"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Friday, October 12, 2012

An Early History of Stanton

Image location

Welcome to Stanton - Population 350 (give or take a few dozen) - The county seat of Mercer County, North Dakota.

I arrived in this humble town in the spring of 2009 to begin a seasonal position as a park ranger at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.  Created by an act of Congress in 1974, the park preserves a series of Hidatsa Indian earthlodge village sites immediately north of town.

Over the course of three seasons, I learned much about the history of this place: the arrival of paleo-Indians, the development of agriculture, the lifestyle and culture of the Hidatsa people, the arrival of white traders and explorers, the trauma of smallpox, the abandonment of the villages.

But I never learned much about the history after the abandonment of the last traditional earthlodge village in 1862 until this past summer.  Hearing anecdotal stories of local residents digging for artifacts in the Indian Villages and uncovering human remains while simultaneously staging pageants that celebrated the local indigenous history, I was inspired to dig deep into the more recent history of this place.  The history of Stanton, North Dakota.

(For a more thorough background of the indigenous history of Stanton, check out the Knife River Indian Villages website- http://www.nps.gov/knri/historyculture/index.htm)

Once Abandoned, Never Forgotten

The rich bottomlands at the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers supported a unique semi-sedentary agricultural lifestyle for hundreds of years.  The Hidatsa Indians flourished in the region building permanent earthlodge villages with populations in the thousands.  They traded over vast distances and amassed power, wealth, and influence over a wide swath of what is today the state of North Dakota.

After a century of contact with white traders, explorers, and artists, the last group of Hidatsa left their aboriginal homeland in 1845.  The dual impacts of disease and warfare had decimated their numbers and forced this move forty miles upriver.  There they founded Like-a-Fishhook village, their last traditional earthlodge village.  Two other sedentary tribes, the Mandan and Arikara, left the Knife River area as late as 1862 to join the Hidatsa at Like-a-Fishhook.

Only twenty years later on December 4, 1882, Thomas and James McGrath settled near the Knife River and opened a post office that they promptly named after their mother.  With this simple action, the town of Stanton was born.

But the former residents of this area were not truly gone.  Their centuries long existence on the land left deep marks in the local geography.

(c) National Park Service
Many a settler found an odd piece of land on their property that might appear strange to modern eyes but they knew exactly what it was.  It was an Indian Village or more often the "Indian mounds" as they referred to them.  Fully aware that they were settling on recently emptied land and not empty land, these first settlers nonetheless moved forward and scraped a hard living out of the land.

And the history of this place was also born out of the everyday encounter between settler and Indian.  The Hidatsa had only ever moved forty miles up the river onto land that eventually was designated the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

But a reservation boundary is a poor barrier for a people accustomed to traveling to hunt, trade, and socialize.  As early settler David Juzeler remembered in a 1930s interview:

"The native inhabitants, the Indians, of course, were here.  They stayed away from the settlers.  However, they did go to Hebron and enroute camped on Spring Creek near Juzelers and near Walkers on the Knife River."

Another early settler, Henry Hovdet hints at the tense relationship between the communities:

"Indians on the Fort Berthold Reservation were very friendly towards the white men and would do nothing to harm them if they were treated right.  And all the white men gave in to the Indians in order that they might get along without trouble."

Gottlieb Heihn gives us an example of this process at work:

"in november 1898 a wagon load of indians were caught in a snow storm coming from Hebron, one of their horses played out and died one half mile west of the homestead, and the indians came to the Heihn place for shelter, they stayed in the barn with the horses and cattle for two days and nights, till the blizzard let up so that they could travel, Mr. Heihn gave them one of his horses so they could get home which was still about fifteen miles north to the reservation, they returned the horse the following week, and to show their appreciation the Heihn's were presented with a big piece of frozen deer meat, and an indian made a shawl for Mrs. Heihn and they thanked the Heihn's many times for the use of the horses."

But encounters were not always rosy.  Take the case of August Borner:

"one day Mr. Borner left his file at one end of the field while making around and a couple of Indians riding by on horseback thought this file might be useful to them, so they picked it up and took it with them.  As was customary with pioneers in those days Mr. Borner carried a gun with him... Mr. Borner thought the only way to get his file back was at the point of a gun.  So after them he went, but as he reached the top of the hill and looked over he saw there were more than just two Indians.  There were about twelve or fifteen tepees, so Mr. Borner thought it better to lose a little file than to maybe lose his scalp."

In essence, these two communities, one indigenous and one recently arrived, were fully aware of the other.  Whether you lived on the reservation boundary, amid the remains of a village site, or tucked away in some remote homestead, the indigenous history of this area was still very much an indigenous reality.

