A Sense of Place: Minnesota Past & Present

One hundred fifty years ago on May 11, 1858, the Territory of Minnesota joined the Union as the 32nd state. Since then, Minnesotans have been leaving their mark on the region and the nation.

One hundred fifty years ago on May 11, 1858, the Territory of Minnesota joined the Union as the 32nd state. Since then, Minnesotans have been leaving their mark on the region and the nation.

The men and women of those early days would react with astonishment and awe to the wonders of 21st-century commerce, transportation, and communications. Yet for all the changes of the last 150 years, there have also been some constants in the state's story. A stern and unforgiving climate has always tested the strength and ingenuity of those who have made Minnesota their home. Immigrants from New England, Scandinavia, Laos, Somalia, and any of a hundred other places have struggled to make their place among those who came before. A rich and vibrant culture continually renews itself through the sometimes rewarding, often uneasy, encounters between people of
different origins.

In this issue, University of Minnesota history scholars share their individual perspectives on the people and events that have shaped Minnesota over the last 150 years.

Brenda Child
"When you learn Minnesota place names, you're learning Ojibwe and Dakota," says Brenda Child, an associate professor of history and enrolled member of the Red Lake nation. While languages like Ojibwe and Dakota are most intimately connected with the people who speak them, she says, they are also part of the heritage of all Minnesotans.

Child knows first hand about the traditions of Native culture. Her family spoke Ojibwe at Red Lake, and Child has always dedicated herself to research and scholarship that would "tell our people's stories."

"What has deeply motivated American Indian historians is that we were so unhappy with the way Indian history was written," she says. "It's so satisfying to set the story straight. Today, I find that Indian students at the University of Minnesota have a deep appreciation for studying history, and this generation is also tremendously committed to language preservation and revitalization."

For Native peoples, Minnesota's Sesquicentennial could be an occasion for ambivalence, but as a historian, Child confesses to a sense of optimism. "I look on it as an opportunity. I'm excited when everybody is looking at history."

A member of the American Studies Department since 1998, Child drew on previously unexamined correspondence and family narratives to tell the story of the resilient young students at Indian boarding schools during the first half of the last century, when Native American children preserved their culture and their family ties despite official efforts to strip them of both. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families 1900-1940 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) won the North American Indian Prose Award. More recently, Child has been investigating how government work programs during the Great Depression changed the labor practices of Ojibwe women and men involved in harvesting wild rice. She has written a new book, Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Indian Community (forthcoming from Penguin Press).

Some of her most challenging projects have involved her work as a public historian, a job she defines as "making [history] accessible to school kids, old people, and everyone in between." When she was asked to rewrite the Minnesota curriculum standards on what students should know about Indians, Child concluded, "my goal was to introduce schoolchildren to the idea that Dakota and Ojibwe tribes are not just ethnic minorities but legal and political entities. They are 'small nations.'"

Child, who serves on the Board of the Minnesota Historical Society, is also working to integrate Indian voices into the state's ongoing dialogue about preserving and reinterpreting prominent historic landmarks like Fort Snelling.

"Historic preservation is thought of as preservation of things, objects, buildings," she says. "But Native peoples look on a place as embedded in a landscape and a culture." To preserve that heritage, she and her graduate students have been recording the thoughts of Native Americans in a series of field interviews.

When it comes to the vital business of retelling the state's story, says Child, "Don't just invite the Native peoples to the opening ceremony, but engage them in the process. While Native peoples are citizens of tribal nations, we're also modern people. We have always been part of the history of Minnesota."

Hy Berman
When the University of Minnesota Press commissioned a new state history to coincide with Minnesota's Sesquicentennial, the natural choice to head the project was the man who's long been known as the unofficial state historian. University of Minnesota history professor Hyman "Hy" Berman is in his eighties now, but he still has the same fund of ready anecdote and crisp analysis--not to mention his trademark Northwoods style pullover sweaters--that made him a fixture on local news programs and a beloved teacher to generations of students.

In fact, it was on the local news program "Almanac" a few years ago that Berman named what he considers the five pivotal events in 20th century Minnesota history: the rise of the enclosed shopping mall; the internationalization of the state's economic and social outlook; the political role of third parties; the state's tumultuous labor history culminating in the Minneapolis teamster strike of 1934; and, perhaps closest to his heart, the significant role played by Hubert Humphrey in mid-century American politics and the civil rights movement.

