Encounter on the Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890–1930

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Media Reviews

encounter-on-great-plainsBy Karen V. Hansen
Oxford University Press (2013)
332 pages

Review by John Peacock

Karen Hansen spent 15 years researching how the Dakotas lost land and how Scandinavians—including her own Norwegian great-grandmother— acquired it on the Devils Lake Sioux (now Spirit Lake Dakota) reservation. She collected 30 oral histories from those raised there or nearby, including five from her own extended kin network and seven from Dakota elders. She researched 128 oral histories recorded over 40 years ago, as well as seven taken in 1993 from former students of the reservation’s Fort Totten Indian School. Some informants, such as my own Dakota relative Grace Lambert, were brutally candid about their ancestors’ dispossession at the hands of Scandinavian settlers—a subject that others, according to elder Eunice Davidson, avoided either as a way to coexist with non-Natives or simply because it was too painful to discuss.

Hansen sympathizes with both the candid and the reticent. In so doing, she raises but fails to answer an important question about the “vast silence” of those in Indian boarding schools who were isolated from family, culture, and language: Didn’t being punished for speaking or otherwise expressing themselves as Dakota condition them to coexist with non-Natives? Hansen regrets that this coexistence was often painful, but, as a descendant of the Scandinavian settlers, she respects it as a joint achievement of the two peoples.

She says nothing about the relationship between the cultural silence forced upon boarding school students and the silence that characterized many of their lives afterwards. My grandmother sold her allotment and removed her eight children from the reservation after a teacher at the Fort Totten Indian School sexually assaulted one son. He never spoke about what happened to him until he was on his deathbed, following a lifetime of alcoholism. My mother, only three when the family moved to the Jim Crow South, was raised never to tell anyone she was Dakota. I didn’t know I was Dakota until the age of 47. Our silence—passed on by parents to children who grew up not knowing who they were— was not part of a strategy to coexist on the reservation with non- Natives. To the contrary, it resulted from no longer being able to bear coexisting with them, there or in the South during the first half of the 20th century. We became White. When we return, some of our relatives don’t want to recognize, speak, or coexist with us. If Hansen interviewed any former Devils Lake or Spirit Lake Sioux, she is silent about it.

John Peacock, Ph.D. (Dakota), is a professor of Native American studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

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