The Red River Valley's First Citizens

by

Marilyn Weir

Senior High Division

 

When people talk about how long men have inhabited NorthwesternMinnesota, they often say approximately for the last three hundred years.They are obviously leaving out an entire race of people that preceded thewhite man by thousands of years. These first citizens were the AmericanIndians.

It is hard to narrow it down to one tribe of Indians thatinhabited one certain section of the state. The red men were wanderers thatconstantly roamed around. They moved from place to place to keep up withthe growing seasons for their crops, game to hunt food, the warmer weatherto keep from freezing to death. These periodic movements were necessaryif they wished to survive any length of time in Minnesota. But the two maingroups were the Sioux (or Dakota) and the Chippewa (or Ojibway).

The Chippewa tribe inhabited the entire northern half ofthe state including the forest and lake region. Their name means "roastuntil puckered." This is in the Algonquin language. It is believedthey migrated across the border area extending along the northern UnitedStates. Along the way, they encountered many hardships that always forcedthem to move on and find better things. Finally, they came to the Superior-Wisconsinarea. It was here they decided to stay. In the northern forest country ofMinnesota they found berry patches, maple groves, and other materials theyneeded to survive. This would have been an ideal place for them to settlesince the life in the forest was the only one they'd ever known, since theyhad never formed a home on the plains. They were experts in the skills ofmaking maple sugar and just generally making the most of living in the shelterof trees. By characteristic, they were quiet, dignified people who taughttheir children domestic chores. All little girls must learn to cook, keepup a garden, and do all the little odd jobs around the wigwam. By the sametoken, the boys had to learn to hunt and take care of a family. Every personin the tribe was a firm believer in the Spirit World and Kitchi Manitou,their God.

But the Sioux were almost the exact opposite. they arethe people that inhabited the Red River Valley so this account will dealprimarily with them. They were tall, warlike, and very athletic. The westernson television and in the moves show Indians very closely to the way theMinnesota Sioux lived. They built pointed tents to live in, fought withbow and arrows, hunted buffalo, and were expert horsemen. With that closeof a comparison, a lot of people think that all Indians lived like the MinnesotaSioux. The French traders were a big factor in the power of the Sioux. Theyfurnished the guns and ammunition to sophisticate their war tactics. Onething few people know is that there were also several black traders whoaccompanied their white companions to the Red River Valley. It must havebeen quite unusual at that time to see three races working together in thetrading business..

The Sioux had originally lived in the forests of Lake Superiorbut gradually moved westward, just like the Chippewa. By the late 1700's,all the Sioux were living in the area taken in by the eastern Red RiverValley out to the Missouri River. This takes in the area of eastern NorthDakota and western Minnesota. Their life style here was naturally differentfrom what they were accustomed to. Here there were no trees - just wideopen prairie covered with snow and offering no shelter from anything. Theonly place here that shelter was available was in the trees that surroundeda river. This probably explains why so many tribes went to the area aroundthe Red River. Here there was more shelter and food accessible. The maintribe of the specific Valley region was the Yanktons, a division of theMiddle Sioux group. It might be easiest to describe their way of life byrunning through an entire year and seeing what they did to cope with eachseason.

When the spring came, they moved out to the summer camp.Once here, they began to attend to their vegetable gardens. The women grewcorn and numerous other vegetables that could be dried and preserved forwinter. The men hunted every day. It was very important to get enough meatto last through the winter. On the hunt, each band took along their horsesfor extra speed and to pull the buffalo they killed home again on a travois.This was a piece of skin put between two poles to make dragging of the goodseasier.

Summer also brought assembly time. Councils of the differentbands met together to discuss governmental affairs. It is very amazing athow modern and sophisticated their governments were. They met together anddiscussed each issue as it came up and either talked it over to a mutualagreement of all the members or took it to a vote. Usually, the chiefs andtribal councils attended these meetings. To this day, the American Indianshave tribal governments and chiefs to decide how to handle their affairs.

As can be expected, these meetings turned into celebrationsafter business was taken care of. There were always sports events. Men andwomen and boys and girls of all ages took part in games of football andlacrosse. Someone who could win in the sporting events was very much admiredby everyone else. The same thing went for anyone who could tell a good story.The children would listen carefully to the person telling the story so thatmaybe someday they could tell a yarn like that. These story sessions tookplace after a huge feast of fresh meat had been eaten. The main staple intheir diet was the buffalo meat that roamed Minnesota by the thousands,on the hoof, of course. Deer, elk, bear, and antelope were also in the dietbut not as frequently.

