meaningful connection I see.

So, how do you make Fort Snelling relevant? Where is that deeply meaningful story? How can you overcome the fact that black hands did not lift stones into place to build that fort and still make this place relevant to this one particular woman?

Military executions are commonplace in Civil
War narratives, but the largest mass execution
in U.S. history happened in 1862, when the
U.S. Government hanged 38 Dakota Indians.
Here's a hint: Happy Thanksgiving! You can use America's other most maligned ethnic group, pushed and prodded westward across the American landscape for centuries - the American Indian. The other American holocaust, the destruction of North America's native peoples, is linked indelibly with the American holocaust which I study most: slavery.

In 1862, the Dakota people (part of the Great Sioux Nation) noticed that Minnesota had been drained of its male population. Men from every walk of life in the newly minted western state had struck eastward, heading to the fertile farmlands of Virginia and the silt-doused banks of the lower Mississippi valley to reap a harvest far different than the one they had pulled in years past from the fields around St. Paul. In the army, these men would sow and reap death and destruction in a war begun because of one concept: slavery. That one odious word holds so much power. The image of whips and cotton fields, of bleeding scarred sable skin and hounds baying in a dark wood immediately leap to mind when that simple word is uttered. It is the ultimate American evil.

The Dakota people, however, were experiencing another American evil. Their lands and livelihoods had been systematically chipped away by unbalanced treaties with white settlers from the east, until they were left with a thin strip of farmland running across Minnesota. For a people who thrived off of a physical connection to the sacred land, being separated from their holy ground was the greatest of injustices. Boxed in, but seeing the opportunity afforded by the strong and able-bodied white fighters being a thousand miles away, the Dakota seized the initiative. They rose up in rebellion and attempted to seize their lands back. They failed, but not before over 600 men, women and children had been killed on both sides. White Minnesotans lay dead in the dust in the fall of 1862.

In fields in Maryland, white Minnesotans lay wounded and bleeding. The fruits of their suffering was a transformation of the goal of the war. Those soldiers in blue suits now would march to free 4 million held in chains, prisoners in a brutal system of oppression. Lincoln declared that, "the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of," the former slaves, "and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom." The Federal soldier was now marching explicitly for freedom.

Looking at this photo of the
internment camp, it is hard to not draw
comparisons to the horrors of Andersonville.
But along the Mississippi in Minnesota, the military authority was doing the exact opposite for the Dakota Indians. A massive internment camp, which some modern historians have eerily demanded be called a concentration camp, was established by Federal soldiers. About 1,600 men, women and children were held in the stockaded prison through late spring of 1863. The tribe starved, suffered and sickened, all under the watchful eyes and keen rifles of Federal soldiers. While in Virginia and Tennessee, the blue uniform began to be seen as a symbol of hope for an oppressed people yearning to breathe free, on the edge of the prairie in Minnesota the blue uniform was the very tool of oppression.

As a culture, we often flatly look at the Federal cause during the war as wholly just. Lincoln becomes a great emancipator, free from any fault thanks in no small part to a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth. But in 1862 and 1863, just as an American revolution in thought and definitions of freedom was taking place in the halls of Washington and the sea islands of the Carolinas, another race of people stood behind barricades erected by Lincoln's troops. The Dakota's freedom was stolen from them by forces dressed the same as those marching to preserve the freedom of the slave.

The war was about freedom. But so often in America, our struggles for the freedom of one group ignore completely the plaintive cries of another. The American story is one of piecemeal progress. We take slow steps, grasp at handholds and toeholds as we climb the peak to a more perfect union. But, we can only keep climbing toward a land where all are truly forever free.

The American dream is one of fits and starts, not a smooth line of progress. It has been a very bumpy road. We can only endeavor to make it a little smoother. That's the meaning which lies at the heart of Fort Snelling.

Descendents return to Fort Snelling to commemorate their ancestors' struggles at this
monument inscribed with the words, "Remembering and Honoring."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Walking Out on the Meaning: Dedication Day 2011

A Wednesday "Extra!" for you about this past weekend's events in Gettysburg...

I am a nerd. Last year on November 19th I was stuck in Las Vegas, attending the NAI conference (the same one Jake and I have been grousing about for the last two weeks). This was the first Dedication Day event I had missed since first coming to Gettysburg in 2003. I was upset. I was disconsolate. I trudged the strip dejected. I toured the Atomic Testing Museum, which was fascinating but unfulfilling. I am one of those dorks who doesn't understand how anyone can schedule anything other than a trip to Gettysburg on November the 19th. The glitz of Vegas only underlined this cold fact.

