Can I Really Tell the Stories of Dakota Women?

As a non-Dakota researcher, historian and author, I am very aware of the challenges I face when I attempt to share the personal stories, family histories and photographs of the Dakota women who were such an important part of the early missions in Minnesota.

For the white soul sisters I’m researching, I have all kinds of official resources. Ancestry.com, Find-A-Grave, U.S. Census reports, Emigrant Passenger Lists and dozens of other on-line tools can lead me right to the original source documents that verify the dates, family information and life histories of the women. A wealth of family journals, correspondence and genealogical documents are readily found in institutions across the country.

For the Dakota women of the mission, the sources I have to work with are, for the most part, white sources. They include missionary letters and reports, U.S. Indian Census Reports, memoirs and journals written by white explorers, settlers, traders and early historians. The only primary source in some cases is an actual handwritten letter by one of the women that has either been written in English or for which an English translation has been provided.

In very rare cases, the historical record might provide the name of a living descendant of one of the early Dakota women. Finding that individual and achieving a level of trust that would allow me to ask questions about the family’s history is unfortunately an extremely difficult task.  I certainly don’t want to offend anyone or repeat incorrect information from a sparsely documented historical record.

So, what am I to do? Must I leave women like Catherine Tatedutawin and her daughter Wawiyohiyawin out of the story? Do I have to ignore Mary Little Crow Renville and her daughters because there doesn’t seem to be one definitive Renville Family Tree that everyone agrees is accurate? Can I not share little Mary Napexni’s charming letter to Nancy Hunter Aiton as an example of how a young Dakota girl related to the white missionary woman who was her teacher?

I hope not. Over the years, I have compiled tremendously rich sources of information about these Dakota women and others. I want to understand the true nature of their connection to the white women of the mission and try to determine why many of those connections lasted long after the U.S. Dakota War of 1862. It is my hope that Dakota readers and others with personal connections to the Dakota women whose stories I tell will contact me whenever something I say contradicts the family’s own story.

Thank you.

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