Dakota & Anishinaabe Peoples: History, Culture & Daily Life

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

The state of Minnesota was once home to two Native American tribes that competed for control of the same territory. These two tribes were the Dakota, a Sioux tribe, and the Anishinaabe. This lesson looks at these two tribes and looks at the reasons for the war that reshaped Minnesota.

The Dakota

The Dakota are a Sioux tribe and members of the Great Sioux Nation, a confederation comprised of seven Sioux tribes that dominated the Great Plains in the 19th century. Prior to moving to the Great Plains, however, the Dakota initially lived on the Minnesota Prairie and the Northwoods. They survived there by harvesting wild rice, which grew in the lakes of Minnesota and provided the basis of their diet.

Under the religious beliefs of the Dakota at this time, the Dakota believed in Wakan Tanka, a great spirit, which created the universe. Human beings were not elevated above other creatures in this belief structure and were expected to live in harmony with nature. After being pushed onto the Great Plains, the Dakota, like their fellow Sioux, would eventually adopt the horse culture of the plains and the bison would become the central point of their lives and religion.

The process that would lead to the Dakota's migration from Minnesota would begin in the 17th century, when French fur traders made contact with the Dakota and engaged them in the fur trade. During the fur trade, the French would trade European-made goods, including weapons, to the Dakota in exchange for beaver pelts. These pelts would then be processed into a water-resistant felt for hats.

The introduction of European guns, metal tools, and other wares, greatly undermined Dakota culture as many found themselves continually in debt to the French and engaged in collecting beaver furs, rather than traditional hunting and gathering. Eventually, the Dakota came into conflict with the Anishinaabe people to the east, who had had longer contact with Europeans and easier access to guns.

Beginning in the 18th century, these two tribes engaged in a vicious war for control over the wild rice beds, and the Dakota found themselves pushed to the west. The United States government further disrupted the lives of the Dakota: during the Dakota War of 1862, the Dakota under Little Crow, rose up after the United States agents' inability to deliver supplies left the Dakota starving.

The war was brutal, and the Dakota were overwhelmed by the United States military. Many fled west or to Canada, and the rest were evicted from Minnesota and sent to live in the region around Yankton, South Dakota. They remain there today; in 2010, the Yankton reservation had a population of over 6,000 people, with the Fort Randall Casino being one of the largest employers on the reservation.

The Anishinaabe

The Anishinaabe comprise six clans that migrated into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Minnesota from the East Coast, sometime before the arrival of Europeans. These tribes recorded their history on a series of birch bark scrolls, which were preserved by tribal religious leaders. According to their legends, the earth rests upon the back of a cosmic turtle and humans were created by a trickster figure known as Nanabozho.

Three of these clans were united into a confederacy known as the Counsel of the Three Fires: the Ottawa, the Ojibwa, and the Potawatomi. Representatives of each of the clans would meet to discuss trade, war, and other matters that were a concern to all members. Of these, it was the Ojibwa that migrated into northern Wisconsin and Minnesota and came into conflict with the Dakota people there.

The Anishinaabe had a legend that a prophet had appeared to them, told them that pale-skinned people would arrive from over the ocean to destroy their lives and that they must move west in order to preserve themselves. They were to keep moving until they found the 'food that grew upon the water.' This food was the wild rice of the Northwoods and would become the basis of their diet.

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