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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Remembering Greasy Grass in World History

by Aaron L. Barth
Board Member
Cross-posted at this link here.

I remember the first time I started piling over the historiography of Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn at some point in 1999 or 2000, this with a short historical article included in one of those military history readers. This article happened to be by the late Stephen Ambrose (I think he published it sometime in the 1970s), and as a reflection of the scholarly times, it focused exclusively on what we call white military history. Looking back on it, and considering how even by the 1870s the American military was such a small cross section of elite Anglo-Americans that guided policy (as opposed to the lot of our non-English-speaking immigrant great and great-great and great-great-great grandparents who were entering the country at the time), it is much more apt to refer to the traditional historiographic body of white 19th century American history as Anglo-American or Victorian Military History. This is not meant in a conspiratorial way. Rather, it is meant to point out how institutions are composed of individuals, and if the individuals within those institutions have certain outlooks on the world, then the institutions are going to operate accordingly.

For at least a couple decades, now, individual scholars within the academies have created a social structure large enough so they can shift the direction of the scholarship (archaeologists today sometimes call this "counter-modern" while historians refer to it as multivocal). For example, instead of once again combing over what happened on June 25, 1876 at Greasy Grass, scholars have taken to looking at the conflict as a broader segment that needs to be contextualized in World History. James Gump has a work out there entitled, The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and Sioux (University of Nebraska Press, 1994), and it considers how the Anglosphere mythologized themselves after a confederation of Lakota, Cheyenne and Native America decimated the 7th at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and after the Zulu wiped out a British force of 1,500 at Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879. Check out the Zulu monument to the fallen Zulu at Isandhlwana with this link here.

Isandlwana landscape from the Wikipedia public domain page.


These broadened world historical treatments help pave the way for other scholarship (for example: so we're not incessantly sitting around wondering what Custer did wrong; but rather what the Lakota and Cheyenne forces did themselves to bring about George's demise). The latest and greatest public historical treatment of Greasy Grass comes by way of Debra Buchholtz's The Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn: Custer's Last Stand in Memory, History, and Popular Culture (Routledge, 2012). This work gets a reader to think secondarily about the actual events of June 25, 1876, and primarily about how the public has remembered the events since 1876. It was, after all, a centennial year (from 1776 to 1876), and the general Anglo-American reading public was nonplussed and aghast to think that Custer (or any Anglo-American for that matter) would be capable of losing a battle within the interior of the American nation, and this so close to the centennial anniversary of the nation's declaration of independence.

Greasy Grass/Little Bighorn from Google Earth imaging.
So this is where a lot of the contemporary scholarship is at these days: not just looking at the historical event itself, but also looking at what the popular press and academically trained thought about the historical event in and of itself (for example, William Blair and David Blight, among others, have taken a hard look at Civil War memory and memorialization in this way too). And that's what I've kind of been thinking about on this 137th anniversary of the day the Lakota and Cheyenne (and others) stuck it to George at Greasy Grass in eastern Montana.

In closing, I leave you with a paragraph quote from the 1986 work of James Belich, The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986 and 1989). This is so you don't have to lug around numerous books while you're taking in the various Lakota and Cheyenne holiday celebrations that commemorate the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Greasy Grass — Aaron Barth Consulting does that work for you.

Okay, to quote Belich, and to consider it in the context of Custer as a trained Victorian operative for Anglo-America:
"Racial ideas are not just images of others, but of one's self and one's own society. Superiority and inferiority, inevitable victory and inevitable defeat, higher faculties or the lack of them; each are two sides to the same coin. To question one is to question the other, and thereby cast doubt on an individual and collective self image. Victorians, like other people, were not eager to ask such questions" (Belich, 1989: 327)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Historic Scandinavian Log Cabins: Then and Now

By Aaron L. Barth
Board Member
Original entry linked to here.

