Plains Folk

Stories You Haven’t Heard Before


Sometimes I admire single-minded people capable of sustained focus. They seem to accomplish a lot by sticking to an agenda, methodically ticking things off. I do admire these people. And I hate them. Maybe hate is too strong a word. Maybe not.

For the rest of us, there is another way of bumbling our way into insights and accomplishments, which is to do a large number and great variety of things, over a long period of time, so that they begin to articulate and resonate one with another. If you’re lucky, the result is a mashup that exceeds the sum of the parts.

One of the parts to which I’ve given attention over past weeks is a series of public forums, sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council, on the lasting legacy of the Dakota War in Dakota Territory, reflecting on how the violent events of the early 1860s are significant to us today. Native scholars such as Tamara St. John, LaDonna Allard, and others, along with individuals attending the forums, have provided a marvelous re-education in how we might look at these destructive and formative events.

At the same time, I’ve been working through another senior seminar in History at NDSU, a research class devoted to the Dakota War, each student researching some episode or aspect of the conflict. As they bore deep, I have the advantage of reading all the studies, discussing them, and connecting them up to achieve understandings no individual could achieve alone. That’s the nature of a seminar, if it’s working right.

Then in early April I pushed aside other duties to compose, and then deliver, my presidential address for the annual meeting of the Western Social Science Association, in Denver, the Queen City of the Plains. This was an opportunity to inflict on a large group of professional peers my philosophical approach to doing prairie history, which has evolved over just about forty years of professional experience. The result was an address entitled, “Agency, Complexity, Memory: A Scholarship for Western Places.” I think it went pretty well, but then, I didn’t have to sit through it.

So all these things—the multiple conversations about the Dakota War, the big speech, and other things I may not even be aware are happening—are mashing up into a larger and revisionist view of what happened during the war that sprawled across the Dakota plains in 1862-64. And that one word, “agency,” is what is driving the new view. Here’s what I said in Denver about this philosophical approach to prairie history.

I am talking about the capacity of people and peoples to dream dreams, to make decisions, to act autonomously, and to live with the consequences as they navigate the passages of history. The scholar of agency rejects determinisms, environmental or any other kind. . . . History is constituted by the actions of people and peoples as they navigate, confront, or otherwise interact with such forces and with one another over time, making choices all along the way.

Over the years we have assumed that during the Dakota War, agency—the capacity to make history—lay with people like Henry H. Sibley and Alfred H. Sully, who are assumed to be exercising the initiative. Toggle the switch, and look again, and we find that instead, it was Dakota people who were exercising the initiative, who were making history in the 1860s. They just didn’t do so well about writing it down.

In coming weeks I’ll be telling some stories from the Dakota War, stories spangled across the landscape of Dakota Territory, stories with agency, told like you haven’t heard them before.

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