"We’re going to drive you all the way to the Rocky Mountains"

Dr. Lawrence talks about the treaties between the Dakota and the U.S. government, highlighting Dakota beliefs and decision-making processes, the coercion used by the U.S. officials, and how it relates to today.

Audio Chapters

Overall I look at treaties as a document that was created by the federal government; it was a bogus treaty that allowed the federal government to legally steal Indian land. They made promises in those treaties that they never intended to keep. And they had browbeaten and coerced the Indians to the point where they didn’t have much choice, including taking them to Washington and holding them there for three months, and every day getting them out to go watch their fire demonstrations, their fire power, showing them how much power they had to wage war. These Indian tribes were used to bows and arrows, and they’re looking at this for three months, and they came back and that’s one of the things that they reported: there’s no way we could beat these people even if we did resist. We’d best be thinking about making treaties. And the [U.S. government] does that today, in a sense. They get a Third World country over there that’s acting up a little bit, and they’ll go over along the shoreline on the coast and they’ll play war games and they’ll shoot off their big cannons and rockets and show those people on the islands what great power the United States has, and it sort of subdues them and they say, "Oh, we better be quiet here." And that’s basically what they did with the Indian people when they took them to Washington to demonstrate and get them to sign treaties. So everything that they used to get them to sign treaties, I think was illegal in a lot of ways – browbeating, brainwashing, and then on the other hand telling them, "Well, on the other hand if you sign this treaty, you’re not going to ever have to work or hunt again; we’ll take care of you." Everything will be provided. Every year you’ll get so much money to buy your needs, your pots and pans and stuff, but we’ll also have food coming in every month, or once a year for you. The other alternative is - look over here; this is what’s going to happen. "We’re going to drive you all the way to the Rocky Mountains where you’re going to starve to death and we’ll never have to worry about you again." Those were the conditions that were being talked about, and sometimes I think they might have done that. So that’s how I look at treaties.

  I have a viewpoint on treaties in that respect, but legally they were allowed to be here, through treaties.  So the two things that the Indian people didn’t know was they didn’t understand treaties for one thing.  Most of them didn’t even understand English and didn’t know reading and writing, so they didn’t understand the treaties if they did see it.  The other thing is, the whole concept of ownership of land was foreign to Indian people; there was no such thing as owning land.  The creator is the one that owned the land and nobody could really own the land.  You had occupancy; you could go in and occupy, to live on, but in the end, the creator owned the land.  And it was like somebody that goes in a room and tells everybody in there: I’m going to buy all your share of the air in here and says, if you’re dumb enough to do that, I’ll sell it to you, because it’s such a crazy idea.  But then if he later comes in and says, “You guys can’t be in here; I own all the air in here,” that was the way it was with treaties, and they said, “We bought all this land,” and they didn’t understand.  Nobody buys the land.  And so that was another thing that was wrong with treaties; they didn’t understand those kinds of things. the treaties were negotiated with their leaders, who were not really the leaders in the same sense that governments, say the United States government, looks at their leaders, having the authority to go in and negotiate and make deals for everybody in the nation, or go to a war- one man can declare war and then the whole nation is obligated.  Well, in the Dakota society they had consensus government, which means the people made the decisions and if they were going to go in a war, the people had to decide that that’s what they were going to do.  And they had to be convinced that was the right thing to do.  And those negotiations took time, because they weren’t just going to go off to a war on somebody’s say-so.  And the other thing is, when they negotiated these treaties, they never went to the people and negotiated with the people, or got the people’s permission, consensus to do this.  Instead they used the spokesman that went.  The spokesman didn’t have any authority to make any decisions; he just went to speak for the people.  The people made the decision.  And that wasn’t the process that the government used because they knew that there was no way that they were going to be able to talk all the people into selling their land.  So they went with the spokesmen that were sent to these meetings, and said, “Well, you’re the spokesmen, you’re the head person, you can make this decision.”  And that happened in 1851 at Traverse de Sioux when Ramsey told the leaders that, you guys can make this decision.   And they told the people, in fact, he sent a delegation of the Army out to stop some of the people who were coming to the meeting, and told them to go home, we don’t need you at this meeting.  And so they put a stop to the way that the Indians would have normally have looked at treaties.  And I don’t think they’d have ever made a treaty if they had to get the people’s approval, because the people would not have agreed to sell their land.  But they talked a few people into it, and they went with that, and that’s how they got their treaties signed.  They got them to sign and then they said, well, we have a legal document now. So the Indian people themselves didn’t feel like they were under any obligation to honor a treaty, because they hadn’t been consulted, they hadn’t been asked to make a decision.  It wasn’t made in their councils, the decision.  It was made by people who were taken off somewhere and browbeaten and brainwashed to sign those treaties, and so they didn’t feel like they were obligated.  Just like if you own your home and your land or your farm, and your county commissioner goes out and sells your farm and your land and somebody comes in to take it you say, "You don’t have a right to take this, I didn’t give my permission."  And then, "oh yes you did, your leaders did".  And that’s the way it was.

Oral History- Interview | Narrator Elden Lawrence Interviewer Deborah Locke made in New Ulm, MN | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Citation: Minnesota Historical Society. U.S. - Dakota War of 1862. "We’re going to drive you all the way to the Rocky Mountains" May 21, 2024. http://www.usdakotawar.org/node/1292

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