Like a scene out of the best Ray Bradbury
short story ever: Downwind from Gettysburg.
This year, I was excited to once again be in Gettysburg on a chilly November day to celebrate the speech Lincoln gave 148 years ago. The crowd was massive, larger than a typical Dedication Day. This was almost certainly due to the fact that the event fell on a Saturday this year and ended up as a double-bill with the popular-if-gaudy Remembrance Day. I have deep problems with R-day. But I have deep reverence for Dedication Day. It was nice to see some different visitors exposed to the solemn events in the cemetery and not simply the pompous ones along Baltimore Street.

A massive crowd saw Stephen Lang speak. Surprisingly, Lang's speech was good. I thought he made some excellent connections and tried to delve into a deeper meaning of that place. It certainly was not the typical exercise in expounding how little appreciation young people have for history, something which not only comes off as holier-than-thou but is often preaching directly into the choir loft when directed at a Dedication Day crowd.

Why does this video an audience member uploaded
to YouTube abruptly end after Jim Getty speaks?
But I noticed something. When Lang finished, what happened to that massive crowd? About 1/4 of it vanished, trickling away from the cemetery. Next, after a few other pieces of business, Jim Getty was introduced portraying Abraham Lincoln. Jim does a fine job as Lincoln, although I personally find his reading of the Address a bit flawed (my problem has to do with syllabic emphasis, and points out just how pedantic my knowledge of this stuff can be sometimes).

What happened after Getty closed? Another chunk of the crowd evaporated into the cold November air, streaming away. What was left looked like a typical Dedication Day crowd. Only about half of the people in the audience as there ceremony began were still there.

But why does this matter? Simply because of the deep meanings and resonances which unfolded next, after so many had left. The final activity of the day, before the Gettysburg High School band played "America the Beautiful," was a simple ceremony. Sixteen members of the audience were asked to stand as their countries of origin were announced: Armenia, Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Germany, India, Kenya, Somalia, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Then Philadelphia district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services Tony Bryson rose and approached the podium. He asked the candidates to raise their hands. He swore them in as citizens.

But why was this so meaningful?

No better definition of
the meaning of the Civil War...
Tony Bryson is black. He is an African American. His administration of the oath followed Lincoln's admonition to the nation that it should bloom with, "a new birth of freedom." We were at a commemoration of a speech which helped to redefine a national war fought so that men who look like Mr. Bryson were not held in coffles but were seen as citizens. This man who 150 years ago would have been looked upon by a majority of the American populace as sub-human and inferior, as something less than a citizen, was administering the oath of citizenship to new Americans of every stripe. That is the fundamental definition of an American revolution.

Lincoln's dream of a, "new birth of freedom," was palpable in the cold November Saturday morning. If only more people had bothered to stick around to see it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Just Interpret to Me: Reflecting on NAI 2011

Last week saw Jake and I in St. Paul, Minnesota for the annual National Association for Interpretation workshop, a week long gathering of professional interpreters from around the nation. I'll guarantee that the next couple of weeks will be filled with recaps from both of us on what struck us the most during the conference. Our reactions ranged from "meh..." to "Dude!"

To quote everyone's favorite viral video
"What does it mean?"
I'm going to begin with one of the "meh..." moments. Friday found us on a field trip to Fort Snelling State Park and Historic Fort Snelling (operated by the Minnesota Historical Society). The fort sits high on the bluffs overlooking the waters of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, dating originally to the 1820s. The fort has what seems to have been an amazing and vibrant history, filled with amazing national connections and deeply moving concepts.

Unfortunately, we did not hear that much about the meaning of that place when we toured the site. Our site visit consisted of watching the orientation video (a decent in-house production), a 35-minute PowerPoint presentation on the history of interpretation at the fort from 1970 to today and a very quick visit to the site wherein the staff unlocked doors for us and described the types of programming they do for the public. We were talked at for about an hour on the craft of what they do at the site, but never shown that craft in action to judge for ourselves. Why is Fort Snelling important? Judging only by what we heard inside of the fort's walls, I'm not quite sure.

To be fair, this was only a symptom of a larger impulse which seemed to pervade the conference. Again and again, instead of proving by showing the bulk of the presenters tried to teach their skills by telling. Concept after concept flew by, with little to no actual examples of what works, no attempt to show how meanings can be forged. A convention center full of professional communicators often had a tough time communicating.

We protect our cultural landscapes and interpret them because we believe that the real, the true, the actual is one of the most potent tools. This is the fundamental ethic in interpretation: tie a story to a landscape (what the craft calls a "resource"). But as soon as we step in front of a PowerPoint projector, even interpreters seem to lose this core ethic. Instead of teaching through effective examples, facilitating meanings for our audiences to show them new techniques for facilitating meanings, we begin blathering on about the craft endlessly. We read every word off of our slides and narrate endlessly to crowds quite visibly disengaged from what we are saying to them. We bore our audiences with theory the moment we are told they are interpreters. In short, for some reason we check our interpretive impulse at the door.

