The Reservation System: Paternalism and Exploitation

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Minnesota Land Grab

(Author’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. As of yesterday, February 10, 2011, Indian Country reports that the offending AFA blog post to which I refer here has been taken down. No point in letting up on the pressure though – Hrafnkell)

Historian Francis Paul Prucha calls government policy one of “paternalism”.  That is, the white government had an obligation towards its wards just as a parent would, looking out for their interest and doing things that they themselves might not want to do, in other words:  as a child does not know what is best for them, so too the Native American.  Prucha points out the positive and negative aspects of this sort of viewpoint, the worst outcome being exploitation, a crime all too many parents are capable of.

Good or bad be the parents, children seldom get to choose.  Neither did the Dakota.  The land they would live on according to the reservation system in lieu of their old haunts was chosen for them by the United States Government, and from what follows, it does not seem as though the government negotiators looked at anything to do with the proposed reserve other than maps, ignoring what we would today call “the facts on the ground.”[1]

The reserve marked out for the Dakota (you can see the narrow band on the map above, flanking the Minnesota River) did not impress either agents or superintendents, who saw it as far inferior to the lands they had been dwelling on.  Territorial Governor and therefore Superintendent, Willis A. Gorman, deplored the terrain of their new home upon seeing it for the first time: “From the vicinity of the new agency there commences a vast prairie of more than one hundred miles in extant, entirely destitute of timber.”[2] A year later, the Sioux Agent, Robert G. Murphy also mentions the “great scarcity of timber in the neighborhood.”[3] However, Murphy found the land good for farming purposes even if there was no game to hunt, and the fact that timber was so scarce was seen to benefit the Dakota in another way: “It…has not sufficient timber to be a temptation to white settlers.”[4]

Worse was to come: When the reservation was split in 1858, the best part of what little they had was taken away, as admitted by Joseph R. Brown in his 1859 report:  “This was decidedly the most valuable portion of these reservations, as the land is equally fertile, and there is more than double the quantity of wood upon that tract than there is upon the tract reserved.”[5]

Portrait (Front) of Wanbli Tanka or Wa-Mdi-Tan-Ka or Wanmdi-Yan-Ka (Great Eagle) or (Big Eagle)

But the Dakota had worse problems than the inhospitable nature of their new home.  Though it lacked natural resources and was exposed to Ojibwe attack, the most dangerous enemy of the Dakota was still the white government.  Big Eagle tells us that of the complaints uttered by the Dakota, many of them centered around the issue of cultural change, the sequelae of those “blessed benefits” of civilization: not being allowed to war against their traditional enemies, not being able to hunt game wherever they could find it and selling their furs to the traders; in general, not being allowed to live however they would.  They did not like having to give up their life‑style and live like the white man, he said; they “wanted to live like they did before the treaty of Traverse des Sioux.”  Still, John P. Williamson, son of the famous missionary and a lifelong missionary among the Dakota himself, wrote of the reservation, “the near presence of government officials prevented much of the former persecution.”  While as an eyewitness we cannot discount his testimony, it must be pointed out that the inhabitants of the reservation had an altogether different viewpoint.[6]

White culture created a rift among the Dakota.  There developed two types of reservation resident.  These were the so-called “Farmer” and “Blanket” Indians.  Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole explains that the former “have heretofore been quiet and peaceable, disposed to acquire the arts of civilization, and in many instances, have adopted our costume and methods of gaining a livelihood.”  The latter, he says, are “wild and turbulent,” kept to their “savage customs,” and were guilty of depredations against the local white population.

The government in their distribution of the annuity provisions purposely exploited this rift.  The bulk of the goods went to the Farmer Indians as a reward, rather than being subject to an even distribution as the Dakota might have expected.  Favoritism was shown; indeed, Agent Galbraith made an issue of it: he told Little Crow that if he quit his leadership of the Blanket Indians he would build him a brick house.  According to the agent, Little Crow assented and work had started, with the Mdewakanton leader digging the cellar himself, when the war began.[7]

The rift, however, endangered those few willing to embrace white culture.  Superintendent Cullen’s 1860 report says of these differences,

The struggle which last year commenced between the improvement Indians and those who refused to relinquish their tribal customs and habits has been so severe, resulting in bloodshed and persecution by the uncivilized towards the improvement Indians, that was deemed advisable to station a company of United States troops at Yellow Medicine for the protection of the latter. The animosity has, in many instances, been carried to threats of entire annihilation of all who assumed the white man’s customs and garments.[8]

Agent Galbraith renewed the complaint in his 1861 report:

(A)ll sufficient force must be used to protect the “farmer Indians” from the hostile inroads of the still wild or “blanket Indians.” When it is taken into consideration that there are nearly seven thousand annuity Sioux in this agency, besides nearly, if not quite, an equal number of Yanctonais, and that not more than one hundred and twenty-five families have as yet either entirely or partially assumed the garb and habits of civilization, and that the rest of these people are for the most part actuated by all the bitterness of savage hostility to the civilization process, the necessity of sufficient available force to protect the farmers is too apparent for further comment…I will simply say that there is no available force now for this purpose, and that if such force is not provided the work of civilization must be greatly retarded if not abandoned.[9]

Examination of the records affords some insight into reservation life of the period.  We have records of the supplies issued to the Dakota on the reservations.  Each year the agent put in a budget; annuity money and hardware arrived each summer, and the work of turning Native Americans into whites went on.  According to the terms of the 1851 treaty, many white manufactured items were given to the Santee.  These included flour, pork, coffee and sugar, but also blankets, calico, flannel “Red, Blue and Gray mixed for shirting”, fish hooks, hoes, knives and axes.  This totaled $10,000 in value for each Upper and Lower agencies.[10]

