- The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is a topic that has been greatly contested and analyzed through the years and continues to garner attention as new perspectives enter the debate. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, professor of English at the University of Arkansas, explores this topic through an analysis of captivity narratives in The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature. Derounian-Stodola’s interest in the subject was fostered by her part-time residence in the northern Minnesota lake country, by family in St. Paul, and through prior work with captivity narratives in The Indian Captivity Narrative, 1550–1590, coauthored with James A. Levernier (1993), and Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (1998). Providing background in her methodology, the history of the war, and an analysis of twenty-four captivity narratives of both [End Page 90] Euroamericans and Native Americans, Derounian-Stodola offers another view of the events of 1862. The main argument throughout the work is that there is not one overarching truth to the war, nor are there only two sides to the story. Rather, the contextual analysis of each of the narratives demonstrates the complexity of the situation and the identities of those involved. She concludes her study by considering healing and conciliation for Dakotas and Minnesotans and stresses that Minnesota is “home” for many who, through respect and understanding, can reconcile our differences. Both the sources and the individuals she thanks in the preface exhibit her effort to gather a wide range of information and perspectives from many sides and backgrounds that aid in presenting a fuller understanding of the war.
Derounian-Stodola approaches this subject by making the uncommon point that there are many truths present in this history. Through contextualizing the lives of the narrators, she truly humanizes these stories that are often only thinly veiled propaganda with depictions of hostile savages on one side and innocent, victimized Minnesotans on the other. The author’s consideration and analysis of Native captivity stories is a newly emerging approach both to studies in captivity narratives and to literature on the war. In the publication and distribution of captivity narratives, as in all genres, the Native voice has had little representation. However, the choices Derounian-Stodola has made to represent the Dakota voice in these narratives—specifically, the narratives of Samuel J. Brown and Nancy McClure Faribault Huggan—are questionable and require a larger statement than she has provided. Though they have some Dakota ancestry, both Brown and Huggan clearly identify and convey their stories as Euroamericans. Despite this fact, both narratives are presented as “Native American” captivity narratives. As I write now, though I have some French ancestry, I am writing as a Dakota woman and identify as a Dakota, not as a representative of French custom or culture. That Brown and Huggan do not identify themselves as Dakota people should be given further consideration in the analysis and presentation of their narratives.
Throughout the entirety of the text, Derounian-Stodola recognizes [End Page 91] the problems of appropriation, linguistic labeling, blurred lines between fact and fiction, as well as the problematic nature of “editorial intervention” in Native narratives (164). These are facts that Dakota people, and more broadly Native people, are well aware of, and it is refreshing to find acknowledgment of them in this work. Perhaps, in addition to the author’s emphasis on diversity, the discussion of these points moves the reader closer to her final argument for understanding, healing, and conciliation, but there are critical points that lack emphasis or that are entirely missing. For example, consideration of the fear in which Dakota people lived during that time would increase understanding of the analysis of Brown’s and Huggan’s narratives. Some Dakota people were very willing to assimilate and convert to Christianity before and after the war, not because of religious conviction but because they were starving, dying, and being hunted and murdered. Conditional...