Gibbs museum seeks funds for learning center

by Tom Ford

During the 1830s Jane Debow was raised near Fort Snelling by missionaries working among the Santee Dakota people in the region.

Often acting as an interpreter for the tribe, she made friends with the children and learned about and adopted much of the Dakota culture.

In 1849 she returned to the area with her husband Heman Gibbs after they bought a plot of farmland on what is now Falcon Heights.

There Debow renewed her contact with the Dakota. For several years, Dakota friends would visit her on their way to gather wild rice, pitching their teepee on her farm and staying for weeks at a time.

Culminating efforts to incorporate that history at the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life, the Ramsey County Historical Society will request 2002 state bond money to add an interpretive center to the museum.

“This site owes a lot of its significance to the Dakota people,” said Gabrielle Strong, a Dakota descendant and member of the museum’s Native American Advisory Board.

Priscilla Farnham, RCHS executive director, said under current plans the center would provide space for classrooms, exhibits and artifact storage, which the museum currently lacks. It would also allow the museum to stay open the entire year.

Those benefits, Farnham said, could give visitors a “hands-on learning experience” and also increase annual museum attendance from approximately 20,000 to approximately 30,000 people.

“The center is the last phase of a very long plan,” Farnham said.

In 1995 the museum conducted an archaeological investigation in conjunction with the University to unearth the sod house where the Gibbses first lived.

The investigation, Farnham said, convinced the museum to incorporate more of the site’s pre-1900 history and triggered a year-long study to determine how to interpret the early 19th century history.

“(The NAAB) played a defining role in the outcome of the museum’s plans,” she said. Over the past four years, the museum has completed several projects depicting the Dakota presence.

Among the recent additions are a traditional Dakota garden, Dakota-style teepee and bark lodge replicas, and a replica of the trail that ran across the farm.

NAAB board member Gary Cavender said these projects demonstrate the friendly relations between the Gibbs family and the Dakota people.

In a measure approved last Tuesday by Ramsey County, the RCHS will seek $137,500 to hire consultants and begin designing the center, Farnham said.

The request will have to compete with many other 2002 funding proposals.

Peter Sausen, state assistant commissioner of finance, said bond requests already total approximately $1.5 billion, and it’s unlikely the Legislature would approve all the money.

If the request is approved, Farnham said, the RCHS will need to match the state funding through a campaign drive, which would be larger than any previous RCHS campaign.

“It’s never easy to raise money,” she said. “But I’d guess we can do it.”

If that money is raised, Farnham said, the RCHS plans to request state bonds again in 2004, amounting to approximately $1.5 million for actual construction of the building. She said completion of the center is several years away.

Still, NAAB member Strong said a center could contribute to increased awareness of the state’s history.

“Minnesota history has been really neglectful of Indian history,” Strong said.

She said most history museums across the state do not tell much about American Indian people, and few get the chance in school or in books to learn of the presence and influence of American Indians.

The RCHS efforts and its partnership with the Dakota community, she said, are unique and should be emulated by other historical societies and groups.

“This is a start, and I hope this helps change how Minnesota history is told,” Strong said.


Tom Ford covers St. Paul and welcomes comments at [email protected]