Manitoba History: Review: Peter Douglas Elias, The Dakota of the Canadian Northwest: Lessons for Survival

by Sarah Carter
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Peter Douglas Elias. The Dakota of the Canadian Northwest: Lessons for Survival. Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1988. Manitoba Studies in Native History vol. V, 262 pp. ISBN 0-88755-142-4.

The Dakota of the Canadian Northwest is an innovative study as it is the first to examine in-depth the history of any group of reserve Indians in the settlement period on the prairies. The approach is unique in its emphasis on Dakota ambitions, strategies and initiatives. Most studies to date dwell more on Ottawa-centered policy than on Indian responses. Elias argues that the Dakota proved remarkably versatile in adapting to the environment of the North-west, developing strategies well-suited to prevailing local conditions. The Dakota were not passive and impotent, rather they took action, drawing upon their economic and diplomatic talents and developing new skills. It may sound condescending to point this out with respect to any group of people, but it is an important corrective to the perception that Indians degenerated and declined during the settlement period, resisting agriculture and market relations in favour of government rations and “hand-outs.” This is the sort of ground-breaking work that paves the way for more elaborative, comparative studies that might examine Indian history in relation to that of other group settlements, that look at how the Indian experience can contribute to the history of the West, or that compare the histories of Canadian, American and other Native people.

The strongest chapters are those which describe the economic histories of the Dakota bands. Much of the book is devoted to the farming bands at Oak River, Birdtail and Oak Lake in Manitoba. These bands organized their labour force with a degree of task emphasis in order to take advantage of all contingencies, to widen their subsistence base while maximizing food production. The most capable farmers remained regularly on the reserves, while those best equipped in the way of wagons, snares, nets and ammunition led expeditions off-reserve to hunt, fish, trap and gather. Products were shared communally and labour was performed on behalf of the whole community. The Dakota proved economically flexible, producing for domestic use as well as for sale and also working as wage labourers. They readily incorporated new ideas, methods and technology. In the 1890s the interference of government policy nullified the Dakota’s economic strategy, as the sale of products was regulated, the use of credit suppressed, the land sub-divided, leadership imposed, and movement off the reserve strictly monitored. An attrition in the number of farmers began as households turned to other economic strategies. The Turtle Mountain Dakota maintained an economy based upon hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Through the sustained efforts of the Indian department the band was gradually dispersed and a surrender of the reserve was obtained in 1909. In Saskatchewan the Standing Buffalo and White Cap bands worked for wages and raised cattle although in both cases the cattle industry was eventually undermined through the loss of hay land. The Dakota bands near Portage la Prairie and Prince Albert established a lifestyle based upon the sale of their labour in towns and neighbouring farms.

It is odd that the Tetonwon band that settled on the Wood Mountain reserve in southwestern Saskatchewan is not included in the book. These people originally arrived with Sitting Bull in 1876 and it is perhaps because of this distinct migration that they are not included. No reasons, however, are given for their exclusion.

This study originated as two weighty manuscripts prepared for the Dakota bands. The early chapters most clearly betray its origins. Elias wishes to show that the Dakota have a legitimate claim to “aboriginal and diplomatic rights” in Canada. The issues he chooses to dwell upon in the introductory chapters are to a great extent influenced by this concern rather than by what might best inform the average reader about the Dakota. Elias focuses on the archaeological evidence for a Dakota presence in Canada, and argues that they pre-dated the Cree and Ojibway in present-day western Ontario and eastern Manitoba, withdrawing only in the late eighteenth century. The author presents much evidence that the Dakota were always firmly allied with the British and refused allegiance to the Americans. Many pages are devoted to the Dakota participation in the War of 1812, in return for which the British promised to protect Dakota rights in the Crown’s realm.

Elias provides convincing evidence in support of these claims, and they are important to point out, but an introduction to the Canadian Dakota might have elaborated on other aspects of their history, culture and economy. There is little description for example of the different branches of the Dakota. The preface does not adequately explain terms like “Isantee,” “Ihanktonwori’and “M’dewakontonwori” which are used frequently and might be a source of great confusion to non-Dakotas and non-specialists. Little reference is made to the Dakota’s long-standing enmity with the Indians and Métis of Manitoba. Dakota-Métis relations were most clearly epitomized in the 1851 Battle of Grand Coteau, which is not mentioned. Only a few vague sentences are devoted to the 1862 events in Minnesota which led to the long trek to the north. Readers are told that the Dakota “rose with their guns, bows, arrows and axes to reclaim their own lives and land” (p. 17). This might be bewildering to readers unfamiliar with Dakota history, leaving it a mystery exactly why refuge was sought in Canada. Some comprehension of the events of 1862 is critical to an understanding of the reactions of all parties involved, including the Dakota, British and American authorities, and the inhabitants of Red River. The author leaves himself vulnerable to the criticism of glossing over events that might not place the Dakota in a favourable light.

Lacking in this study is any effort to place the Dakota experience in some context by looking at the broader picture of government Indian policy and administration. There is no sense of how distinct, unique or commonplace the Dakota experience was. The dispersal and surrender of the Turtle Mountain band for example was not an isolated incident. It was department policy to facilitate surrender. Hayter Reed believed that if bands could be cajoled into “abandoning” their reserves the land could be sold without formal surrender or compensation to the Indians. The White Cap reserve on the other hand reveals a rare ex-ample of Indian land actually increasing in size from 1886-1898 to accommodate more hay land. The publications, theses and claims research on policy and prairie Indians that have appeared in the last decade could have lent this work some broader perspective. Elias, however, does not include one secondary source on Indian policy or western Indians, nor for that matter does he mention the use of any secondary works on prairie history or economy after the fur trade. The Dakota have received more attention from historians and anthropologists than any other group of prairie Indians yet no mention is made of any of these works. It is unfortunate that a bibliography was not included to make up for deficiencies in the footnotes.

With greater attention to a wider perspective generalizations like this could have been avoided: “American traders carried whiskey into British territory, massacring Indians who tried to keep them out of their lands” (p. 37). This could scarcely be described as a widespread phenomena. Smaller errors might also have been prevented. Indian agent Lawrence Herchmer, for example, is described as “a political appointee, his brother being the commissioner of the North West Mounted Police” (p. 64). It was Lawrence Herchmer himself who eventually became commissioner of the police.

Although hopes of tribal history augmenting the documentary sources are raised in the preface, there is little evidence of the use of oral testimony in the text. The study is based mainly on the records of the department of Indian Affairs. In using these files a tendency to present every telegram, letter, and order-in-council must be carefully guarded against, a tendency that is at times evident here. The lengthy bloc quotations require a magnifying glass to decipher. It is unfortunate that this style of writing may make the book inaccessible to the wide audience that it deserves.