Sidebar 10: Feminist Archaeology at a Dakota Village - Sarah McDowell

What comes to mind when you think about rural life? The family farm or a western ranch? Long rolling fields? Animals grazing in a pasture? Men plowing, women churning butter, and children with milk pails? What if the images were somehow different? Rather than that big farmhouse, picture hide-covered lodges. Instead of churning butter, perhaps a woman harvests corn. Possibly a young girl works on a new hide. While these images may challenge our traditional Eurocentric view, they too represent rural life. They remind archaeologists, as well as a host of others, that different cultures and ways of subsisting also need recognition and research.

Archaeologist Janet Spector applied the perspectives of feminist archaeology in her pioneering study of the rural lifeways of the Wahpeton Dakota. This approach, she believes, grants us a more balanced understanding of both this minority population and the roles that women played within the community. Because the Dakota pass on their history through oral tradition, written accounts provide an outsider’s view of their world. Challenging the dominance in the West of the written word as the ultimate historical truth, Spector involved the Dakota community in her work. Together they created a more complete and relevant history of the Dakota village of Little Rapids, Minnesota.

Spector and her team conducted summer field schools in the 1980s at the nineteenth-century site of a summer planting village. She admits that the first field schools were difficult. The team dug up not just artifacts, but also strong feelings concerning the past. Burial mounds at the site had intrigued amateur archaeologists and looters for generations, and many had dug into them without a second thought. This invasiveness, demeaning to the Dakota people, was one of Spector’s early hurdles. After learning their language and getting to know members of the community, Spector slowly gained their acceptance. They contributed much to Spector’s multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural team and ensured the preservation of the sacred burial mounds.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Wahpeton village and an adjacent fur trading post reflected the growing tensions and challenges that two different cultures face living side by side. This struggle continued over time, and in some ways continues today. One of Spector’s goals involved bridging the distances between the outsiders’ written history of the Dakota and their own oral tradition. Chris Cavender, one of the team members, descended from the Dakota living at Little Rapids in the 1800s. With his help a more complete history of the site unfolded. For Spector this meant putting names with artifacts, rather than letting the artifacts take precedence over the individuals who used them.

One object that caught her attention was a small awl, a handheld tool used for hide work. When archaeologists initially discovered the awl in a dump, they knew little about it. With help from the Dakota community, Spector learned the significance of her find. In Dakota tradition, a young woman (one who had just officially entered womanhood) received such an awl, and used it to master the work of transforming animal hides into objects of use and beauty. But this awl differed from others archaeologists had excavated, with its red circles and inscriptions on the handle. What did they mean? Chris Cavender’s great-grandmother, Mazaokiyewin, had lived at Little Rapids. Known as an accomplished hideworker, she may even have owned this discarded, fragmentary awl. Descendants taught Spector how a young woman carved circles into the handle of her awl to keep track of how many hides she worked. Each object she made represented a gift to her community, and each year the woman making the most contributions was honored.

The awl shows how significant hide work was to a Dakota woman’s daily life; however, archaeologists found other traces of rural life as well. During the field schools, they excavated a community dump, possible lodges in which the Dakota lived, and many storage pits. These different features, together with the documents and drawings of missionaries and traders, and Dakota traditions, allowed Spector to understand how the Dakota moved throughout the year. Unlike family farmers in European-American tradition, the Dakota migrated through the land, moving with the seasons to hunt, gather, and farm.

The summer planting village at Little Rapids revealed the importance of raising corn. In late spring, the Dakota set up their lodges near the fields. Here, from June through August, they grew corn. Excavated storage pits contained remains of century-old corn stored after harvest until needed to survive the deadly Minnesota winter. Dakota women were largely responsible for planting, hoeing and harvesting the corn. With the corn harvested and safely stored at the end of summer, the Dakota moved on to their fall rice harvests and hunting grounds.

For many Americans, our history is the story of European settlers and their descendants marching across the continent. These pioneering men cleared the forests and broke the sod on the Plains, taming, or some argue, violating, the wilderness with their farms and ranches. Spector’s feminist archaeology challenges this male-centered view. A feminist perspective is sensitive to the contributions of groups we define as minorities, such as, but not limited to women. Bringing a feminist perspective to Little Rapids helped provide a new voice to the Dakota. Recognizing the importance of farming to the Dakota, and the role of women in farming, reminds us that many more important stories remain buried in the rural landscape across the nation.