Following is a slightly extended version of comments I made as part of a panel, “Courage and Social Justice in Our Time,” which was held at the University of Alberta on March 14, 2016. My fellow panelists included: 

Panelists discussed the importance of courage in addressing the local and global social justice issues of our time. Panelists engage in advocacy and engaged research to advance justice for persons with disabilities, women, sexual minorities, racialized and indigenous peoples and the environment. Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah provided comments as well as an evening lecture, the annual Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights

I’m going to tell you a story today, in part about my four greats grandfather, Chief Little Crow or Taoyateduta, which should land me back on our topics of focus—courage and justice in telling moments of crisis. I am Dakota, and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in northeastern South Dakota. I propose that the year of 1862 is our central origin story as Dakota people today. Throughout Dakota country, we refer daily to 1862 whether at family gatherings, community events, anywhere we gather and talk. It is always there even when we are silent. That is not to say that “traditional” creation stories do not continue to be important. They set out values for living, narrate our common history, cohere us as a people with a common moral framework, and tie us to an ancestral land-base. But the tragic events of 1862, and the decade leading up to that are for many of us arguably more crucial today.

A war between Dakota and settlers in Minnesota broke out in August of 1862 after four young Dakota men who were out hunting stopped at a white settler’s house to ask for water. Refusing to help them, the settler threatened them with his gun. The young men—already severely agitated as were Dakota all across the land by the bad dealings of whites—argued among themselves about who was brave enough to stand up to the white man. They then shot the settler and others in the house.

The decade leading up to this day was one of escalating tensions between Dakota and white settlers in what became Minnesota. There was non-payment by the US government of multiple treaty provisions. Looking for title to ever more land, the US kept coming back to negotiate new treaties without having sufficiently fulfilled the promises of previous treaties. They came to negotiations with new promises that the missing funds and goods would be delivered after the signing of the new treaties. At treaty negotiations, white traders were there too, inserting their own ledgers and numbers to be marked by Dakota who rarely understood what they were initialing. Traders colluded with Indian agents and were allowed to elicit these under-informed promises by Dakota to pay debts exaggerated by traders and incurred because the federal government consistently failed to fully pay treaty provisions. There were many complex reasons why the federal government failed to deliver on their promises. Sometimes there were disagreements between treaty negotiators and senators in Washington who had to approve treaty agreements. In 1862, the US was also paying for the Civil War. There were of course more direct forms of racism and dehumanizing of Dakota and other Native people that conditioned the US response to its own agreements. Yet the Americans never failed to seize control of land and moreover, they did not penalize rogue settlers who squatted on Dakota reserved lands. In short, forthcoming treaty payments—if the feds got around to paying them—were quickly eaten up by greedy traders often before the hungry Dakota ever saw them.

This was the situation on the ground when those young Dakota men killed that group of settlers in August 1862. They returned to Little Crow’s village and told him the news. Legend has it that he made a great speech, which is confirmed by informants who were there than night, but the precise words were recounted later from memory by Little Crow’s son, Wowinape. They were memorialized in a poem, which was published widely after Little Crow’s death. Here is what Little Crow is now remembered as saying to the young men:

You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows.  We are only little herds of buffaloes left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more.  The white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm.  You may kill one — two — ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count. 

Do you hear the thunder of their big guns?  No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers.  

You are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the hard Moon (January). Taoyateduta is not a coward. He will die with you. [2]

The young men called him a coward for not righteously embracing war with the whites. But Little Crow had tried everything during the previous ten years. He had cut his hair. He put on white men’s clothing. Indeed he incorporated their fashions in small bits into his mode of dress. There are multiple accounts of his sartorial splendor when he had to appear in council or treaty negotiations, when he traveled to Washington DC to meet with dignitaries there. He was curious about those who were different from him. There are also accounts of missionaries being perplexed that Little Crow would attend church and listen attentively to the sermon with a thoughtful look on his face. Yet he would not put down the pipe. He had no desire to give up his multiple wives, and all of the kinship obligations that came with that. Indeed, Little Crow had grown into an influential and powerful leader—had built negotiation and political skills in large part through the work he did to gain four wives—all sisters from the same father-in-law. He traveled and lived in multiple Dakota communities. He moved from his father’s village at the age of 20 or so and spent his young life making alliances by making kin through marriage, birth, and adoption. By the time he was 40 he was related to a good many people throughout Dakota country.[1]

This too is how Little Crow approached the whites, in both trade and treaty. In trade he and other Dakota viewed the exchange of pelts (and later treaty monies) for traders’ goods as kinship exchange. While the lofty language of government agents and traders might have implied fairness in trade, both viewed these exchanges as market exchanges, always in their favor with inflated prices and made-up costs detailed in their ledgers, which the Dakota mostly could not read.

