Promised land

Trendy ‘land acknowledgments’ distort more history than they claim to be revealing.

Are you and your family living on “stolen land”? The “land acknowledgments” we see everywhere say yes. Today, many government bodies, cultural institutions, and universities routinely claim that Minnesota’s current residents are here illegally — unjustly exploiting land that rightfully belongs to the Dakota people.

The city of Northfield, for example, declares that it “stands” on Dakota homelands and acknowledges “the ongoing injustices that we have committed.” Hennepin County states that it “occupies” what has been the “indigenous homeland of the Dakota Nation” “for millennia.”

The Minnesota Opera recognizes its “occupation” of land of “great…significance to Dakota people” and deplores the “unjust seizure of their lands.” The Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis apologizes for benefiting from “systems that have hoarded power and marginalized Indigenous Nations.” The University of St. Thomas avows that it “occupies the ancestral and current homelands of the Dakota people”; condemns “the tools of settler colonialism” undertaken “in the name of white supremacy”; and recognizes other tribes “whose lands were colonized by the United States and are currently occupied by the state of Minnesota.”

Typically, land acknowledgments are read aloud before a government meeting or preceding an event such as a play or a university commencement. All in attendance are expected to hang their heads in a ritual public confession of guilt.

But wait. Why don’t land acknowledgments ask the obvious follow-up question: How did the Dakota themselves come to occupy the land where the Twin Cities now stand? These statements promote a simplistic “good guy/bad guy narrative” of greedy, immoral settlers versus virtuous, long-suffering Native Americans, but the historical record tells a different, more complex story.

Three central facts illustrate the egregious double standards at work here.

First, the Dakota arrived in southern Minnesota — not “millennia” ago, but just a few generations before the U.S. military came in 1805. They fled here around 1700 after the Ojibwe, their traditional bitter enemies, drove them from their villages at Mille Lacs. The Iowa and Otoe tribes were hunting here then, but the Dakota did not negotiate with or compensate them. Instead, they killed or expelled them.

This pattern of conquest and migration was typical of North America at the time, as it has been across much of the world throughout history. Tribal boundaries were continually fluid, thanks to near-constant warfare, feuding, and enslavement.

The Dakota were particularly warlike, according to several 19th-century observers. Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer and ethnographer, wrote of their “predominant passion for war.” Indeed, in the first half of the 19th century, “warfare” was “the most salient feature of aboriginal life,” as Theresa Schenck explained in her 2009 introduction to William Warren’s 1885 History of the Ojibwe People.

When the U.S. military arrived here, Schenck writes, “not only had the Ojibwe-Dakota conflict extended over two hundred years, it was still going on, much to the horror of the newcomers to Minnesota Territory.” Between 1820 and 1831, U.S. officials held at least 200 peace councils between the feuding Dakota and Ojibwe at Fort Snelling in an effort to curb the bloodshed, doubtless helping to save many Dakota and Ojibwe lives in the process.

Warfare was brutal. Dakota warriors killed men, women, and children indiscriminately, and scalping was ingrained in their culture. When men were scalped, the skin of the cheeks and chin was also taken, with ears attached. Warriors paraded these trophies around to cheers of the women, and scalp dances could last for weeks as they traveled from village to village.

An account by early settler Charlotte Clark Van Cleve, daughter of a military officer, of an 1827 Ojibwe reprisal for a previous Dakota attack conveys the bloody nature of Dakota-Ojibwe warfare. Men “tear off the scalps, and hand them to the chief, who hangs them around his neck,” she wrote. “Women and children with tomahawks and knives, cut deep gashes in the poor dead bodies, and scoo[p] up the hot blood with their hands….,” before the “mutilated” bodies are “thrown over the bluff into the river.”

Whites who witnessed such behavior were understandably revolted by it, and it was one reason they sometimes referred to Native Americans as “savages.”

The second problem with land acknowledgments is that they fail to convey how different the concept of “land possession” was at the time of settlement. Vast expanses of the 35 million acres the Dakota sold in the 1851 Mendota and Traverse des Sioux treaties (basically the southern half of the state) were essentially uninhabited.

An estimated 7,000 Dakota lived there at the time, according to Making Minnesota Territory, 1849-58, edited by A.R. Kaplan and M. Ziebarth. However, the Dakota actually occupied only a small part of that land because they lived mostly by rivers and other water sources and roamed out only occasionally over any particular portion of the woods and prairies to hunt. This translates to a population density of 8.4 square miles per individual Dakota, or about 34 square miles per household of four.

The settlers who homesteaded there, many of whom were fleeing oppression or privation in Europe, bought the land in good faith from the federal government and can in no way be assigned moral blame for doing so.

Third, land acknowledgments accuse the U.S. government of injustice, but fail to inform their audiences that, in 1946, Congress established an Indian Claims Commission that meticulously examined tribal claims and grievances from across the nation. In the decades-long process that followed, the commission had “great latitude” to render “moral judgments” wherever it detected “earmarks of overreaching and unfair play.”

The Dakota filed claims involving millions of acres, which included land on which Minneapolis and St. Paul arose. In the end, the U.S. government paid tribal members, and non-enrolled lineal descendants, millions of dollars in numerous payments that extended well into the 21st century. This was in addition to all the compensation the Dakota received pursuant to treaties prior to 1863 and other money they received after 1863.

In accepting the Commission’s final judgments, the Dakota agreed those judgments would “dispose of all rights, claims or demands, which the claimants have asserted, or could have asserted, with respect to the subject matter of the cases.” Today, activists who promote land acknowledgments behave as if this comprehensive judicial resolution never took place.

Land acknowledgments fail to “acknowledge” many other important facts. These include the complex story of the European-American encounter with the New World, which brought 5,000 years of technological advances from which indigenous people here had been cut off.

At the time of settlement, for example, the Dakota were essentially subsistence hunter-gatherers, and often faced famine and death in harsh Minnesota winters. Traders and Native agents supplied them with goods they eagerly sought — metal traps, axes, guns, and knives that helped them survive. Missionaries created a written language for them, and government officials assisted with agriculture to help them achieve food security.

Today, the Dakota — most of whom now share European heritage through intermarriage — profit greatly from the contemporary advantages we all take for granted. These range from electricity and indoor plumbing to higher education and modern medicine.

The next time you’re asked to publicly pledge allegiance to the “stolen land” narrative, it would be advisable to ask if you and others in the audience have the information necessary to assess the credibility of the politically charged claims behind it.