Tag Archives: Dakota

The Ethics of Plains Indigenes

Radical HopeHere on the northern Great Plains, we are increasingly considering what the Dakota Wars from 150 years ago meant then and what it means today. A piece of scholarship I stumbled across while visiting the bookstore of Pompey’s Pillar in eastern Montana (where, famously, an Anglo-American incised his graffiti on some tall rock) is Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006). Lear uses the historical documents from Plenty Coups, a Crow leader who helped his people navigate the turn of the 19th century. What makes Lear’s monograph interesting is how he uses his training in philosophy and ethics to approach a previously unexplored topic of the Crow.

Throughout this book, the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota are mentioned, and how they and the Crow were ferocious enemies in the 19th century. Lear looks at this philosophically, though, and says,

One of the ironies that comes to light is that groups of people can be bitterest of enemies in real life, yet ontologically they are on the same side; and a real-life ally can turn out to be one’s ontological nemesis. The Crow and Sioux were bitterest of enemies… Still, their standoff sustained a world in which battles, planting coup-sticks, and counting coups all made sense. One has only to read Chief Sitting Bull’s pictorial autobiography to see that he was every bit as much concerned with counting coups as Plenty Coups was. And yet, with the United States as an ally — a questionable and unfaithful one to be sure, but still an ally in many ways — the Crow moved into a position in which their world fell apart. (Lear, 2006: 50-51)

The rearrangement of this way of life came to an end due to the advanced encroachment of Euro-Americans who, among other things, obliterated the bison food source of the Plains indigenes. Lear doesn’t just stop with the known history of how the bison were wiped out, though. Instead, he expands and explains how the bison food source was a serious component of the Crow’s cultural and ethical telos. Bison had been incorporated into nearly every element of the Crow way of life, and Lear gives excellent examples by unpacking phrases that Crow used for dinner. For example, Lear notes that there was no such thing as simply cooking a meal. Instead, the cooking of a meal had a greater social-psychology behind it. The phrase cooking and eating dinner was inextricably bound to “the cooking-of-a-meal-so-that-those-who-ate-it-would-be-healthy-to-hunt-and-fight.” (Lear, 2006: 40) See how the telos — the psychological extension of an immediate act providing a base for the future — is connected to the food, and that the food comes largely from the bison? Yes, of course. And so when Euro-Americans — whether Sully at Whitestone Hill, or Euro-American riflemen — obliterated the bison, it struck not only at that food source, but at the very culture of Plains indigenes. In short, read this book.


Visiting the Bear River Massacre Site

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site.

A photo from a July 15, 2013 visit to the Bear River Massacre site in southeastern Idaho.

A couple days ago Molly and I made a site visit to the Bear River Massacre in southeastern Idaho. The massacre happened in late-January 1863 when a U.S. Army group of California Volunteers led by Col. P.E. Connor attacked a domestic, non-combatant encampment of Shoshone. It is interesting to contextualize this site with others throughout the United States.

Nine months later, General Alfred Sully described his actions at Whitestone Hill against families of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota as a “murderous slaughter” of a “promiscuous nature.” This action happened on the northern Great Plains (in presentday North Dakota) only 9 months after the Bear River Massacre. Massacre was, sadly and to put it mildly, a part of the Total War battle rubric (check out John Fabian Witt’s latest work on Lincoln’s rules for war). It is called genocide and ethnocide today.

Today, 150 years later, the Bear River Massacre site remains active with memorials of all kinds. If you are driving from Salmon, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, take exit 36 off of I-15 onto Highway 91. You’ll need to follow the exits, because there isn’t any signage that will guide you to this painful chapter in American history. At the site is a stone obelisk, and for the last 150 years different groups have brought different interpretations to the site.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

Some items of remembrance at the Bear River Massacre site. Photo from July 15, 2013.

