Friday, November 19, 2010

Imagine a time when women and men worked side-by-side in equality.

Picture a place where marriage across racial lines was a key to business success.

Envision a wilderness where kinship, friendship and mutual obligation were life’s governing forces.

You’re in Minnesota. And your guide back to the 17th and 18th centuries is Mary Wingerd, historian and storyteller.

The associate professor of history is the author of “North Country: The Making of Minnesota,” a book that describes nearly two centuries of cooperation, accommodation and peace among disparate peoples.

“It’s a central concept of the book that ideas about race are incredibly fluid and unfixed,” said Wingerd. “Remember, there were many, many people of mixed ancestry and people sorted one another out not by bloodline, but by how they dressed, what kind of customs they observed. It didn’t matter if they were European or African-American or Indian or of mixed ancestry – it was culture that counted.”

Fur trader George Bonga exemplifies how behavior, rather than skin color, defined identity. A descendant of Anglo-African slaves and Ojibwe Indians, Bonga famously declared he was one of the first “white men” to enter northern Minnesota.

Two centuries of full partnership in the fur trade provided Indian and mixed-blood women prestige and autonomy. “They acted as diplomatic ambassadors and cultural mediators and they performed essential labor for the family and the trade,” Wingerd writes.

Wingerd’s 449-page book, which hit bookshelves in May, was commissioned by the University of
Minnesota Foundation and published by University of Minnesota Press.

Production values, attention to Minnesota’s “third Indian tribe,” a more balanced viewpoint and a critique of Indian stereotypes are among the things that set Wingerd’s book apart from other Minnesota histories.

The beautifully appointed book has 155 illustrations/photos and 17 maps, many of them reproduced in color, some of them rarely seen in print. The University of Minnesota placed so much emphasis on this aspect of the book that it hired historian Kirsten Delegard to gather and extensively annotate the visual elements.

The Winnebago tribe, which was twice relocated to Minnesota reservations, is discussed at some length, a departure from the typical focus on the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes. For some of that discussion, Wingerd draws on the scholarship of retired St. Cloud State History Professor Ed Pluth, an expert on the tribe’s Long Prairie reservation and the failed Watab Treaty of 1853.

“North Country” avoids the Euro-American bias that characterizes most Minnesota history books. Witness Wingerd’s summary of the 1851 treaties that opened most of southern Minnesota for settlement: “[Alexander] Ramsey’s great project to open Minnesota had ended in a sorry spectacle of deceit, coercion, and promises broken almost before they were recorded.”

No American triumphalism here. Instead, Wingerd quotes fur trader Hercules Dousman: “The Sioux treaty will hang like a curse over our heads the balance of our lives.”

The prologue, epilogue and several illustrations analyze the Indian stereotypes that have dominated Minnesota popular culture and linger yet today. The Hamm’s beer jingle and the Land O’ Lakes Indian princess – icons of regional identity – are impeached as symbols of “an imagined history with little connection to the events that led to the making of modern Minnesota.”

Wingerd criticizes the “historically dissonant” Indian statues and Indian-named commercial establishments found throughout Minnesota, notably the Little Crow Country Club in Kandiyohi County, a golf course named for the assassinated Dakota spokesman and war leader whose scalp, skull and arm bones were museum artifacts through 1915.

The book ends with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a narrative that details the complete breakdown of Indian-white relations. Wingerd argues that the emergence in the early 19th century of full-blown capitalism – specifically the real-estate boom, logging and milling – extinguished the values that made the north country unique. Gone forever was the hybrid culture where kinship, friendship and mutual obligation blurred racial differences and tempered economic urges.

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