Yesterday I visited a project area in the Sheyenne River Valley in southeastern North Dakota, and on the way back from fieldwork I stopped by some static public historical signage and historical Scandinavian-American log cabins on one of America's Scenic Byway routes. I snapped some photos, downloaded them on the computer last night, and then started in on a bit of research on the archaeological project area: history often informs archaeology, since much happens with the history of an archaeological site before archaeologists have a chance to descend on it.

While looking through a series of digitized photos, I came across a historic photo in the Digital Horizons/ND Institute for Regional Studies archive. The photo is titled, "Building at Fort Ransom, N.D.," and it is a log cabin today located some miles north of Fort Ransom, N.D. I compared the historic with the modern this morning. Below are the photos I've looked at: one is a 1950s gable-end elevation, and compare the shapes of the logs and the seams of the logs. You'll notice that they match one another. This is the same building but in different places (academics often say something about the spatial and temporal divide here).



As the public historical signage said, this cabin was built in 1879 by Norwegian immigrant Theodore Slattum, and he originally hailed from Christiana, Norway. He immigrated to Fillmore County, Minnesota in 1870, and he and his wife, Jorgine, relocated to the Sheyenne River Valley in 1879, where they built this cabin. They also raised nine children in the cabin (they modified the original cabin from what it looks like here in the photos).



In 1945, this cabin was moved to the Fort Ransom Historic Site, and then moved back to this original location at some point around the turn of the 20th century (this is likely why the description of the cabin's provenience is what it is within Digital Horizons/NDIRS; and this is also an example of how history informs archaeology, and not the other way around).

Hehaka Wakpa Makoche (Elk River Country)

Hehaka Wakpa Makoche (Elk River Country)
AKA Theodore Roosevelt National Park
By Dakota Wind, The First Scout

Anytime I visit a place with my sons, if the Lakota people have a name and a story about it, I tell them about it as the Lakota know it. The above image was taken at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. There, I quietly shared the story of General Sully's punitive campaign against the Lakota that started at Killdeer Mountain and led the soldiers to the Badlands, Makoche Sica.


This was taken about a mile south of Wind Canyon. My youngest son wanted to pick flowers so we walked about and found some. When we came upon some, I told him that we must never pick the first ones we see, that we want the flowers to return, so we can pick the second flower we come across. 


Any trees of big size grow on the Elk River floodplain. This little shrub was growing between broken sandstones on a hillside. 


There it is. Elk River. Today the river is known by its contemporary name, the Little Missouri River. It was a favored place of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Mandan and Hidatsa to hunt elk.


Here's a feral herd of horses within the park. The horses descend from horses which were removed from the Lakota in the late 1800s. My youngest son knows that the horses aren't "ours" as in ownership, but he calls them "ours," as in "our friends." 


A gange of bison roam the park too. These bison are pure blooded bison from the gange at Yellowstone National Park. By the turn of 1900 there were only about 300 pure blood bison that could be accounted for there. They were close to extinction, but have made a return.


There were several colts among the horse haras (one of those fancy collective nouns for horses) in the park. Several other visitors had gotten out of their cars and trucks to take pictures, but we didn't. My youngest rolled down his window and called out to them. 


It was windy, but them its always windy on the Great Plains. The wind has been here since creation and still blows strong. The wind blew and carried the wonderful scent of sage across the endless rolling miles. Here's a little valley of sage. Last year my youngest son picked sage for my mother here because her house smells like this.

I post other things at The First Scout. Catch me there.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters, A Review

Dakĥota Kaškapi Okicize Wowapi: The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters, A Book Review


I received my copy of Dr. Clifford Canku’s The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters: Dakota Kaškapi Okicize Wowapi through the mail and I carefully removed it from the box it came in. I was excited to read it, but not joyous to do so. Its about a real life tragedy, the consequences of which the Dakota and Lakota are still living with today. 

My initial perception of the book, my judgment of the book based on its cover, was that I was getting a book in the vein of Albert White Hat’s Life’s Journey. In the case of White Hat’s book, the transcriber, Mr. John Cunningham, and White Hat took great pains to keep the oration of the book even as a translation into English as how a traditional Lakota would speak English. White Hat’s work retains the “flavor” of the language.