Berman is proud of the stance the young Humphrey took in 1948, when, as mayor of Minneapolis, the future vice president led the city to pass one of the nation's first anti-discrimination ordinances. Later that summer Humphrey memorably urged the Democratic National Convention to leave the "shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights" by adopting a strong civil rights platform.

Humphrey was a political giant, according to Berman, but he wasn't always a hero in the eyes of his contemporaries. Berman recalls that, after his defeat in the 1968 presidential election, Humphrey came back to Minnesota to teach at the U. Because of his support for the Vietnam War, Berman says, "there was great hostility toward him on campus." Only in retrospect would Humphrey come to be revered as a titan of Minnesota politics.

A native New Yorker, Berman arrived at the U in 1961 with an outsider's view of Minnesota as "just one of the M states-you know, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota." Since then, his perspective--as well as Minnesota's stature on the national scene--has changed dramatically. The post-World War II prosperity evidenced by the opening of Southdale as the nation's first enclosed shopping mall in 1956 was followed by a time of exceptionally good relations among the state's economic, cultural, and political leadership, Berman believes. During this golden era of prosperity and cooperation--sometimes called the "Minnesota Miracle"--Minnesota-based industry collaborated with government for economic and social common good.
Berman is more critical of the state's more recent history. "The Minnesota Miracle [was tied] to the belief that everyone had a role to play," he says. "Business leaders felt an obligation to contribute their fair share...But we have changed in the move away from the concept of the common good and towards the view that we're all individuals working for self."

He believes he can pinpoint the moment of change: Jesse Ventura's astonishing gubernatorial upset victory over opponents Norm Coleman and Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III in 1998. He notes, though, that Ventura's election was also part of Minnesota's robust political tradition of third party politics. As far back as the 19th century, alternative political parties proliferated in Minnesota "like prairie grass," Berman says. Perhaps the best known of them was the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.

Although ideologically distant from Ventura's brand of populism, Farmer-Labor was born of the bitter economic and social divisions of the early 20th century, tested in the turmoil of the Great Depression, and culminated in events like the Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934. In 1944, Humphrey was able to achieve one of the early milestones of his career by persuading the Farmer-Labor Party to merge with the Democrats to form the present-day DFL.

Berman says he's an optimist, but looming crises in energy and the environment, among others, also make him cautious about the state's future. Borrowing terms from Hubert Humphrey, Berman might say that Minnesota finds itself somewhere between the "shadow" and "bright sunlight." The forecast remains unclear.
Berman is senior advisor to the new history of the state, which will be written by Mary Wingerd. Tentatively entitled North Country: the Making of Minnesota, the work is slated for publication early next year by the University of Minnesota Press.

Since the first Native Americans settled here some 8,000 years ago, immigrants have found their way to Minnesota. In the nineteenth century, so many western Europeans were drawn to the state's expansive farm land and growing industrial base that in 1896 officials issued election instructions in nine languages.

Then, beginning in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a new wave of immigrants began to re-shape Minnesota's ethnic makeup, their stories less about putting down roots in richer farm soil, than about desperate flights from persecution.

Today, some 25-30 percent of Minnesota's immigrants are refugees. They include not only the largest Somali population in the United States, but also the largest Hmong community in the world outside of Asia. Hmong is the second-most spoken language in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts.

It may be too early to understand exactly what this means in terms of the state's history, but Mai Na Lee is one scholar who is deeply enmeshed in studying the Hmong experience. She is a history professor at the University, and also a refugee with a sadly typical refugee story. When her family was forced to flee from Laos in 1978, she was 12 years old and had had no formal schooling. But she did have dreams of an education, even though such ambition was unusual for a Hmong girl, and that dream propelled her through a Ph.D. in history.

"I realized that I wanted to focus on the history of my own people," Lee says of her decision to be a history major. For her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Lee wrote about the Hmong under French colonialism from 1893-1955. And so it was that Lee became the first Hmong in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in history. Today, she is researching and teaching courses that explore the Hmong experience.