Government agents and missionaries saw these exchanges of goods for money or pelts as a form of evangelism, the evangelism of the 19th century civilizing project, which is very much still with us today. This included a forced conversion to private property, a market economy, monogamous marriage, nuclear family—all tied up with a rapacious individualism and farming. The whites did not know how to do kinship. This took the Dakota a long time to understand. The Dakota had already been living with French fur traders for decades whom they had been able to inter-marry with, trade with, incorporate into their societies, although this was not always a bed of roses. Kinship never is. But these new settlers, English and German speaking, only knew how to evangelize, appropriate, and suppress. They had no interest in engaging in kinship relations. They had no interest in learning from Dakota people. They would make treaties in order to get what they wanted, and then renege on their obligations. The Indian must either adapt to their partitioning of the world—the partitioning of lands, communities, forms of love and kinship, resources, and knowledges—into categories that would either discipline the Indian into being a Christian citizen, or would result in their death. The settler state has been very poor kin indeed.

That night when the four young Dakota men entered his house, Little Crow knew there was no turning back. Diplomacy and kin-making had failed. You will recognize all that I talk about in Canada as well.

Let’s jump ahead to 2016 and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or TRC). TRC reports and Calls to Action aim to “redress the legacy of residential schools,” those places of evangelism and cruelty in which language died, and children too—their bodies or their spirits. These calls to action are now aimed to “advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” While the language of reconciliation may suggest equal complicity in bad relations between indigenous peoples and whites that would of course be an absurd understanding of history. Nonetheless, the Calls to Action provide guidelines for every sector of society from child welfare to health to the legal system, business, media, church and education. These guidelines broadly call for the shifting of resources across Canadian society to address the legacy of not fulfilling what could be considered kinship obligations. The TRC provides sweeping recommendations for disrupting institutionalized racism despite using terminology that some think is not sufficiently critical.

The moral of my Little Crow story is to be mindful that there may be different ways in which indigenous peoples and settlers view these ongoing tensions and exchanges. It would be a mistake for the settler state today to see colonialism as a thing of the past. If you read the historical details of how things went down in the 19th and earlier centuries you will see resonances with state policy and public rhetoric today. Some of you may think that the state today uses a gentler hand and the project is just to get these dysfunctional Aboriginals (albeit you might admit colonial complicity in their dysfunction) to come around to a healthier 21st century multicultural way of being. This usually means your culture with some small tolerances for say a traditional welcome with the beating of drums and burning of sage in carefully contained moments in public spaces.

But indigenous folks might have something quite different in mind. I hear them talking about your need to take on the obligations of kinship. This isn’t about indigenous peoples being incorporated into your world. It’s about you learning how to live here in relation with this place and with peoples who were long co-constituted in relation to these lands and waters and skies. You clearly did not learn how to do that very well. I want to also emphasize one idea that the TRC calls for action don’t sufficiently address: Kinship obligations to nonhuman kin were also violated by the settler state. The decimation of humans and nonhumans in these continents has gone hand in hand. When one speaks of genocide in the Americas it cannot be understood in relation to the European holocaust, for example, that is seen as having a beginning and an end, and which is focused on humans alone. Our genocide in the Americas included and continues to include our other-than-human relatives.

I end on this word “courage.” That word speaks to individual conviction and fearlessness, or overcoming of fear, in order to do “the right thing.” Having come to consciousness in the long wake of 1862, I have never understood the imperative to speak up as being about individual courage. Rather, I see indigenous peoples’ critiques and ongoing agreement-making as continued calls for non-indigenous people to engage in good relations, which involve exchange, not cruel evangelizing of settler lifeways. Rather than courage, I think in terms of acting out of obligation to the indigenous collective. And this not a moralistic sense of obligation, but it has been crafted through the steady work of kin-making in order to live. We need kin to survive. In turn, indigenous peoples speak out not necessarily from individual courage but rather their irrepressible voices cannot but call attention to injustices, and they continue to call the settler state to account for its failures at kin-making here, with both humans and nonhumans.

Read the TRC documents. They’re easy to read. They have lots of bullet points and clear headers. There is something in there for all of you Canadians to do, including scientists. I hear some of you are having a hard time figuring out if and how supposedly neutral science can respond to the TRC process that documents crimes committed by Canadian churches and the state against indigenous children in residential schools. What does that have to do with science? Various forms of science have benefitted from the exploitation of schoolchildren’s and other indigenous bodies for a start. I will be happy to advise you about the ongoing role of science in the broader colonial project, and can point you to scientists and programs that are trying to help to change that.

1. I thank Robert Alexander Innes, author of Elder Brother and the Law of the People: Contemporary Kinship and Cowessess First NationUniversity of Manitoba Press, 2013, for opening up my mind to a new way of reading “nation” to “nation” relations as also or perhaps rather as kinship relations. His book Elder Brother  is methodologically innovative for me.
2. There are multiple sources that document Little Crow’s speech as recounted by his son Wowinape. There are slight variations between accounts. Among them are Gary Clayton Anderson. Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986 and Scott W. Berg, 38 Nooses, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Vintage. 2013.