One thing the Red River Valley is famous for are the varyingweather conditions. The temperatures can vary from 40 below to 100+, dependingon the seasons. Imagine how the Indians must have felt, being outside inall kinds of weather. But they did battle the elements every way they could.The most important factor in their ability to survive was their home. TheSioux called their homes "tepees" and to build one it took a certaindegree of skill and a lot of experience. These tents were made of skinscovering poles. The skin was easy to come by since it was made of buffalohide but the poles took a little more hunting to find. This is one morereason the trees around the Red River came in especially handy. The bottomflaps of the tepees could be adjusted to correspond to each season. Whenfully let down, they hugged the ground closely and kept all the snow anddriving winds out of the building as best as could be expected. These sameflaps could be propped up on poles in the summer time to let cool breezesthrough. Buffalo skin was their main way of making things more comfortableand convenient for themselves. It was also used to build all their clothingand to make a special boat that would repel water easily while still beinglight and durable enough to float down the river. One part of their wardrobewas very distinctly tied in with the border country Sioux. They made theirmoccasins with a very hard substance on the soles. This was almost a necessity.It added warmth, of course. But it also added the endurance to last a longtime when walking over the frozen stubble fields and forest areas of theregion. Anyone who has ever walked over pointed grass and frosty weeds knowshow hard they can be on the feet. The thick soles added just that much moreprotection. The buffalo obviously did more for the Sioux than give themfood to eat.

Although different, the Sioux tribes held one trait incommon. They were always quiet and dignified to people visiting their campsand fellow tribe members. As artist Frank Mayer said in the 1880's, "Ihave seldom met with persons who had such gentle politeness, gentle feeling,and kindliness of manner. (1) Each tribe thought of everyone as their brotherand sister. As a rule, the people were extremely shy, especially aroundwhite men. It was a superstition of their tribe that no one should be paintedor photographed or the gods would disapprove of such vanity. All childrenwere taught to obey without harsh words or punishments. Their rites theywent through when reaching adulthood were punishment enough. They ofteninvolved great pain and physical misery. But they were to teach strengthand self-discipline. They were considered to be the two most important traitsto possess in the Indian society. These were necessary when living in therough border country of Minnesota.

The Sioux staged their famous uprising in the summer of1862 near the Minnesota River. It stemmed from the fact that the Indianswere hopelessly starving and couldn't receive help. The bad situation cameto a head when some hungry braves went to a local store to ask for a loadof supplies on credit. The storekeeper, noticing the inescapable fact thatthey were red men, said angrily, "Let them eat grass and their owndung." Later on, he was found scalped with his mouth stuffed full ofgrass, a kind of post humus reminder that the Sioux meant business whenthey came to talk trade. A great many more people were found scalped inthe next six weeks, sometimes whole families. Many Sioux were ordered outof the state and forced to live on land further west in the Dakotas. Rumorhad it later on that the white only wanted the land they occupied aroundthe Minnesota River. The Sioux in the northern part of the state remindedthemselves of their friendship with the white men and remained friendlyas ever, escaping most of the struggles of that time.

Toward the end of the 1800's the white men were beginningto realize the Indians had to learn to live in the white man's world. Thisinvolved sending the Indians to school. These schools were set up by missionaries.There are a great many area towns that got their start as mission schoolsand churches. Pupils today who complain about school should be happy theydon't have to go to the Indian schools. Their days were full of manual laborand teachers who were not that fond of Indians. They were forbidden to speaktheir own tongue. Indian children began attending public schools in the1920's but conditions hardly improved. They were still shown as "savages"in the textbooks, which would be very hard to take when all the "horrible"incidents being described had been taught to them as outstanding achievements.

Many years have passed since the Sioux first moved theirpossessions to the Red River Valley, since the uprising, and since the civilizationof the Indians. Lately, the Indians have been staging a lot of modern uprisingsto protest their treatment now and in the past. They've all had their ownexperiences and have formed their own opinions. These problems are limitedto certain places such as wounded Knee, South Dakota, or Gresham, Wisconsin.When asked recently how his own personal crusade had been going, a nativeAmerican currently attending Bemidji State College replied, "We'vehad to go through a lot of white tape." That statement pretty muchdescribes the things the Indians have gone through for the last few hundredyears. But quite a bit of their past lives on. Many of their inventionsare used today by everyone. Their tribal names and many words from theirlanguage live on today. The Indians that live today can be proud of theirrecognition and can truly feel that they have made a large contributionto the Red River Valley. After all, they were the ones that got the wholething started.

(1) Mayer, Frank, Gopher Historian, Spring, 1962, MinnesotaHistorical Society, St. Paul, MN, c. 1962, p. 19nes that got the wholething started.

(1) Mayer, Frank, Gopher Historian, Spring, 1962, MinnesotaHistorical Society, St. Paul, MN, c. 1962, p. 19