If we preach as a profession that interpretation is the most effective type of teaching, why not practice what we preach? Why not show how to interpret well through powerful examples of what is effective instead of simply telling how we think it might work?

Setting foot in an historic fort in Minnesota after flying nearly a thousand miles to get there, we were visitors last Friday. But the staff didn't see that. All we wanted was to see some effective programming that could help us feel why Fort Snelling was important. But the presenters didn't try to understand who their audience was and what they came to the site seeking. We weren't interpreters when we walked through the gates of that site; we were visitors. We came seeking meaning; we left unfulfilled. We walked away with no new tools in our toolboxes, only a vague understanding that Fort Snelling used to do first-person, living history interpretation and now no longer does.

The Post Commander's Window Dred and Harriet Scott's Window
How might the very different people who looked out of these very different windows have seen the world?
Just one of the amazingly provocative questions I was hoping would be asked of me at every turn but never was...

Jake leaned to me at one point during the day and said, "Remind me to never mention that I'm an interpreter to anyone when I visit a site. They immediately stop interpreting for you and just want to talk shop."

Jake, consider yourself reminded in spades.

So, what were the missed interpretive opportunities? Tune in next week when I'll try to give you the interpretive program I didn't receive at Fort Snelling. Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'll share with you the power of an historic landscape to show us the impacts of European colonization of the Americas. And it's a Civil War story to boot.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Don't Say Slave: Interpreting Slavery at NAI 2011

Back from the 2011 NAI workshop and back to our regularly scheduled programing! We both have plenty to share from sessions on interpretation, field trips to local history sites, and eating breakfast in a dining car on the national registry of historic places.

Slave, servant, fugitive, runaway, master, slave owner, and farm. What do all of these words have in common? Well, if you went to Angela Roberts-Burton's NAI session, "Overcoming the Obstacles of Interpreting Slavery," you would know that all of these are words that she urged interpreters not to use when interpreting slavery and slave life. Instead, you should use: enslaved, freedom seeker, fled bondage, slave holder, and slave plantation.

Although Roberts-Burton's presentation was overall, highly informative with some great discussion, I had several issues with her presentation, mainly her handout, "Words Have Power". In the handout, she urged the above mentioned restricted vocabulary when interpreting slavery. The reasoning behind not using words such as slave and fugitive is that they are demeaning. The handout argues, referring to the word slave, that:
No one asked to be a slave. This is not what or who they were. When people (especially African Americans) are referred to slaves, it is dehumanizing. they become ambiguous, without feelings, thoughts, or individual personalities.
 Roberts-Burton's handout continues on the words fugitive and runway:
These terms imply that wanting freedom was wrong.
I agree with Roberts-Burton on what these words mean. Words do in fact carry a lot of power and implied meaning - that's their nature as bits of language. And that's precisely why I don't think interpreters can or should restrict their vocabulary when dealing with such a controversial and important issue such as slavery.

I want to use the word slave, fugitive, and slave holder interpretively. I want to be able to point out the fact, or better yet, have a visitor realize how stilted the language we use today and those in the past used to talk about slavery. I want to use the word fugitive to illustrate the paradox of someone who is fighting for their freedom and yet simultaneously breaking the law. I want to use those above mentioned terms to illustrate multiple perspectives, those of the slave holder and the slave, those who benefited from slavery and those who are only know principally for their status as slaves. Using those terms is essential to confronting one of the worst facets of slavery: that although slaves were in fact human beings with emotions, feelings, needs, and wants, they were after all in many people's minds just slaves - pieces of property to be bought and sold by slave owners and masters. I want visitors to respond to the injustice and inherent wrong that is the word slave and all that it represents.

Courtesy Prints and Photographs, LOC.
By not using these words and confronting all the difficulties and layers of meaning represented by these words, we risk losing sight of the nature of slavery, and all of its intricacies. We risk painting it with broad strokes instead of rooting out all of the details that made slavery a degrading, morally corrupt, and overtly hypercritical human system that it was. Slavery is too important an interpretive subject for us to confine ourselves to certain  vocabulary words. Instead, we need to embrace the whole vocabulary of slavery for all its interpretive possibilities and worth.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Last Prisoners at Gettysburg: A Gift for Kind Hearts

Linnaean Hall on the Pennsylvania
College campus / GettDigital Collection
I have been digging quite heavily into the history of Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) College and the American Civil War these past few months, trying to fill a gaping hole in the scholarship not only of the college but of the local civilian story in the war. This has meant long Thursday nights at Adams County Historical Society culling through every random mention of the college and the complex relationship which the students and faculty had with both the citizens of the borough and the armies which invaded it. It has also meant that I've had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg College's Special Collections in-depth for the first time since I began working with the college's Civil War history in 2006.