"People saw a need for a Hmong historian at the U of M," Lee says, adding that she was drawn here by the large and vibrant Hmong community in the Twin Cities and the fact that her courses may channel more Hmong students to study Hmong history. Some 700 Hmong students attend the University, and Lee says many of them "also have a longing to search for their history and personal identity. Hmong have been marginalized and repressed, and it is the obligation of my generation to achieve and to show that Hmong do belong to the human family and that they can achieve greatness."

Indeed, as this generation of Minnesota's Hmong move into adulthood, it will be role models like Lee who help them navigate the challenges that previous Minnesotans also faced: preserving their ethnic stories and history while taking their places in the heterogeneous and changing culture that is Minnesota.

Kevin Murphy
For generations of students, history class was both sedentary and passive: You sat in a classroom and took notes. Enter "public history," a movement that's come into its own in the past few years and is all about turning that model on its ear.

In the first place, it's collaborative. Students are expected to be actual historians, developing their own projects and conducting original research. In addition, it's audience-focused. Instead of staying in the classroom, students go into the community.

When it comes to this approach, "I think we're ahead of the pack," says Kevin Murphy, an associate history professor who joined the faculty in 2002 and who has initiated and developed the program. "We're not alone, but we're one of only a few."

At the U, Murphy saw a rich urban neighborhood where he and his students could "think of ways to turn out a history of what's happening around campus and the metro region," he says. So, public history students have explored the nearby Cedar-Riverside and Dinkytown neighborhoods, where they've delved into issues largely unexplored in the scholarly literature: immigrant communities of color in the Twin Cities, for example, or the history of urban planning and development in the post-WWII period.

One group of students developed an interpretive exhibit on the Little Earth housing project, a community for urban American Indians from 48 different tribes. Others produced two documentary films about the thriving Twin Cities popular music scenes, including folk, rock, and hip hop.

Students have presented their projects to audiences at such venues as the Hennepin History Museum and the Elmer L. Andersen Library gallery. They have engaged in internships with institutions such as the Minnesota Historical Society and the American Swedish Institute. They have served as mentors in Minnesota's History Day program, a nation-wide annual educational competition that involves some 25,000 6th-to-12th grade students in historical research projects.

"This tends to be a transformative experience," Murphy says. "Because their work goes to a public audience, students think of it as a project, not just an assignment."

Through all of these public history activities, the U's undergraduate historians have gone way beyond lecture notes. "The philosophy here," says Murphy, "is that the best way to learn history is to make history."

Allan Spear

It's not every day that a historian gets to make history as well as teach it, but retired history professor and former Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear has done just that.

Spear spent nearly three decades in dual service to the University and Minnesota and the state legislature. There was one moment, though, in which his personal, professional, and legislative goals converged. In 1993, after more than 20 years in the State Senate, Spear and Minnesota House member Karen Clark persuaded their legislative colleagues to expand the Minnesota Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation. As a result of Spear's work, Minnesota became the eighth state in the Union to outlaw discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.

In 1974, Spear had become the second elected official in the U.S.--and the first in Minnesota--to announce that he was gay. For him, the expansion of the Minnesota Human Rights Act was the most important act of his public life. "It was just ecstatic," is the way Spear describes the mood that day. "I passed [the legislation] in the Senate in the morning and got the momentum building. Karen Clark in the House got it passed that afternoon." So important were his political achievements that they earned him a place in the Minnesota History Center's "Minnesota 150" exhibit, which profiles those who have shaped the state in profound ways.

Spear thinks his unique dual career might not have been possible in another state. "Minnesota has a very open political system," he says. "And there was the fact that I represented a very liberal district near the University that wasn't concerned about my sexual orientation."

Spear maintained a busy academic schedule throughout his entire legislative career. He took leave from teaching whenever the legislature was in session, but he never forgot he was a historian. "Politicians think every crisis is the first time this has happened," he notes. "I tried to bring a sense of history to the Legislature," he says. "In fact, my colleagues could tell when it was coming. Someone would say, 'I think we're going to get a lecture from Professor Spear now.'"

Editor's note: As this newsletter went to press we were saddened to learn that Allan Spear passed away on October 11 due to complications from heart surgery. We will miss him.

The introduction and essays on Brenda Child, Hy Berman, and Allan Spear were written by Judy Woodward. The essays on Mai Na Lee and Kevin Murphy were written by Mary Shafer.



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 2, 2009 1:40 PM.

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