The Bear River Massacre site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Today a beautiful memorial tree has taken on the task of an anchor for remembrance and mourning. A variety of individuals have placed items in the tree. A cursory sample of items observed on the July 15, 2013 day of my visit to the site included numerous dream catchers; tobacco pouches; a pair of glasses; a penny; beads on leather necklaces (one read “HOPE”); a wood flute; synthetic flowers; a tin pale filled with beads and chewing tobacco; pieces of rawhide with art on them; and suspenders. The tree is active and alive, as are the memories.

In addition to this, if you want to read up on contemporary scholarship specific to the Bear River Massacre, check out Kass Fleisher, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004) and John Barnes, “The Struggle to Control the Past: Commemoration, Memory, and the Bear River Massacre of 1863” in The Public Historian, Vol. 30, No. 1 (February 2008).

Photo from July 15, 2013.

Photo from July 15, 2013.


The Dakota, Nakota and Lakota Namesakes

This sunny afternoon, I’ve had a chance to make some reading lists and also take a closer look at two pieces of scholarship, including Paul Beck’s, Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and The Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013) and Clifford Canku (pronounced Chan-ku), Nicolette Knudson and Jody Snow, Tokaheya Dakota Iapi Kin: Beginning Dakota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).

Here are three thoughts that struck me in bouncing Beck’s contribution to the existing body of knowledge of General Pope’s punitive campaigns in the Dakotas, circa the American Civil War, off of the work by Canku et al. Note: Ancient Historian friends sometimes ask me to clarify which Civil War when I say, “The Civil War…” For someone versed in The Battle of Actium and the Peloponnesian Wars and all that other Ancient Mediterranean stuff, the phrase “civil war” — which are wars that are never civil — can mean any number of things:

  1. As Beck says in his introductory remarks, this is a Euro-Ameri-centric work from the bottom-up, soldiering perspective. What this means is that Beck worked all sorts of data from soldiers on these punitive campaigns into this 2013 history. When thinking about this, it’s interesting to consider how the professionally-trained soldier perceived of their duties and the Dakota they were charged with campaigning against vs. how the volunteer soldiers mustered in locally from Minnesota and the area perceived the Dakota.
  2. With this known, readers shouldn’t get upset that this is, well, another Euro-Ameri-centric work of the punitive campaigns (also a Euro-Ameri-centric phrase) in Dakota Territory.
  3. Even though the NCAA banned the use of the word “Sioux,” (and as a North Dakotan, I am fine with that) Beck and the editorial staff at the University of Oklahoma Press have not. I suppose the title is reflective of the view this history takes. Some thoughts on that below.

CankuAs Canku and company point out in Tokaheya Dakota Iapi Kin, and as more and more increasingly become aware of, the word Sioux was developed by the Algonquian to the east. As the French were making their way around the Great Lakes region, they encountered these Algonquian, and when the said Algonquian were asked, “Hey, who is to the west of you?” they responded with the Algonquian name for the Dakota, which was “Sioux.” The definition of Sioux is “those who live near the snaking river.” More pejorative variations on this have taken the name of “Snake in the grass.” But the problem of the word “Sioux” in and of itself is that it has been elevated to the known name of a people who did not author it as their known name. It’d be akin to asking a Russian what you call folks in the region of Poland vs. asking Poles what they call themselves.

For the sake of identity (which is the important stuff of being human, having and developing character and a constructive and collective image of oneself and the world) it’s important to keep hammering away that the Sioux are not in fact “Sioux.” Rather they are Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. More specifically, the Dakota are composed of the Mdewakantonwan, the Wahpekute, the Wahpetonwan, and the Sisitonwan (this is where the namesake Wahpeton, North Dakota comes from, also the hometown of the Erdrich family, among others). The Lakota are the Ti’tonwan, and the Nakota are the Ihanktonwan and the Ihanktonwanna (where the name Yankton comes from). The word Dakota means ally or friend.