The Turn toward History

But something began to change in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The indigenous history of Stanton was put to use.  Not to commemorate or educate but simply to boost.

At the North Dakota State Industrial Exposition in 1911, Mercer County declared itself "Majestic Mercer."  Stanton Commerical Club secretary C. F. Schweigert set up a booth full of vegetables and grains he had personally driven 70 miles overland from Stanton to Bismarck, the state capital.

The showpiece of the booth was the corn.  As The Bismarck Tribune wrote: "Majestic Mercer's long suit seems to be corn and judging from the entries made, some of the big corn prizes will go west of the Big Muddy to the banks of the Knife."

Left-Click on the image and then Right-Click to select View Image to read the whole article excerpted below

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, The Bismarck Tribune, and The Fargo Forum all reported on the Majestic Mercer booth and what they report is practically an identical history of corn in Mercer County.

St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"In this country corn was raised in 1805.  That is 106 years ago there was corn growing on land which is now part of Mercer County.  Lewis and Clarke (sic) in their expedition to the Pacific coast record that they bought corn of Indians... Later visitors to the Mandan Indians in that vicinity report corn, and it has been developed during the 26 years white men have been there, until it is a well known variety.  This year fully 1,500 acres of corn has been raised there, running 25 to 50 bushels to the acre."

The Bismarck Tribune:

"It is not generally known that corn was raised successfully in the Missouri valley long before the white man came to Dakota.  The explorers Lewis and Clark found a goodly supply of corn as the Ree and Mandan villages at Stnaton as early as 1805.  For many years thereafter these villages supplied the trappers and traders with corn.  One of our present varieties known as "Mercer" is the improved Ree or Squaw corn."

The Fargo Forum:

 "No one knows when corn was first raised in Mercer county, but history records the fact that the Mandan Indians cultivated it years before the famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, visited their villages which were located near Stanton... Again we hear of corn raising in Mercer county through Catlin who visited the Indian villages near Stanton in 1832... It was not until 1880 that the first white families came to Mercer County; whom was Edward Heinemeyer... [He] made a special effort to raise corn the first year, but did not succeed until he had secured seed from the Mandan Indians... That crop was the foundation crop of the variety known as "Mercer Flint."  Today, after twenty-seven years of experimenting and improving this variety, Mr. Heinemeyer has a corn that can compete with any corn grown in this state as to size and quality."

What does this all mean?  Considering all these articles give a near identical take on the history of corn in Mercer County and the reporters are unlikely to have such a thorough and intimate knowledge of this history, I am confident all this information came form the Majestic Mercer booth itself.

This means residents of Mercer County were not only aware of the long history of interaction between natives and non-natives but saw themselves as directly connected to that history in 1911. 

After all, famed explorers Lewis and Clark found corn growing at the villages in 1805 and Edward Heinemeyer who pioneered the modern variety of "Mercer Flint" was still living in Stanton in 1911.

But here is the funny thing.  Most of the settlers of Mercer County were not only newcomers to the county, they were newcomers to the continent!

Edward Heinemeyer was born in Buckeberg, Germany.  Another early pioneer of Mercer County, August Borner, was born in Berlin, Germany.  Even C. F. Schweigert who set up the Majestic Mercer booth had only arrived in the United States in 1900 from Germany.

How much did a German immigrant in the 1880s or 1890s really have in common with earlier arrivals in the Knife River area like Lewis and Clark or George Catlin?  And why then was there a concerted effort to talk up the unique history of this area, especially Lewis and Clark?

This is just the first of several prominent examples of both the settler population and the Three Affiliated Tribes specifically drawing upon the earlier history of this area.  They did it for different reasons at different times but one thing is for sure.  History matters, but the power to write, revise, and make true a history is what truly matters.

Note: The pioneer quotes are from The Pioneer Biography Files (Series 30529) courtesy the State Historical Society of North Dakota

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Photos

"You will excuse me if I say that the members of the tribal council will sign this contract with heavy hearts.  With a few scratches of the pen, we will sell the best part of the reservation.  Right now the future does not look too good for us."

- George Gillette, Chairman of the Tribal Business Council of the Three Affiliated Tribes upon the signing of legislation that handed 152,360 acres of reservation land over to the Army Corps of Engineers to be inundated by the reservoir of the Garrison Dam

George Gillette covers his face as the legislation is signed. AP Photo - May 20, 1948

With a simple stroke of a pen, life changed forever for the Three Affiliated Tribes.  The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people had all moved up the Missouri River, farming the rich soil of the river bottoms and hunting bison as they went.  The dual impact of disease and warfare decimated these three communities but also brought them together in the nineteenth century.  From these pieces, they built a prosperous life on the Fort Berthold Reservation in northwest North Dakota.  It was a model of Native self-sufficiency and cultural strength.