Canku’s book goes a step further. Not only did White Hat and his associates invest several years translating beautifully hand-written letters in Dakota to English, Canku keeps the original Dakota, but he adds a word for word translation, then a free translation into English which contains Dakota connotations.

Dr. Canku carefully reads a letter of a Dakota prisoner.

There are two things which reached out to me about this book. The first being that its about the Dakota who became prisoners of war following the Minnesota Dakota Conflict of 1862. The book contains letters, first-person accounts of innocent men and women who were wrongly accused and imprisoned. They weren’t US Citizens, so due process didn’t apply to them, so they were guilty and imprisoned until they were determined to be innocent or no longer a threat.

Part of the story of the letters involves a missionary to the Dakota people, Rev. Stephen Riggs.

Riggs, a missionary among the Dakota in the 1850s, was present when cases involving the Dakota were judged, as fast as the service at a fast food restaurant. In one day, Riggs saw forty Dakota cases judged and sentenced to death in about seven hours. Some of the cases took mere minutes.

The missionary Stephen Riggs.

Missionaries, including Riggs, visited the Dakota prisoners, and converted a captive audience, while writing their letters of appeal for them, letters to loved ones at different agencies and letters to military commanders pledging to never more resist the American expansion westward.

The second thing which reached out to me was that the book is bi-lingual. There aren’t many resources published in both Dakota and English. As a person whose first language is English, and being a Dakota-Lakota person, having the original Dakota language present for me to read and learn is wonderful.

The most intriguing part of this book is the scholar himself. Dr. Clifford Canku. He is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and a retired Presbyterian minister. Canku is a common man and his stirring introduction includes early efforts from the previous teams he worked with at FlandreauSD, the Sisseton Wahpeton College, and then North Dakota State University. Even though his name is on the cover alongside Michael Simon, Canku is quick to acknowledge the efforts of others.

Taoyate Duta, His Red Nation, more commonly known as "Little Crow."

Before being brought on to earliest efforts of this translation project, Canku was visited by the spirit of Taoyate Duta (His Red Nation; aka Little Crow). Throughout the translation process, a spiritual presence was always present. When the project wrapped, Canku received another visitor through a dream. He was at a sundance in this dream and a old man was brought into the east gate where his name was announced four times. The grandfather’s name: Wakaŋboide (Sacred Blazing Fire). The grandfather came to Canku and said, “Hau, wičohaŋ ečanupi kiŋ de wašhté do.” (Yes, the work you are doing is good, it is so.)

Canku is deliberate in that the reader, casual or otherwise, clearly understands that the book is about the Dakota prisoners of war. There are plenty of books out there, and more so with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Dakota War, but Canku’s and Simon’s book is the only published primary resource from the perspective of the people who fought, the people who defended, and the people who were entirely innocent of the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict.

Camp Kearny, where the Dakota prisoners of war were taken.

An excerpt of one of the letters places the reader in the first person. Wiŋyaŋ, or Woman, writes to her relative Pa Yuĥa, Curly Head, about starving and the heartbreak in the prison camp at DavenportIowa:
…my heart is so very broken, it is so. Last summer, we all know one terrible event has occurred, and always we are very heartbroken, because now again, my heart if broken very much, because this winter we are without, we are all suffering. I hate to live, it is so. And now where will they take us?...now we don’t know where they will take us, and therefore I thought maybe we will never see all of you, and therefore my heart is very sad.

Another letter by Stands On Earth Woman tells her relative His Country that she is recently widowed and with a new baby, at the prison camp. She asks for her relative’s assistance because she literally has nothing and she’s starving.

Get this book if you are interested in the “other” side, the forgotten side of the story. Get this book to support a native elder and scholar, but get this book so that we never forget what happened as a result of this terrible conflict.