Bringing American Public History to New Zealand

Just moments ago, from the northern Great Plains of North America, I submitted a short paper proposal to the other side of the planet, this to the New Zealand Historical Association (NZHA) in Dunedin, New Zealand. It is for the NZHA 2013 Biennial Conference (click the blue link to the left for direct details) on November 20-22, 2013. My paper concerns the contested public memory of Whitestone Hill, and concludes with some World Historical considerations. It builds off landscape memory and history, and research from 2009 to the present. The intent is to join two additional landscape historians, Dr. Thomas D. Isern and Dr. Suzzanne Kelley, to make a complete panel. Tom and Suzzanne are considering the public memory of local New Zealand history specific to the Lindis. I am bringing some public memory from the northern Great Plains to the mix. I thought I would share my paper title and abstract here.

Photo of Whitestone Hill from April 2012.

Photo of Whitestone Hill from April 2012.

Title: Aaron L. Barth, “A Contested Site of Memory from the American Civil War: Whitestone Hill 150 Years Later”

Abstract: In early September of 1863, as the American Civil War raged in the eastern half of the continental United States, General Alfred Sully led a military column on a punitive campaign against the Dakota (aka, Sioux) on the northern Great Plains. The military goal was to punish the Dakota majority, en masse, for the atrocities committed by a small Dakota minority the previous year in the Minnesota River Valley. Sully’s 1863 campaign culminated in an action at Whitestone Hill, this in present-day North Dakota. In his official words, Sully said he engaged Dakota “warriors… squaws, [and] children” in a “melée” and “murderous slaughter” of a “promiscuous nature.” His command killed 150 to 300 Dakota, and if he had another hour or two of light, he said, “I could have annihilated the enemy,” giving “one of the most severe punishments that the Indians have ever received.” For 150 years, the public memory of Whitestone Hill has been contested, called a “battlefield” by a United States Congressman, and called a “mistake” by Sully and Episcopalian Reverend Aaron McGaffey Beede. This paper tracks the public tension in the remembrance of Whitestone Hill, and concludes with samples of how sites of memory from this period are contested in World History.


US-Dakota Wars, Then and Now: Ellendale, North Dakota, April 5, 2013

1862-and-2012Last night in Ellendale, North Dakota (not far from a September 1863 massacre site of memory and mourning that is Whitestone Hill), a panel discussion between Natives and non-Natives took place at the Ellendale Opera House. The discussion opened with introductory remarks by North Dakota State University’s Tom Isern, and then by philosopher of ethics, Professor Dennis Cooley (Dennis is co-founder of the Northern Plains Ethics Institute, linked to here). From there Richard Rothaus provided an overview of the US-Dakota Wars that started in the Minnesota River Valley, 1862, but did not end in Mankato with the largest execution in United States history. In the following years, the US engaged in a protracted punitive campaign against all Sioux, regardless of whether they participated in the US-Dakota Wars throughout the Minnesota River Valley in 1862 — the many were punished for the actions of a few.

I think one of the main reasons folks came to this — and they expressed it — was to listen to what Tamara St. John (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, South Dakota) and Ladonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Tourism Director, North Dakota) had to say. Toward the end of the conversation, several of the Ellendale residents expressed immense thanks for the opportunity to listen, and one individual said they will use this panel discussion to navigate how to go about organizing the 150th year event at Whitestone Hill this September.

The US-Dakota War Panel Discussion from April 5, 2013, in Ellendale, North Dakota.

The US-Dakota War Panel Discussion from April 5, 2013, at the Opera House in Ellendale, North Dakota.

To solidify our imagined sense of geographic history, I thought that it might be helpful to circulate the following map above that situates Native America on the northern Great Plains circa 1862, and contrasts it with the 2013 Eisenhower Interstate system. Also, linked here is a audio recording of the panel discussion in Ellendale, North Dakota, from April 5, 2013, taken by Kenneth Smith. The entire event was sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council and the Center for Heritage Renewal.