It continually surprises me how little has been unearthed from archives and newspapers on any topic I research. How any historian can 'discover' a source which was published in a newspaper in 1863 and has been sitting on a roll of microfilm for 20 years, or how they can discover a source which comprises part of the official record of an institution spanning more than 175 years of history and sitting in that institution's archive for over a century is a mind-boggling concept. Historical research is one never-ending instances of the thing you need being hidden in plain sight.

So, what did I find hidden in plain sight the other night in Gettysburg College's Special Collections?

The finding aid listed the following in the files of the Board of Trustees from 1864:
1 May 1864 - Letter to members of the Lenean [sic] Association, presenting them with two globes bought in Murfreesboro, TN from the sale of confiscated property of a professor

That date, that description of the content... it was just too tantalizing. My 'discovery' of the document was, in fact, exhilarating.

In May of 1864, the college received a letter and (presumably) a crate containing two globes. William Earnshaw, formerly a Methodist Episcopal Minister from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, had forwarded the geographic instruments to Pennsylvania College with his regards. Before the war, Earnshaw was a circuit riding minister and for a time was based in Gettysburg. As the war broke out, Earnshaw volunteered his services to the state of Pennsylvania. By the spring of 1863, he had resigned his commission as chaplain in the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and volunteered for duty as a hospital chaplain. He was eventually attached to the Army of the Cumberland, and would spend the balance of the war in central Tennessee.

Earnshaw's globes were, "purchased at the sale of confiscated property in," Murfreesboro. The provenance of the globe was sketchy at the auction, Earnshaw admitted, but he relayed to the college that, "so far as I can learn they belonged to Professor Henderson formerly of the 'Union University.'” The previous owner of the hemispheres, "at the Commencement of the Rebellion," had given, "all his force against the dear old flag."

The globes immediately reminded the minister of the small college in the town in south-central Pennsylvania where he had made his home for a short time. "And remembering the kindness of the able President of the Penna. College, and many pleasant associations with the Professors + Students," Earnshaw explained, "I felt and now feel great pleasure in commiting [sic] to the care of your noble society," the globes.

Earnshaw was present at Gettysburg during the battle and hospital period, nursing the wounded and ministering to soldiers' destroyed bodies and souls alike. The "kindness of the able President," could refer to Henry L. Baugher's care of over a dozen wounded Federal soldiers in his home over the course of the three-day battle. The, "pleasant associations with the Professors," could refer to the amiable Martin Luther Stoever and his penchant for inviting any wayward soul wandering the streets of the town after the battle into his parlour for tea. If he did in fact set foot inside the hallowed walls of the college, he witnessed how the halls of the, "noble," Linnaean Society had been soaked with the blood of hundreds of wounded soldiers dashed to pieces by three days of carnage.

In Tennessee, Earnshaw experienced a new sort of carnage: reinterment of mangled men. As the war drew to a close, he was put in charge of the military cemeteries at Stones River and Nashville, later to be placed in charge of the cemeteries at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth and Memphis as well. Frank Conover explained in his Centennial Portrait and Biographical Record of the City of Dayton and of Montgomery County, Ohio in 1897 that, "in the presence of thousands of unreconstructed rebels, and of women and children who were imbued with the idea that secession was just and the northern soldiers usurpers, this duty was most arduous." Earnshaw, assisted by the men of the 111th United States Colored Troops, "in the face of insult and intimidation and personal danger," helped to find a final resting place for, "the bodies of 22,000 fallen Union soldiers... gathered from their shallow, temporary graves." Earnshaw reported to the War Department in 1866 that all of his, "assistants were brave soldiers who had served throughout the war." He cherished the thought that as long as he lived he would, "remember how tenderly they performed this work amid untold difficulties; how cheerfully they set out on long and toilsome journeys through rain and storm in search of their fallen comrades, and the proud satisfaction expressed by them when the precious remains were laid in the new made grave."

College mueseum collection inside
Linnaean Hall  / GettDigital Collection
After traveling far from the thick of the horror that was Gettysburg and plunging into a far more sinister landscape of rotting patriots, fresh-dug graves and racial strife, Earnshaw still thought fondly of that Lutheran college which sat on the border between heaven and hell for the entire summer of 1863. The two tokens of his esteem, everyday educational objects like those in colleges and classrooms across the United States, were laden with meaning. Where the globes are today I know not. They most likely drifted to an antique collector's shelf or a landfill's depths long ago, their story mute to the world. But to think of the meaning embedded in the simple act of spinning a globe, the meaning of the simple motion of a student running their fingers across its surface to find a far away land, is tantalizing. In 1864 those globes ended up sitting on a shelf in the Linnaean Hall at Pennsylvania College, expatriates held in a foreign land, the last prisoners of war lodged in buildings which had held so many destroyed sons of the South.