Schools and blacksmith shops were built, and bark or hide lodges yielded to permanent frame or brick houses.  Commissioner of Indian Affairs A.B. Greenwood was full of praise in 1859 for this “remarkable revolution.”  He celebrates the efforts of Brown and Cullen, who through “good management and unremitting efforts” were bringing the Dakota around to white ways.[11] But this transformation did not happen overnight; indeed, it was not until 1859 that Mdewakanton leaders Wabashaw and Wacouta and about 100 of their people had their hair cut in the white man’s fashion.[12]

And change did not occur all over the reservation at the same rate.  The various Dakota bands did not proceed en masse to the reservation in 1853.  In 1855 Agent R.G. Murphy was complaining that part of the Mdewakanton and all of the Wahpekota bands had failed to come onto the reservation, and a year later Superintendent Huebschmann was still complaining about government tardiness in implementing civilizing measures among the Dakota.  He notes too that many Sisseton and Wahpeton “still distinctly refuse to come to the reserve.”[13]

When they did finally report, the agents found many of them uncooperative.  Superintendent Cullen reports in 1858 that the Lower Sioux were inclined to adopt white civilization but that the “Upper Se-see-toans are more intractable” and “partake to a great extent of the ungovernable character of these roaming Indians (the Yanktonais) whose livelihood is procured by the results of the chase.”  However, the Wahpeton and a few bands of Sisseton are “more inclined to planting and permanent residence.”[14]

Clearly the situation was far more complex than Bryan Fischer would let on, with varying degrees of support from the Dakota. This is unsurprising. As ethnologist Raymond Firth, in studying the effects of conversion from Paganism to Christianity observed, the conversion process is itself complex and gives host to a whole series of problems, including a sense of betrayal for moving away from (he calls it “desertion”) of the “traditional framework”. Bryan Fischer might know these things if he had bothered to educate himself before opening his mouth.[15]

Image information:

Map from Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS)

Big Eagle Photograph from Smithsonian Institution ( SIRIS)


[1]  For paternalism, see Francis Paul Prucha, The Indians in American Society (Berkeley, 1985), 1-27. For the origins of “facts on the ground” see David Rosen, “Searching for ‘Facts’ on the Ground” The Current (Fall 2007) http://www.columbia.edu/cu/current/articles/fall2007/searching-for-facts-on-the-ground.html

[2] RCIA (1853), 56. Report of W.A. Gorman dated 14 September 1853.

[3] RCIA (1854), 63. Report of R.G. Murphy dated 28 October 1854. Murphy, a Democrat, was Nathaniel McLean’s replacement and had previously served as agent in 1848-49. This scarcity of timber was also noted by naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who traveled on the riverboat Frank Steele up the Minnesota in 1861 and witnessed the annuity payments. Thoreau noted that at Redwood, they were “fairly on the great plains” and that walking south about three miles, he “could see no tree in that horizon.” See Walter Harding, ed. “Thoreau and Mann on the Minnesota River, June 1861″ in Minnesota History vol. 37, no. 6 (June 1961), 225-228.

[4] RCIA (1853), 56, 75. Report of R.G. Murphy dated 10 September 1853.

[5] RCIA (1859), 84. Report of J.R. Brown dated 10 September 1859. By 1863 the tone of these reports had changed, and it was popular to make it seem as though the Dakota had thumbed their noses at the choicest real estate available:  Superintendent Dole referred to the are as being “in point of fertility, healthful climate, excellence of timber and water…unsurpassed by any within our borders.” RCIA (1863), 31. Report of W.P. Dole dated 31 October 1863.

[6] “Big Eagle’s Account”, 21-27. John P. Williamson “The Pioneer Among the Sioux”, 99.  John was pastor of the Presbyterian church at Redwood before the war.

[7] RCIA (1863), 272. Report of T.J. Galbraith dated 27 January 1863. Wakefield, 9-10. See also “Big Eagle’s Account”, 26: “The farmers were favored by the government in every way…and they were not allowed to suffer.”

[8] RCIA (1860), 45. This was no idle threat, as shown by the Dakota battle cry in the war of 1862. Big Eagle says that the cry of the warriors was “kill the whites and kill all these cut-hairs who will not join us.” “Big Eagle’s Account”, 36.

[9] RCIA (1861), 89. Report of T.J. Galbraith dated 1 October 1861.

[10] Letters Received, Galbraith to Thompson, 15 August 1861.

[11] RCIA (1859), 11-12.  Report of A.B. Greenwood to Jacob Thompson, Secretary of the Interior, 26 November 1859.

[12] RCIA (1859), 67. Report of W.J. Cullen dated 15 August 1859. Wacouta was the leader of the Red Wing band of Mdewakanton and a member of the peace party. He had, however, great reservations about the treaty terms of 1851, being desirous of remaining in the Mississippi valley.

[13] RCIA (1855), 58. Report of R.G. Murphy dated 22 September 1855, and RCIA (1856), 37-38. Report of Francis Huebschman dated 15 October 1856.

[14] RCIA(1858), 38-39. Report of W.J. Cullen dated 28 September 1858.

[15] Raymond Firth, “Conversion from Paganism to Christianity,” RAIN 14 (May-Jun., 1976), 3-7.

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