Those of us in academia generally acknowledge the ongoing state of U.S. empire. However, in high school, and even some colleges and universities, colonialism and imperialism are taught as temporal periods. The Age of Imperialism, as it’s usually called, allegedly ended in the early 20th century. In actuality, the United States has continued to engage in imperial acts under the guise of spreading freedom and democracy. Yet regardless of this continuation and perpetuation of U.S. empire, it seems that when it comes to talking about imperialism, most of us are still walking on eggshells.
While working on our digital project that will be part of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project Exhibition at the Minnesota Historical Society, how to talk about imperialism, especially in the context of an audience that mostly understands it as a policy that ended more than a century ago, has been one of our main dilemmas. Largely grounded in Amy Kaplan’s work “Where is Guantánamo?” our project seeks to call to attention to the expansive, ever present nature of U.S. empire, using Fort Snelling to essentially “bring Guantánamo” to Minnesota. Fort Snelling, a military fort completed in 1825, is now run by the Minnesota Historical Society as a historic site. The site is largely portrayed as an emblem of U.S. patriotism and progress, and students from across the state visit on field trips, as do other Minnesotans. What is almost entirely concealed at the Fort however, is its more troubling history as the site of a detention center for Dakota people. After the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, Dakota women and children were held below the Fort during the winter of 1862-1863. In terrible conditions, and without appropriate food, shelter or clothing, hundreds died in the camp. The fact that this part of Fort Snelling’s history is largely obscured speaks to the ways in which, to use another phrase from Kaplan’s essay, Fort Snelling and Guantánamo are “haunted by U.S. imperialism.” By choosing to downplay the more upsetting history at Fort Snelling, the Minnesota Historical Society is choosing to perpetuate a myth of American exceptionalism, and Fort Snelling itself becomes a device for the continuation of U.S. imperialism.
Although our group originally used the “haunting of imperialism” idea to explore this issue, I’m no longer convinced it serves the point we are trying to make. The idea of a “haunting” has been widely debated and discussed by numerous scholars including Amy Kaplan, Ann Laura Stoler, and Avery Gordon to name a few, and for the most part I think it’s an extremely useful phrase in terms of recognizing the ways in which imperialism and more broadly U.S. empire continues to permeate our society. Still, I wonder, especially for the purposes of our project on Fort Snelling, if “haunting” is the best way to talk about imperialism. While acknowledging that the United States engages in imperialism to some extent, does the phrase “imperial history” suggest actions that are entirely in the past? More, does the idea of being “haunted” by something mean the object doing the haunting disappeared, only to return in a less tangible form? If so, then U.S. imperial history is characterized as a temporary state in U.S. history, remnants of which are now returning. None of the aforementioned scholars argue that imperialism has not had a continuous presence in the United States, in fact many have built their careers on the fact that U.S. empire is ever present. Still, I wonder if the term “haunting” has too many initial connotations that suggest a lack of continuance in U.S. Empire and imperialism, as if it’s something that was gone and has returned in a lesser form. In the context of a public history project, where we lack the space to explain the academic conversations surrounding “hauntings of imperialism,” the phrase’s content is especially important. In the case of Fort Snelling, the fact that Dakota stories, specifically those of detention, are continually repressed, demonstrates that the sight is not “haunted” by imperialism, but rather an active site of imperialism that supports the continuance of U.S. power and the myth of American exceptionalism. A larger focus on Dakota people at Fort Snelling would not only point out the ways in which U.S. empire now functions by perpetuating myths of its benevolence, necessity, or lack of existence, but also draw attention to the long and continuous history of U.S. empire by putting Indians at the center of the narrative.
U.S. empire, as author Jodi Byrd discusses in her work The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, is not something that began or ended with the supposed “Age of Imperialism” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather, by placing “Indianness” at the center of a narrative of U.S. Empire, Byrd demonstrates the ongoing nature of U.S. empire. Succinctly, Byrd says that “As a transit, Indianness becomes a site through which U.S. empire orients and replicates itself by transforming those to be colonized into ‘Indians’ through continual reiterations of pioneer logics.” Thus, imperialism continues to function as “the spread of democracy” because by turning people to be colonized into “Indians” or a savage other, imperialism becomes justifiable and benevolent. By placing Indians and Indianness at the center of the narrative, Byrd not only exemplifies the ongoing, and often multifaceted forms of U.S. empire, but also demonstrates that the United States has been engaging in colonial and imperial acts since its founding (perhaps even before) and will continue to engage in such acts as longs as we continue to fail to recognize such actions as imperial ones. This returns us to the original question posed, how do we demonstrate the ongoing, ever present nature of U.S. Empire? How do we talk about imperialism?
Posted by Rose Miron—Ph.D. Student at the University of Minnesota
 Amy Kaplan, “Where Is Guantánamo?,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 831–858.
 Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xiii.
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