Guantánamo Public Memory Project

How Do We Talk About Imperialism?

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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.[1] 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.”[2] 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



[1] Amy Kaplan, “Where Is Guantánamo?,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 831–858.

[2] Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xiii.


5 Comments to: How Do We Talk About Imperialism?

December 16, 2013 2:44 pmMichael wrote:

I really enjoyed this post, thanks so much for sharing. How the guantanamo public memory project engages audiences, in light of limited constraints on time and space, is really critical. If all audiences take away is a clever stringing of words – “haunting of imperialism” – we have a problem where, as you argue, imperialism is relegated to the past. THANKS!!! Hopefully going forward your constructive criticism can make these efforts even more engaging and poweful than they already are!

December 16, 2013 6:32 pmJoe Whitson wrote:

I think that in the context of Fort Snelling, the phrase ‘haunted by imperialism’ is incredibly appropriate. As a non-active fort used almost exclusively as an interpretive historic site, the role it played in American imperialism is in the past. I can understand the argument that as site of education, the fort may perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism and obscure its role in conquest. However, I think Fort Snelling does make an effort to interpret its imperialistic past, especially with the monument on the actual site of the Dakota internment camp (and also with its programs associated with Dred Scott). Yes, it could be more explicit or make the Dakota War a more central component of its interpretive plan and much of this interpretation is a relatively addition, but to say the fort is “an active site of imperialism” is to intentionally misinterpret the goals of a historic site. One might just as easily argue that as a historic site which in some ways does address this past, the fort is actively countering imperialism (although I think that would be a stretch as well). I think the word ‘haunted’ allows people to see Fort Snelling as a place that does have a history of imperialism, a history that in many ways overshadows the image of justified Euro-American expansion that it has previously put forth.

December 16, 2013 10:29 pmRichard Josey wrote:

Great post. How do we talk about imperialism? How do we demonstrate the ongoing, ever present nature of the U.S. empire? I submit that we begin by understanding the multiple perspectives involved. By understanding that all parties felt and feel justified by their beliefs in the pros and cons of this idea we term imperialism, which for many people has a negative tone associated with it. Now, I believe that the best means by which you talk about this, especially in public programs, is to tell a balanced story that allows guests to see for themselves how we as Americans have inherited this logic and to some extent perpetuate this idea in our present culture. We also need to show how this ties to modern issues of immigration and race in many ways; the belief that one group has superiority over others.

As for Fort Snelling, I think the issue is a bit more complex. Historic Fort Snelling was many things to many people. From my understanding, even amongst Dakota peoples, there is belief that this story should not be told…particularly by White people. So…who are we to serve? I have encountered the same circumstance when it pertains to telling the story of people of African descent. Some African Americans believe that this story should not be told…especially by White peoples. So, how do we tell these difficult subjects when we encounter cultures that don’t want that story told…or told by the available resources to do such? I make no excuse for the Fort Snelling team or MNHS. Only to illustrate that this issue is a bit more than any notion of avoidance. A counter question that I pose to readers is this: Some amongst Dakota people have expressed the same idea that I have expressed about people of African descent – how can we allow the narratives of these peoples to transcend beyond the story of what was done to them by the dominant culture? Can we find a way to talk more about the resilience of a people in spite of the oppressive nature of the dominant culture?
I submit to you that we MUST tell these stories as part of a bigger story that involves conflicting perspectives and many truths. My aim to ensure that all voices are heard and we, as historians, doing get into the business of telling people what to think, but provide venues for community building amongst our audiences. I certainly welcome and feedback and thoughts to help expand efforts to engage our people to become more proactive members of change.

Richard Josey, Minnesota Historical Society

December 17, 2013 12:20 pmRichard Josey wrote:

oops..pardon the typos at the end of my post. My intent was to express that we have to continue to be in the business of not telling people what to think, but build venue that inspire community building off of understanding those many truths I was speaking about. Of course, I’d love to hear others thoughts on this. A wise man knows that he knows nothing at all.

December 19, 2013 12:28 pmJeff Boorom wrote:

The daily interpretive program at Historic Fort Snelling consists of approximately 8 areas/stations. One of these is where we believe Dred & Harriet Scott lived while they were at the fort (the kitchen of Dr Emerson), in this space visitors learn about Dred & Harriet Scott specifically, but also about slavery in early Minnesota (slavery & other African American content is included in multiple areas of the program). Another one of these 8 areas is the “Indian Agency”, this space is devoted to US American Indian Affairs, specifically the removal and acculturation policies of the US government, it also consists of a room devoted to the US/Dakota War content, including the concentration camp below the fort. There is also signage outside of the front gate devoted to content about the camp, and directs visitors to the site down in the state park. The state park actively interprets the site of the camp with a memorial, signage, and an exhibit in their visitors center. Historic Fort Snelling’s interpretive program consists of multiple perspectives of expansionism/imperialism, and does not suggest that this ended early in the 20th century, or that it does not continue today. Most of this has been in place the last 4 years or longer. While there is plenty of room for improvement, I do not believe the second paragraph of the article is an accurate assessment of the program at Historic Fort Snelling.


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