Amid sharp criticism from American Indian community leaders, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) has canceled plans to hold an event promoting adoption at Fort Snelling, where scores of Dakota people died while being held captive following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
In recent days, leaders of some Twin Cities-area Indian nonprofits decried initial plans to hold the event within the larger area of Fort Snelling. They said the choice reflected a lack of understanding of the painful history still felt by descendants of the Dakota people who were forcibly relocated to the frontier fort. They also cited the ongoing trauma associated with the child protection system's separation of American Indian children from their biological families, which often severs connections to their heritage. In 2017, Indian children in Minnesota were 18.5 times more likely than white children to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care — among the greatest disparities in the nation, state data shows.
In a written statement Friday, DHS' top official overseeing children and family services said the agency has decided to move the Nov. 3 event to the Minnesota Zoo "after hearing from community partners who raised concerns about the location and its connection to painful historical events, especially for the American Indian community.
"We apologize to anyone who was impacted by the first choice of location … and for the inconvenience this change in location may cause. We are thankful for our partners' flexibility, and their unwavering dedication to Minnesota's children," Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner, said in the statement.
Patina Park, an attorney and executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit that assists adoptive parents and their families, had called the department's initial plans "grossly insensitive."
"As a Lakota woman, a mother, and someone who was adopted as a child, there are not enough words for me to express how distasteful this is to me," Park said in an interview before DHS disclosed the change. "The lack of empathy towards these experiences from dominant culture is a constant ache and injustice to our communities," Park added. She called Fort Snelling "a former concentration camp where children died."
Her concerns were echoed by several other leaders of the Twin Cities Indian community, who said they had urged the state and other event organizers to move the event elsewhere. "There were [Dakota] babies that were born at Fort Snelling and died there in captivity," said Sharon Day, who is Ojibwe and is executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, which provides housing and substance abuse prevention services to Indian families. "These atrocities are not ancient history," Day said. "There are still grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people that this happened to who are alive today."
The annual event, called Circus of the Heart, was planned in partnership between the DHS and MN Adopt, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that contracts with the state to provide adoption and foster care recruitment activities. More than a dozen state, county and private agencies sponsor the event, including Anoka, Hennepin and Washington counties and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. The DHS provides most of the roughly $60,000 in annual costs for the event, which includes pony rides and other activities for children. Initial plans called for the event to be held at a Boy Scouts base camp within the larger Fort Snelling compound, which is where it was held last year.
The Indian Women's Resource Center is listed as a sponsor, though Park said she was never told of the initial plans to hold it within Fort Snelling.
The site controversy has emerged amid a larger debate over how to recognize the diverse history of the prominent site overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, known as Bdote in the Dakota language.
After the U.S.-Dakota War, the site was used as an internment camp for some 1,600 Dakota people, including women, children and elders. The captives were forcibly marched more than 100 miles to the stockade at Fort Snelling from the Lower Sioux Agency, near present-day Morton, Minn. It is estimated that between 130 and 300 Dakota people died at the fort while imprisoned there during the winter of 1862-63, primarily from disease exacerbated by exposure and the brutal living conditions.
In August, the Minnesota Historical Society, a nonprofit that manages a 23-acre compound that includes the historic fort, launched a statewide effort to gather public input on the name of Historic Fort Snelling, as the larger site undergoes a $34.5 million restoration. Leaders with the Historical Society have said they are exploring whether the site's name, derived from a U.S. Army colonel, Josiah Snelling, adequately reflects the experience visitors have at the site, as well as the experiences of the Dakota people and others. People can provide feedback on the name through Nov. 15 at the Historical Society's website.
In 2017, the Historical Society installed temporary signs at the site that added the phrase "at Bdote" to reflect "the additional stories shared at the fort and the location of the fort itself," according to the agency. The Historical Society removed the temporary Bdote signs this summer for the renovation and renaming process, and because it created "public confusion" about whether a name change had already occurred, the agency said.
Robert Lilligren, a citizen of the White Earth Nation and chairman of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, which represents the leaders of 36 Indian nonprofits in the Twin Cities, said early plans to hold the adoption event at Fort Snelling were "clearly a mistake in judgment." He said he hoped the controversy would provoke a broader discussion about the trauma caused by forced separations of Indian children from their families.
"This is an opportunity to raise awareness of how adoption was used as a tool of forced assimilation," Lilligren said. "Let this be a chance to advance the conversation and the healing process."