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Land of the Dacotahs

My friend Molly Rozum is a Mitchell, South Dakota girl with a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. We got to talking about her dissertation there, which was a study of a group of people she calls “grassland grown.” These people, who were not the pioneers, but rather the children of the pioneers, grew up with the country and loved it. They were the generation who created “the Great Plains” as a region, a homeland, and a conception in American life.

Molly’s is a fascinating line of work, one that I had in mind when to my hand by fortunate purchase came a used copy of a regional classic, Land of the Dacatohs, by Bruce Nelson. Nelson was grassland grown. He was born in 1913 in Flaxton, North Dakota, where his boyhood experiences included both pitching bundles into the thresher and setting type for the Flaxton Times. After that he attended the University of North Dakota and became a newspaper reporter.

Bruce Nelson had a brother, Quintus, who was a basketball star at UND but was killed as a Marine in the Paulau Islands in 1945. Bruce did not serve in the war, I suspect for medical reasons.

Instead Bruce Nelson launched his career as an author with Land of the Dacatohs, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1946. The work showed terrific literary promise.

Nelson seemed destined to become a regional voice comparable to such mid-century contemporaries on the plains as Joseph Kinsey Howard of Montana or J. Frank Dobie of Texas. They all wrote what might be called creative nonfiction.

If you want to understand the state of mind on the northern plains a half-century ago, and how history and writers shaped that state of mind, then Bruce Nelson is your man. Land of the Dakotas is a history of the upper reaches of the Missouri River valley, essentially the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. It’s a nice piece of writing, but when you read works like this, you need to be aware of their implications. What writers like Nelson did was put people in their places.

Nelson loves the plains, and because he loves them, he wants to embrace them, possess them. This begins with what is known as “appropriation,” as signified by the title of the book. In his story the land of the Dacotahs, and even their very names, come into possession of the Anglo-Americans. First, then, there are “savages” to deal with. They were “valiant,” that is, worthy foes, but with the arrival of Europeans, their day was done.

That was because of what is known historically as the doctrine of “fatal contact”–the idea that all over the world, when Europeans entered the lands of peoples of color, the native peoples would perish, because they could not compete. This did not quite happen on the plains, for the natives survived and multiplied in the twentieth century. For that development Nelson, New Deal liberal that he was, had an explanation: the Indian policy reforms of the Roosevelt administration saved the Indians.

Moving on through time Nelson introduces French explorers, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry, the Nonpartisan League—a whole cavalcade of history, all leading up to the post-World War II situation. Nelson is an advocate of the Pick-Sloan Plan and, beyond that, a Missouri Valley Authority, similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Power and water from the Missouri River, he believed, would be the engines of regional renewal.

In the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies I found two documents. The first is a letter Nelson wrote in 1948, from a sanitarium. He was dying of tuberculosis. The second is his funeral notice, for he died on 10 November 1951. Land of the Dacotahs was his first and last book.

 

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