During negotiations for the Treaty of Mendota, Chief Wabasha stood before the United States Commissioners and objected to many of the treaty provisions. In particular, he sought to strike out those provisions that provided for farmers, schools, and physicians. He pointed out that these things were included in the previous treaty in 1837 but that, “we have not benefited from them.” Therefore, Wabasha wanted only cash in return for Dakota land.
Despite Wabasha’s objections, the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux included many provisions for farming, education, religion, and various other implements. The government included these provisions in the treaties with the intention of “civilizing” the Dakota Indians. In the treaty report by Commissioners Lea and Ramsey, these provisions were referred to as “Civilization and Improvement funds.” The commissioners went on to argue that “By furnishing them the implements of husbandry; and by the employment of farmers, blacksmiths, and other artisans of good character among them . . . there is reason to hope that not many years will elapse before the Dakotas will show conclusively the absurdity of the hypothesis that the aboriginal race on this continent are incapable of civilization and doomed to speedy and utter extinction.”
This misinterpretation of Dakota culture, and the fact that the commissioners simply did not listen, had a severely negative impact on the Dakota nation. The Dakota had a difficult time adjusting to the treaties and the provisions included. To begin, the Dakota Indians were a communal people and did not understand individual ownership or material possessions; something the treaties sought to introduce and promote. Also, the Dakota were traditionally a nomadic culture of hunters and gatherers. As a result, reservation life of farming was a sudden and often overwhelming adjustment. Normally an industrious people, treaty provisions also had the effect of creating idleness and reckless spending. Rather than improve upon the condition of the Dakota, the provision often had a demoralizing effect. As stated by historian Isaac V.D. Heard, “the treaties are born in fraud, and all their stipulations for the future are curtailed by iniquity.”
Excerpt from Ceding Contempt
Finally, Wabasha arose slowly but firmly. All of the attention turned his way.
“You have requested us to sign this paper,” he said meekly, “and you have told us that it is for our good. But I am of a different opinion. In the treaty I have heard read, you have mentioned farmers, schools, and physicians. To all these I am opposed. They and others who went to Washington and made a treaty, in which the same things were said, but we have not benefited by them. I want them struck out of this treaty. We want nothing but cash turned over to us for our lands. You have named a place for our home, but it is prairie country. I am a man used to the woods, and do not like the prairies, and perhaps some of us who are here will name a place we would all like better. When I went to Washington to see our Great Father, he asked us for our land and we gave it to him, and he agreed to furnish us with goods and provisions for twenty years. I wish to remain in this county until that time expires.”
“You see, it is just as I said,” Takoda pointed out as he was now at my side.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not for our good—the treaty I mean. Even Wabasha says so,” explained Takoda being respectful not to talk too loud.
“Then why agree to the treaty?” I asked with honest curiosity.
“Because this is what the white man does to the Dakota,” answered the boy, sounding more like a man. “They force upon us these things that we don’t want. The previous treaty is proof of that. But our only other choice is to accept nothing and wait for the whites to force us out. We Dakota have no choice.”
I was enlightened by Takoda’s explanation. The Dakota knew the treaty was unfavorable, but also knew it was their best option.
William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Vol. 1, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922).
Rebecca Snyder, The 1851 Treaty of Mendota: A Collection of Primary Documents Relating to the Treaty, (South St. Paul, MN: Dakota County Historical Society, 2002).
Isaac V.D. Heard, History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1865).