A wristwatch with a skull, 2019. Kinda looks like it's up to no good, doesn't it?
history pragmatic historian

Weaponizing History

A wristwatch with a skull, 2019. Kinda looks like it's up to no good, doesn't it?
A wristwatch with a skull, 2019. Kinda looks like it’s up to no good, doesn’t it?

Here at The Pragmatic Historian, my main purpose is to show people how to use history in everyday life. Actually, most of us already use history on a daily basis, so my true purpose is to point out what is so obvious that no one sees it anymore.

Much of the time, history is used in positive ways. It is used to build understanding and empathy between people,  provide inspiration, teach us critical thinking, help us solve problems, entertain us, and feed our curiosity.

History Can Be Used for Nefarious Purposes

But, history can also be used for nefarious purposes. As a useful tool like a hammer can be turned into a weapon, history, too, can be weaponized.

Such is currently happening within the Minnesota Senate. According to an article by Jennifer Brooks in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Senate has proposed cutting the budget of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) by $4 million (out of an $11 million budget) because some senators are peeved that MNHS included the words “at Bdote” on the sign at Fort Snelling. Bdote means “where two waters come together” in Dakota. The senators claim these two words are “revisionist” history and MNHS should be held accountable for daring to revise history.

History Is Continually Revised

Those of us who work in history know that history is continually being revised because sources are continually being uncovered. When new information presents itself and provides further understanding for any given event or person, a historian would be irresponsible not to use it.

We are also well aware that many, many, many people have been left out of the overarching historical narratives of our country and state. I can tell you, after working for over 20 years on one county’s history, I have barely scratched the surface of the complexity of the history of this one small (in the grand scheme of things) geographic area. There’s ALWAYS more history to uncover and share.

Using the word “revisionist” in the context of history shows a woeful (or perhaps willful) misunderstanding of what history is about. The word itself is being turned against the history field and used as a weapon. Expanding our knowledge of past people and events ought to be a good thing, so if revising history to be more inclusive of other stories is considered by politicians to be a bad thing, we have to ask, “Why?”

Weaponizing History

Now, politicians can claim that adding “at Bdote” to the Fort Snelling sign is revisionist history and publicly make their arguments about why they think that is a bad thing, but threatening to severely cut MNHS’s budget takes the weaponization of history to a whole new level. MNHS is considered a preeminent organization among the state historical societies around the country in terms of exhibits, publications, and other services. Making drastic cuts to its budget would hamper its ability to offer the services we Minnesotans have come to depend upon.

But, here’s the larger message of Minnesota’s Senate: “Present history as we like it or we will punish you by diminishing your resources.”

Such a message ought to have every history organization that receives public funding quaking in fear. If they don’t kowtow to politicians’ wishes, their very existence will be threatened.

Public history organizations have, up until recently, been tremendously timid in their presentation of history, in no small part because of that threat. Most operate on shoestring budgets as it is, with few staff and resources to keep their organizations going. Expanding our programmatic offerings to include underrepresented populations is key to expanding our audiences and support. The demographics of our country are changing and we must change with them in order to remain relevant. (Let alone the fact that it is THE RIGHT THING TO DO. Sheesh. Nothing like being punished for being decent, inclusive organizations.)

Why Should History Organizations Receive Public Funding?

You, or a politician, might argue that history organizations should just fund themselves, stop depending upon government largesse in order to operate. Point taken because if we could all unhitch ourselves from public funding, we could remain independent and not have to worry about whether the history we present will displease the political powers that be.

However, there is a benefit to the public funding of history organizations. Using tax dollars to fund history signals that ALL people within a democratic country are important, not just those with the most wealth and power. Not only is this signal being sent to the public, history organizations themselves receive this message. The history organizations I know of that receive public funding treat this money with respect and do their best to spend it wisely to expand history beyond sensational events and figures to include ordinary people who don’t typically make headlines.

Sure, we could leave all the funding of history to those in society who can afford it, but depending upon those with the most wealth and power to collect, preserve, write and present history means that history will be skewed to their perspective. (History, ahem, shows this to be a natural tendency.) The vast majority of us will be left out. That’s not very democratic and that’s not the history I know and love.

History, like love, is an ever-expanding Big Tent. There’s always room for more.

So, Senators, I urge you to allow the story of Fort Snelling to be expansive, to include the Dakota and the rest of the history of this site “where two waters come together,” and allow the Minnesota Historical Society to continue doing a superb job in representing the history of all Minnesotans by restoring its funding.