The Three Tribes bent but they did not break.

That began to change in 1944.  The Flood Control Act of that year called for a massive series of dams to conserve, control, and make useful the waters of the Missouri River Basin.  The Army Corps of Engineers drew up plans for Garrison Dam, a massive earth filled dam immediately downriver from the Reservation.  The Three Tribes voiced their opposition, petitioned for a different plan, but the tide of progress and bureaucratic machinery was simply too much.

On May 20, 1948, the Three Tribes accepted an agreement that no one liked.  Ninety percent of the population on the Reservation would have to relocate away from the river.  Entire towns would be lost.  All of the good farming land and timber resources would be underwater.  And their emotional and spiritual ties to the Missouri River would be severely tested.

Even Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug admitted "This contract does not cover what these people have lost and further action is needed."  Further action would indeed come but not until long after an entire community was physically, culturally, and spiritually uprooted.

But just downriver things were a little different...

"Lewis and Clark Pageant Cast" Hazen Star - February 24, 1955
The town of Stanton, North Dakota was booming.  The construction of Garrison Dam brought much needed jobs and money to this modest farming and ranching community.  New businesses opened on main street and residents enjoyed a quality of life they had never experienced.  The future looked very good for Stanton.

The town began its life like many other small North Dakota towns.  Mainly German immigrants arrived via the Northern Pacific Railway to claim their individual 160 acre homesteads on the vast prairie of Dakota Territory.  Some of these settled in a wooded area at the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers and named it Stanton in 1882.

But the town of Stanton is different.  These immigrants did not actually settle the land but in fact re-settled the land.  Immediately outside the city boundary stand the remains of half a dozen Mandan and Hidatsa village sites.  It marks the last place they lived before their move onto the Fort Berthold Reservation.

For the "re-settlers" of this area, it was famous for another reason.  Lewis and Clark, the pioneering explorers of a young American nation, spent the winter of 1804-1805 just downriver from the Indian villages.  They traded and talked diplomacy and sought assistance for their journey ahead.  They met Sakakawea (Sacajawea), a young Shoshone girl who in the next century and a half would become a figure so mired in myth, legend, and downright fantasy, that an honest appraisal of her life is a task fraught with controversy.

But in 1955, any controversy was set aside to celebrate and commemorate this local heroine and the Indians who helped these explorers.  The Lewis and Clark Pageant was a community production.  Men and women, young and old sewed costumes, painted backdrops, and rehearsed their roles as Indians and explorers.  It was an opportunity to experience a simpler time, as pageant director Edith Janssen wrote:

"One hundred and fifty years ago the Indians trod the soil where Stanton now stands.  They had no worries of taxes, income tax due next March; Bank accounts; Gasoline bills; H Bombs or the new school to be paid for.  They had no woes of civilization.  They reaped good harvests, as the soil was very rich.  Hunting and fishing was excellent and the river water pure.  They were content."

On their own, such comments can appear detached or naive.  In light of the tragedy the Three Affiliated Tribes just experienced with the Garrison Dam, they are ironic, even cruel.

But this is not simply a story of cultural appropriation or Native injustice.  History is always more complicated.  The relationship between the Three Affiliated Tribes and the community of Stanton is marked as much by friendship and generosity as by indifference or naivete.

Over the next several months, I will be exploring the relationship of these two distinct communities.  I will touch on race, gender, representation, historical memory, land issues, authenticity, colonialism, and cultural sovereignty.  I do not know exactly where this journey will take me, but I encourage you to join me and find out.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Canada... It's Different Here

So after a long absence from the blogging world, I have decided to return and embark on a new project in the wide world of indigenous appropriation and representation.

But first, the absence.  Just over a year ago, I moved to the beautiful city of Vancouver, British Columbia but not for the scenery or the recreation or the culture.  I arrived to better understand what I have been doing on this blog over these past three years.

I am currently pursuing a Master's Degree in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia.  After a year of coursework and a summer of research, I am finally writing my thesis but more on that later...

...because I wanna talk about CANADA!

beavers and mounties and maple leafs oh my!!!

Canada really is a different place.  People queue up in perfectly straight lines to get on the bus.  The road signs are in something called "kilometers per hour."  The money comes in funny colors other than green.

And there is subversive indigenous pop art on every street corner!

Wait... what?

You read that right.  Subversive indigenous pop art.  How else can you describe the above sign that skewers the colonial power structure with its blunt reminder that some people living here are indeed guests.  This is just one of a series of signs located on the University of British Columbia campus.  Every one includes the name of a different indigenous community serving as host.

Or perhaps you'd prefer something with a little more pop...

Enjoy Coast Salish Territory by Sonny Assu

Indigenous artists like Sonny Assu may use humor in their work but they have not forgotten one thing- indigenous issues are serious business here in Canada, especially in British Columbia.  The recent protests by the Musqueam over a construction site located on burial grounds is only the latest example.

As an American from the Midwest, it is especially jarring.  Where I come from, Native people are most visible as mascots, monuments, and media figures but the situation is really no different than in British Columbia.  Native communities and cultures in the United States are still around and acting as host in the city, in the country, really everywhere.

So like so many things, it all comes down to a matter of perception.  Making some people, places, things invisible when they are in fact staring you right in the face.  And this is by no means a recent phenomenon.

Over the next many months, I will be using this blog as a medium to explore this issues of memory and representation.  My research takes me to the state of North Dakota and I would like to extend a hearty welcome to anyone who wants to join me on this journey.  As always, I welcome all feedback as it will only make me think harder and write better.

Till then, I would like to leave you with an image to be explored later:

State Historical Society of North Dakota (2011-P-011-01)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!

I hope everyone has an awesome Indigenous Peoples Day.  It only seems like yesterday that our pioneer ancestors landed on the shores of BabaKiueria and learned to peacefully coexist with the local pale-skinned population.



Thursday, July 7, 2011

Reel Injun and other Native Responses to "Indians" in Mass Media

Reel Injun is a new documentary film that explores the phenomenon of the Hollywood Indian. For over 100 years, Indigenous North Americans have appeared in more than 4000 films.  Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond explores the many depictions of Indians on celluloid and its impact on every filmgoer's understanding or misunderstanding of Native people.

I caught an abbreviated hour long version of Reel Injun on Independent Lens- the award-winning public television series that highlights new drama and documentary films.  I was very impressed with the film and its humorous and poignant insights into the Hollywood Indian.

The most impressive part of the film is its portrayal of Native actors and filmmakers in the earliest days of cinema.  From the silent era through the first talking films, Native people had a surprisingly active role in film production.  It seems only when the studio system became dominant that real Native people took a backseat role (if not wholly disappeared).

Reel Injun proves that one of the most effective ways to examine and question Indigenous depictions in mass media is with mass media itself!  And so long as there have been these Indigenous depictions, so have there been Indigenous people ready to counter them.  Here are a few of those:

Eska Water's new ad campaign: "Eskan Warriors"

Mohawk activist Clifton Nicholas expresses his dismay over a new ad campaign for Eska Water.  It depicts a fictional band of "Eskan Warriors."  According to Nicholas, these ads depict a negative portrayal of Native people even if it is a fictional generic "Native" group.

Time for "THE INDIANS SHOWBAND" to retire!

The Irish showband "The Indians" who perform in stereotypical Indian garb and perform songs like Wigwam Wiggle and Squaws along the Yukon have met their match online.  A protest group on facebook is calling for the group to retire saying they make a mockery of native culture through their stereotypical representation of Native Americans.

Here's Wigwam Wiggle:

AIM Santa Barbara takes on The Dudesons

Way back in May 2010, I broke the story about the new MTV show The Dudesons and their tasteless depiction of American Indian culture in the episode Cowboys and Findians.  Here is part one of a three part series of young AIM activists discussing their concerns about The Dudesons.

Ask an Indian: Cultural Appropriation

Simon Moya-Smith is an Oglala Lakota Sioux journalist and activist who describes himself as a "rug lifter" trying to reveal the many American Indian issues swept under the rug.  He blogs over at http://iamnotamascot.blogspot.com/ where his passionate commentary is always good for a hearty laugh and thoughtful reflection.  Here he is decrying Native appropriation while window shopping.

The Stream - Don't Trend on My Culture - Adrienne Keene

Adrienne Keene is a Cherokee blogger and activist who analyzes a constant stream of Native cultural appropriation over at her blog http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/.  Thanks to her prodigious efforts at tracking this phenomenon, she is making appearances in more mainstream media such as this interview on The Stream on Al Jazeera English.

Dr. Greene's AB-original Pain Reliever

And finally here is Oneida actor Graham Greene with a humorous take on Native appropriation in marketing.  Enjoy!

Additional reading:

Reel Injun Discussion Guide

Hollywood's Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor.  University of Kentucky Press (2003).

From Drawing on Indians:

Drawing on Indians: The Wacky World of TV Tropes

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggle